The father’s role
A theme that continues to resurface as we read through these texts is the role of the father figure–either as extremely weak and petty or overly masculine and conservative–and the underlying role that plays in shaping the coming-of-age process for the protagonist.
In Okonkwo’s case, his father Unoka was one of the lowest ranking members of Umuofia’s Ibo society. He was perceived as lazy, piled up massive debts to his peers which he rarely paid off, and possessed no real trade or skill which was valued in Ibo culture. Despite this perceived laziness, Unoka is painted as an individual with a certain positive light to him, in that his joy for playing his flute is all that really matters to him and all other matters lack seriousness. Okonkwo, as a result of his father’s character, shapes himself in the polar opposite image of his father: strong, hard-working, fearless and a ranking member of Ibo society.
Achebe successfully points out that both of these characters–the destitute lower clansman and the fearless ranking warrior–have both destructive and redeeming qualities. This especially comes to light when Okonkwo is forced to leave Umuofia after killing a man (at which point Okonkwo’s character is already put into question) and he is reacquainted with his Uncle Uchendu. Uchendu, one of the eldest and wisest members of his clan, enlightens Okonkwo on the important role of women in religion and society. This fact, which Okonkwo overlooks and never takes seriously, is the perfect representation of Okonkwo’s backward mindset and outlook on the roles of men, women and himself within society. His father is perceived as weak and inferior, but he at least he achieves happiness through playing his flute; an emotion that Okonkwo fails to experience through his extreme pursuit of being the Ibo alpha male.
In Nervous Conditions, the main character Tambu begins the story as an uneducated female who devotes her time to serving the men in her family, which is the typical role for a woman in her culture. Her father, Jeremiah, ferments this position within her by initially neglecting her wishes to study, not allowing Tambu to perform tasks with the males in the family, and deceiving Tambu by taking credit for her hard work and making a profit off of the crops she worked so hard to harvest. Due in large part to her father’s neglect and disrespect for Tambu’s dream to be educated, Tambu becomes an impassioned young lady who fights for what she wants, learns English and eventually achieves her dream of being educated at the missionary school.
Babamukuru, meanwhile, is Tambu’s uncle, who is regarded by Jeremiah and the family at large as the saving grace of the family; he is educated and wealthy. He is the means by which Tambu’s brother Nhamo is initially invited to study at the missionary school and eventually (after Nhamo dies) the means by which Tambu is allowed to study. Tambu looks up to her uncle with great respect for the opportunity he essentially gives to her, but is appalled one day when he lashes out at her cousin, Babamukuru’s daughter Nyasha, and physically abuses her. This incident, along with her brother’s apparent feeling of shame after he returned home to the village for the first time after leaving for school, shaped her own quest for education in a very different light than her brother and father viewed it. Therefore, it is both the negative and positive aspects of all of these male figures that molded Tambu into the woman she became.
There are obviously significant roles in shaping both of these protagonists that were played by other characters: friends, mothers, siblings, etc. But the role of the dominant/weak male figure in shaping the character of the protagonist is a major reoccurring theme in the two novels we have read thus far.