The Assassination of Self Identified Manhood
Though much of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart features a focus on the daily life of the Ibo tribe in Nigeria, as the novel develops it becomes a story of one’s attempt to maintain manhood in the face of adversity. Throughout the first part of the novel, Okonkwo attempts to remain the man that he has worked so hard to become while simultaneously resisting weak methods of living. For Okonkwo, he constantly feels the need to fight off the unpredictable occurrences of life that attempt to affect his manhood and personal being. Throughout the novel each decision he makes reflects that of his ability to maintain his status as a powerful man in society. To seem weak is to admit failure. When Ikemefuna, the surrogate son of Okonkwo, is sentenced to death, Okonkwo’s manhood is tested when he is given the option in participating the young man’s death. In an attempt to distance himself from an association with inadequacy, Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna. Achebe writes that, “Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak” (61). Though for Okonkwo, killing Ikemefuna was a moment deep despair, his immense desire to remain a man of powerful standing overpowers his personal confliction. The first part of the novel focuses on Okonkwo’s struggle to maintain his manhood within the constraints of daily life, but as his world begins to drastically change, his manhood is ultimately tested by the religion seeking invaders.
When Okonkwo returns to his village after exile, he finds that his clan that he once viewed with admiration has now become susceptible to the influence of European missionaries. The modification of the clan affects Okonkwo deeply. For him, the tribe’s allowance for the missionaries to stay is a sign of weakness, therefore causing shame. This shame attacks Okonkwo’s manhood and brings forth an everlasting need for personal approval. Achebe states that, “Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountable become soft like women” (183). The connection between Okonkwo’s personal manhood and his identification with the tribe is tested by the presence of the missionaries. His ultimate decision to end his life is due to the unwavering attacks at his self identity. Achebe connects Okonkwo’s constant desire for manhood with the multitude of ways in which his society and the arrival of the missionaries counteracts his efforts to resist weakness.