What is a hero? From Batman to Wonder Woman; from Mother Theresa to Ghandi; from Malala Yousafzai to Nick Vujicic; even the protagonist of Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, is portrayed by Chinua Achebe as a hero in his own right. For centuries and across many civilisations, we have revered people dead, alive and fictional alike. Yet if we were to compare every definition of a hero, few would explicitly match.
To define – or even simply list – every archetype within the genre of a hero is an almost impossible task as the extensive interpretations and variations span across time and culture. Despite this variation, Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart depicts the traits of hero. From a literary perspective, he is explicitly tragic hero, particularly as defined by Aristotle.
A tragic hero can be defined as "a [great] man who is not eminently good and just, whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty." This further consists of five major traits: hamartia (a tragic flaw); peripeteia (a reversal of fate); anagnorisis (enlightenment from ignorance); catharsis (purification or purging); and pathos. Overall, Okonkwo characterises a classic tragic hero, and Achebe achieves this through three major aspects of his characterisation: father-son relationship, an imbalanced character and structured downfall.
A primary motive behind Okonkwo’s actions was his father. In the first chapter, Achebe utilises descriptive labels to present Unoka in a negative tone: “he was lazy[,] improvident,” “poor[,]””a coward” “and quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow” to the point where “people laughed at him” and called him an “agbala” – an Igbo word for woman or failed man.
Overall, Unoka was “a failure.” Achebe structures a contrasting image of Okonkwo’s apparent success. “His fame rested on solid personal achievements.” Okonkwo was “wealthy and had two barns full of yams.” He was "not afraid of war, he was a man of action, a man of war". When he represents his village “as the proud and imperious emissary of war, he was treated with great honour and respect.” "in spite of… disadvantages, he had begun even in his father 's lifetime to lay the foundation of a prosperous life." “To crown it all,” Achebe states that he was “one of the greatest men of his time.”
Aristotle states that “[a tragic hero] should also be someone of high-fame and flourishing prosperity” and Achebe clearly positions readers to see the blatant contrast in character and social standing between the father and son, where Okonkwo is clearly greater than his father.
This links directly to their tense relationship when Achebe utilises parataxis in repetitive sentences: “He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father.” To the reader, this directly conveys Okonkwo’s opinion on Unoka’s lack of success. Achebe further summarises their relationship through the rhetorical question: “[Is it] any wonder then that his son Okonkwo was ashamed of him?” In this, Achebe asserts and emphasises to readers Okonkwo’s mortification as unquestionable and understandable. Achebe also utilises verbs to hyperbolise the extent at which Okonkwo is affected by his father: he “ruled by one passion -- to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved.” In his work, Okonkwo was “possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death.” The high modality and violent tone in reference to Unoka positions the readers to understand the effect of Okonkwo’s chagrin at Unoka’s failure.
Okonkwo does attempt to reject this in chapter 8; Achebe writes “whenever the thought of his father’s weakness and failure trouble him he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and success.” The denotation is instead of blatantly being “ruled” or “possessed” by his father, his pride replaces this obsession. Therefore, whilst readers do not require direct referral to Unoka, they can associate any act motivated by his masculinity with his relationship with his father.
This motif of a problematic father-son relationship occurs throughout the novel and highlights to the reader that this relationship controls Okonkwo in every aspect of his life, extending to issues with his own son, Nwoye. As a tragic hero, Okonkwo’s relationship with Unoka establishes his hamartia and hubris.
Because of this relationship, readers can understand the source and traits of Okonkwo’s imbalanced character as a tragic hero. Aristotle states for a tragic hero that “there remains for our choice a person neither eminently virtuous nor just, nor yet involved in misfortune by deliberate vice or villainy, but by some error or human frailty.” This quote will be broken down into three components.
Firstly, “a person neither eminently virtuous nor just,” the flaws within Okonkwo’s character is the most important aspect, greatly unbalancing his vices and virtues. “Perhaps down in his heart, Okonkwo was not a cruel man,” but his imbalance “denied him (sic) the internal symmetry on which a person’s moral well-being must traditionally be based.” This develops into his hamartia, fuelled by his desire to embody raw masculinity – or fear of being feminine or a failed man like his father. He projects this fear onto others throughout the novel: for example, the ‘betrayal’ of his son, Nwoye, to Christianity: “how then could he have begotten a son like Nwoye, degenerate and effeminate? perhaps he was not his son. No! he could not be… Nwoye resembled his grandfather, Unoka, who was Okonkwo’s father. He pushed the thought out of his mind… How could he have begotten a woman for a son?” To begin with, Achebe’s informal writing style of short sentences, stream of consciousness and colloquial style of speech allows for internal focalisation of Okonkwo’s thoughts. This demonstrates to readers his inability to understand others as he is blinded by his own values.
Secondly, “[not] involved in misfortune by deliberate vice or villainy,” That is to say Okonkwo, despite his shortcomings, he is not deliberately antagonistic to his own (and Umuofia’s) cause. “Okonkwo never did things by halves.” Even during a feast, “he would be much happier working on his farm.” Even after being exile for seven years and “all but achieved” “a great passion” that ruled his life – to become one of the lords of the clan – Achebe writes that “he was determined that… he would return with a flourish.” Achebe’s simple writing style allows for direct emphasis on Okonkwo’s determination and perseverance to achieve this. Readers can almost pity and admire Okonkwo for his dedication.
