Remember Who You Are
Updated: May 14, 2020
Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart is a novel of tensions. Throughout the book, there are many examples of opposing forces of various levels depicting culture caught between the past and the present. According to Webster Dictionary, the word inheritance may be understood and defined in three different ways. First: “the act of inheriting property.” second: the reception of genetic qualities by transmission from parent to offspring. Third: the acquisition of possession, condition, or trait from past generations. Today, the issue of inheritance continues to be at the forefront of cultural identity both for corporate groups and the individual. Furthermore, Things Fall Apart, though Achebe’s characterization of the protagonist Okonkwo depicts the struggle for maintaining individual identity formed through ancestral inheritance. An effort illustrated through Okonkwo’s shame toward his father; the choice to allow fear to drive his physical actions; and, his need to hold on traditional cultural ideologies.
Throughout modern history, the concept of culture has been influenced by the traditions established by previous generations; a practice that is continuously present within Achebe’s acclaimed novel. However, as exemplified by Okonkwo, ancestral influences can negatively affect choices. The opening paragraph of Things Fall Apart reads,
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on substantial personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen, he had brought honor to his community by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. (3)
Achebe, in the opening lines of the narrative, establishes Okonkwo as an energetic, masculine, and well-respected individual within his community. Okonkwo inherited a society that values strength rather than weakness. An advantage that Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, has never possessed, according to the community. As a result, power because the virtue was not naturally taught to him by his father. Instead, Okonkwo was forced to educate himself, this virtue, which as a result gives Okonkwo “No patience for unsuccessful men. He had no patience with his father” (4). After Unoka’s death, his son was left with nothing to his name, and while alive Unoka lived a life defined by cheating and scheming his neighbors out of profits. The protagonist is ashamed of his father’s lack of success throughout his life. In the eyes of his community, Unoka’s life did not amount to anything worthy of praise. This is why Okonkwo wrestles the Cat. Among Okonkwo’s tribe, “achievement was revered,” but his father left him with no achievements from which he could build his own life. The only ‘achievement’ left for Okonkwo to inherit from his father is the persistent feeling of shame. Okonkwo does not wrestle the Cat only for the sport or for the honor alone; on the contrary, he is fighting something much more profound and internal rather than external. As Patrick ” an expectation of the hero to “overcome the reputation of his father, he is also expected to surpass the reputations of his peers. In other words, he must outperform people in his age group or those he grew up with” (149). When he fights at the opening of the novel, Okonkwo in many respects fights back against the emotion of shame, itself. Yes, physically, he wins the wrestling match
The match against the then-undefeated individual, famously known as the Cat; thereby supplying him with achievements fit for a king. However, he loses his internal wrestling match with shame, and as a result, he has been unable to ever gain a foothold into a more prosperous life. The failure to overcome the umbrella of shame directly leads Okonkwo to allow fear to drive his physical actions throughout the remainder of his adult life. This idea is most clearly demonstrated through the execution of Okonkwo’s adoptive son, Ikemefuna. “Critics have generally seen his knottiest moral dilemma in the novel as an unconscionable act that is tantamount to an offense against the gods” (Damian, 71). Although Ernest A. Champion makes the following argument,
“The killing of Ikemefuna is as old as the story of Abraham and Isaac, but a divine providence was not there to save the boy. Achebe very subtly poses to his readers the whole problem of unquestioned obedience to a deity by which men have sought to live. Whether it was necessary to kill the boy to prove allegiance to a deity is perhaps debatable. However, what is not debatable is Achebe’s portrayal of a man whose allegiance to the Oracle of the Hills and Caves is as old as Abraham’s allegiance to the God of Israel. Achebe, in presenting a man and his society and in focusing the attention of the reader on the conflicts inherent at a personal and social level, also presents this society as one that has positive qualities of its own,” 274
Champion draws stable connections between the Old Testament biblical text and the familiar picture found in Achebe’s narrative structure of Things Fall Apart. But the observation loses traction when one realizes that Okonkwo, unlike Abraham, is never waiting for a divine sacrifice, nor did he ever want one to exist. When the village comes to Okonkwo’s household demanding that Ikemefuna needs to be given as a sacrifice to favor the gods; he is not required to go along with the proclamation. Okonkwo has every right as a father fight back, and save the child; he considers to be one of his own. His friends in an attempt to convince him not to play any part in the ritual saying, “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death” (P. 55). However, he makes a more straightforward choice because he is ruled not only by shame but also by fear. Okonkwo is continuously afraid of becoming his father who actively symbolized everything he stood against as a member of the Igbo tribe as well as on an individualized level. If he doesn’t go along with the collective wishes of the tribe to kill Ikemefuna, he believes he will look weak like the community once perceived his father.
