Traits of Influence
The novels Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Moby Dick by Herman Melville feature two uniquely different characters who similarly strive for fulfillment amidst uncertainty and danger, completely devoid of moral qualms about extremities taken in pursuit of this. At face-value, the two seem to be paving distinct paths as tribal leader Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart craves dominance and respect among his people while Captain Ahab of Moby Dick demands revenge for his lost leg; however, upon examining their backgrounds, behaviors, and thoughts that ultimately contribute to their outcomes, they surprisingly share more commonalities than not. As their stories unfold, Okonkwo and Ahab cultivate destruction from their own turmoils and obsessions, eventually succumbing to the overpowering nature of their own traits as they welcome its dominance over their lives.
Despite the fact that Okonkwo and Ahab’s exact intentions differ, parallels are seen when comparing the development of their characters. Growing up, Okonkwo had been denied a proper father-figure by his tribe’s standards, having been raised by a “failure” (Achebe 9) of a father instead— a shameless beggar, but one who loved his son. This sincerity, contradicted by his father’s inability to display it in wealth, power, and physical strength, “[had tried] Okonkwo’s patience beyond words” (Achebe 27), and from that point on, his resentment begins to manifest, eventually resulting in his embodiment of hypermasculinity as means of overcompensation. Evidence of this mentality and the cruel behavior that it entails is seen when he personally kills his beloved, adoptive son, Ikemefuna, because “affection [is] a sign of weakness” (Achebe 30) and he “[fears] being thought weak” (Achebe 59). Okonkwo’s decision here is, paradoxically, more so reflection of his desperation to appeal to the conditions of his society than genuine masculinity itself. Obierika, one of the most powerful men in his tribe, confirms this, exemplifying how one can maintain power while remaining virtuous by confessing that he would “neither dispute [the killing of his son] nor be the one to do it” (Achebe 65). With him as symbol of morality within their tribe, Okonkwo’s obscured vision of masculinity is reinforced, and his fear of failure is introduced as he is seen resorting to such extremes merely to avoid emulating any effiminity typical of his father. His “fear of himself” (Achebe 17), and any regression from power to poverty, controls Okonkwo’s life, much like Ahab’s obsession with revenge controls his own.
Captain Ahab of Moby Dick had lost his leg to a whale that is often perceived to be immortal, mythical, and untouchable— Moby Dick. For this sole action, Captain Ahab abandons his responsibilities as a commercial whaler and instead conducts a whale hunt, scouring all oceans in frantic search of a whale that can only be identified by its whiteness, an “all-color of atheism” (Melville 212) that is especially symbolic of eeriness as the pureness of the color disguises the evil of whale. Both this circumstance and this belief contribute to Ahab’s monomania, a form of insanity that he is far too aware of. Essentially, Captain Ahab recognizes that he’s “in the dark side of earth” (Melville 575), yet he continually caters to his madness because he believes that it is more beneficial as a driving force than it is a detriment to his mental well-being, openly admitting that it is his “most desired health” (Melville 580). Such consciousness is exemplified by Ahab’s inclination to parent the strange, depersonalized Pip. In his effort to ground himself to monomania, Ahab not only deprives himself of reality, but consequently immerses himself in detachment. Careful to manipulate his influences, though, Ahab ensures that nobody will distract him from his hunt, even concluding that Pip can be “too curing [for his] malady” (Melville 580) at times. Okonkwo is not as self-aware of this behavior, but like Ahab, he yearns for the virility and stoicism of his fatherland, Umuofia, during his exile at his motherland. He trusts that such qualities will secure his “great passion” in life— “to become one of the lords of [Umuofia]” (Achebe 121), so Okonkwo ignores his uncle’s advice to “find refuge in the motherland” and protect himself from sorrow and bitterness (Achebe 124), an act comparable to Ahab’s aversion from Pip’s sensibility. Without a doubt, both characters seek solace in their pursuits, as seen in Okonkwo’s previously elaborated desires and Ahab’s decision to “quietly take to ship” than to “throw himself upon a sword” like Greek legend Cato (Melville 3). These traits, however, are not the only thing they have in common. Comparable to Okonkwo’s overcompensatory doings in his effort to satisfy others’ expectations, Ahab reveals hubris stemming from a desire for fulfillment as well, wanting to achieve his self-perception of a determined, seasoned captain over his chase. The fiery “triumph” in Ahab’s eyes are validated by his instinctive sense of direction, but in reality, this direction is merely a subconscious path toward “fatal pride” (Melville 564). At this point, it is clear how such arrogance influences Ahab’s ending, and for Okonkwo, the countless omens and messages he disregards imply the same as well— death.
Throughout Moby Dick, narrator Ishmael maintains the belief that the ocean is mysterious and aweing, observing its “devilish brilliance and beauty” as he considers the “subtleness” on the outside juxtaposed by the “dreaded creatures” gliding beneath it (Melville 299). These vivid descriptions only convey a fraction of Ahab’s view, as he finds all four seas— the harborer of Moby Dick— to be more confounding, and far more unfathomable, than what is described. With this being said, Ahab’s death is dignified in the very fact that he died at sea. He ends his monomania at the very place it had developed, “[spitting his] last breath at Moby Dick” before being killed by his own harpoon, a manifestation Ahab’s utter hatred. Though he never killed the whale, there is a sort of satisfaction in the fact that the hatred and insanity, the driving force of his purpose and the cause of his end, is swallowed by the merciful sea. Alas, his “fatal pride” (Melville 564) ends its torment, and Ishmael emphasizes Ahab’s dignity by carrying the legacy of The Pequod.
Conversely, Okonkwo’s fate had not been in the hands of the universe, but in his own hands instead. Umuofia’s culture of combat, fortitude, and tenacity had been the epitome of masculinity, and that gave him purpose— “those were the days when men were men” (Achebe 184). His obsession with dominance and control would be his downfall, and as Okonkwo maintains his pride, he dismisses the cowardice of pacifists, believing that it “moves […] men to impotence” (Achebe 184), and predictably lashes out at the first white man to order peace in spite of Okonkwo’s demand for war, murdering him. “[Discerning] fright in [the] tumult” he had caused (Achebe 188)— fright, the most shameful, yet most motivating factor of his being— Okonkwo decides that he is no longer useful in a culture as vapid as this, and displays his spite by hanging himself, tarnishing his once sacred land with death. Essentially, Okonkwo does not receive the dignified death that gave cause to his being. Without room for his masculinity and pride, he no longer felt cause for his presence. He could not live without being himself.
In both Things Fall Apart and Moby Dick, both Okonkwo and Ahab, subconsciously and consciously, pander to their impulses as they allow indignation, pride, and wrath to control their actions without concern. Ultimately, both characters’ traits play parts in their shared narratives of self-destruction, and by the end of their stories, societal influences and personal grievances continue to prove their superiority over free-will, with both characters failing to accomplish their prime achievements as things fell apart.
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