Finally, “by some error or human frailty.” His hamartia is the source of all his problems; it can also be considered a hubris fuelled by fear. His inferiority complex caused by this fear results in violent behaviour towards all members of society, including his own family. A primary example of this was the death of Ikemefuna. As he murdered Ikemefuna, “Okonkwo was dazed with fear, [as he] drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.” Achebe utilises Okonkwo’s hamartia – or human frailty – to link to his being a tragic hero and cause to “cut him down.” As readers, these overall human characteristics allow us to extend pity towards our unfortunate hero. In words of Aristotle: “our pity is excited by misfortunes undeservedly suffered, and our terror of some resemblance between the sufferer and ourselves.” Whilst Achebe indicates to readers that Okonkwo’s misfortunes are not completely undeserved and readers should not necessarily identify with Okonkwo to the point of committing manslaughter or murder, but we can recognise the motives behind this and acknowledge that a high emotional arousal state such fear or obsession can result in illogical or immoral acts.
Achebe structures Okonkwo’s destruction through three instances of peripeteia, each more significant than the last.
The first event is on a personal level, a familial death. After he murders his adopted son out of fear, Achebe highlights readers to the effect on Okonkwo in chapter 8, making our protagonist seem human. His negation of verbs – did not taste any food, did not sleep – followed by the elaboration on its replacement – drank palm-wine from morning til night, he thought about him – Okonkwo effectively stops living. Achebe particularly highlights the effect of his death on Okonkwo through imagery.
The adjective of drunken connotes the feeling of disorientation and lack of control. This is emphasised further through the contrast in sizes between a “giant... with the limbs of a mosquito.” Achebe uses this to emphasise how “weak” Okonkwo is by preceding this image with “he was so weak that his legs could hardly carry him,” but also to indicate to readers how Okonkwo feels that he is no longer in control as the misery almost overpowers him, physically and mentally.
This relates to a purpose of the tragic hero, to inspire “our terror by some resemblance between the sufferer and ourselves.” Okonkwo is still very much human, yet many choose to distinguish him as exclusively virtuous or villainous. Despite having killed Ikemefuna himself and priding it as “his latest show of manliness”, he still expresses grief. As readers, it can terrify us to connect to a murderer, a monster, yet this is vital to the character of the tragic hero.
The second is on a social level. Okonkwo’s accidental manslaughter of a clansman contradicts several of his values. He committed a crime of a female kind. As a result, he is exiled for seven years and the villagers “set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn.” Previously, Achebe told readers that “Okonkwo’s prosperity was visible in his household.” Achebe’s objectification of Okonkwo’s success in material and titles allows for the destruction of all measurements of self and social worth.
As a result, “Okonkwo… yielded to despair.” In relation to being a hero, this specifically links to “nor yet involved in misfortune by… deliberate villainy” as this manslaughter was only an accident. Towards his downfall, Achebe indicates to readers that this event would typically deter someone as “seven years was a long time to be away from one’s clan.” Yet despite his downfall, Okonkwo clings to Umuofian society and “regretted every day of the exile” for in that wasted time he could have “climbed to the utmost heights” of the society. Instead of interpreting this as a hyperboles, readers can also take a literal stance and find that despite losing everything, Okonkwo was still constantly controlled in exile by his hamartia – his obsession with success – and is almost static character in that whilst his society changes, Okonkwo continued to obsess. This leads to the final event of peripeteia.
The third and final is on a cultural level, a moral death. When “Okonkwo’s return to his native land was not as memorable as he had wished,” “he mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart.” Aside from the integration of the title, Things Fall Apart, Achebe highlights the death of the society. Okonkwo’s entire concept of living was directed by the traditional, extrinsic values of Umuofia and it was now “falling apart.” In his realisation, he experiences true anagnorisis, and this allowed readers to understand Okonkwo’s grief in his tragic downfall. This “drives (sic) to kill himself” and become “an abomination… an offence against the Earth...” Achebe allows for the catharsis of Umuofia to be conclude with his suicide. The catharsis – or purging – is a common aspect of tragedies, typically referring to purification and purgation of emotions results in renewal and restoration.
However, Achebe chooses to represent this to readers as purgation of resistance and tradition resulting in a renewed control in the Umuofian society. This is particularly denoted in the focalisation of the District Commissioner, a white man: “[he thought about] the book which he planned to write... He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.” That is to say, Okonkwo was – despite his efforts – was not only no longer a hero in his original society as he “desecrated [the] land” but also not even worth of a “not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph” if at all. That is the real tragedy of his character: he not only fails his family through the death of Ikemefuna and himself through loss of material wealth, but Okonkwo also fails his own society in every aspect.
Through a problematic father-son relationship, inbalanced character and downfall, Chinua Achebe throughout the novel, Things Fall Apart, depicts Okonkwo as a tragic hero. As a result of his father failing him, Okonkwo becomes unhealthily obsessed with masculinity and social success within Umuofia. This greatly determines the occurrence and actions through three moments of peripeteia, leading to his overall downfall.
Readers are confronted with the concept of character that inspires “our terror by some resemblance between the sufferer and ourselves.” Whilst Okonkwo was not entirely admirable or wicked, his downfall was so great that it lead to failure on a personal, social and moral level. On multiple levels, Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart is a tragic hero but then ladies and gentlemen, I leave you one question: what is a hero?