The idea of which directly feeds back into the initial shame he felt during his childhood and meteorically inherited. Therefore, even though Okonkwo is told, he is not required to attend the sacrifice he decides to go for two reasons. First, Okonkwo’s entire life was dominated by the emotion of fear, the fear of failure, and the possibility of weakness. Secondly, the man was concerned about how making a choice not to attend would affect the standing of the entire family. Even if the majority of the family raised their voices against the situation, Okonkwo acts as if Ikemefuna had not come to be considered an intricate piece of their family unit. He actively negates his process of mourning the loss because when he returns home. Witnessing both his son Nwoye’s grieving and that of his wife, he is ashamed of his actions and his choice to carry out the work in the first place. Following the death of Ikemefuna, it becomes clear Okonkwo’s struggle for maintaining individual identity formed through ancestral inheritance; comes to a climax in his need to hold on to traditional cultural ideologies. The Hero’s greatest fear is fully realized in the flesh after things fall apart. When the entire Igbo community sees Okonkwo as an outside following his choice, commit suicide in favor of conforming to the newly accepted western way of conducting life. As scholar Sofia Samatar points out,
“Okonkwo knows that the “white man’s god” represents a new order, a dissolution of the intimate relationship between past and present. He also knows that he belongs to the old way, which until now was the eternal way: He and his fathers will await worship and sacrifice together and in vain. When Umuofia’s sons abandon its gods, its sacred time is shattered, giving way to a time in which the past is no longer experienced as before, and a new, modern reality must take its place. It is in the context of this jarring re-ordering of the world that Okonkwo hangs himself,” (68)
The robust embodiment of what the tribe at one time thought a revived warrior worthy to sit among kings becomes the thing he worked so hard to eradicate from his inherited lineage. The symbol of shame and fear for future generations to avoid all costs. Okonkwo ran as far away; he metaphorically and physically could from becoming the reflection of a man he called father. In a twist of fate, attributes the community once despised about his father came to be revered after all.
ACHEBE, CHINUA. THINGS FALL APART. PENGUIN BOOKS, 2018.
Champion, Ernest A. “The Story of a Man and His People: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 8, no. 4, 1974, pp. 272–277. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3041158.
Damian U. Opata. “Eternal Sacred Order Versus Conventional Wisdom: A Consideration of Moral Culpability in the Killing of Ikemefuna in ‘Things Fall Apart.’” Research in African Literatures, vol. 18, no. 1, 1987, pp. 71–79. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4618155.
Greenberg, Jonathan. “Okonkwo and the Storyteller: Death, Accident, and Meaning in Chinua Achebe and Walter Benjamin.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 48, no. 3, 2007, pp. 423–450. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27563759.
Nnoromele, Patrick C. “The Plight of a Hero in Achebe s ‘Things Fall Apart.’” College Literature, vol. 27, no. 2, 2000, pp. 146–156. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25112519.
Samatar, Sofia. “Charting the Constellation: Past and Present in Things Fall Apart.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 42, no. 2, 2011, pp. 60–71. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/reseafrilite.42.2.60.