From the first mention of Ikemefuna, the reader has a foreboding sense of his fate, especially as Achebe continually drops us hints. As he describes Ikemefuna as “ill fated” (17), “whose sad story is still told in Umuofia to this day” (22), the reader immediately puts their guard up against Ikemefuna as a character: it is easier to accept his fate if we remain detached.
However, as Ikemefuna grows up and charms the village with his many stories, identifying with his curious spirit becomes inevitable. Especially in his role as storyteller, Ikemefuna is relatable to everyone, as he offers well-needed relief from the hard pace of agricultural life.
While Ikemefuna met his fate very early on in life, his stories transcended his death, especially because of their influence on Nwoye. According to multiple online baby naming databases, the name Ikemefuna in Igbo means “may your strength not be in vain.” I believe Achebe intentionally picked this name for Ikemefuna’s character, not just to represent the strength he had in becoming accustomed to a new village and family, but to foreshadow the strength he would give Nwoye.
Nwoye, as told through the eyes of Okonkwo, is weak and “girlish”, but his actions speak to his strong spirit. As the readers, we are told that something “something seemed to give way” (85) in Nwoye when he realized his father had killed his best friend. This separation, paired with the influence of Ikemefuna’s stories and friendship, relieved him from the stress of living up to his father’s expectations. When Nwoye is drawn to the stories of the Christians, he acts on his interest, rather than cowering from his father, as he would have if Ikemefuna had still been alive to set an example as the ‘ideal son’.
While Ikemefuna’s death was tragic, he was rightfully named—his strength truly wasn’t in vain. Because of Ikemefuna’s friendship and stories that kept Nwoye hopeful, Nwoye was able to embody a form of strength that Okonkwo could never possess: the ability to defy the status quo engrained in him, to become his own man.
Maybe this quiet form of strength is more prevalent than it appears— we see it reappear in the snide comments of Ekwefi (56), in the resilience of Uchendu losing 22 children, and throughout the adjustments of the village after foreign invasion. And maybe the strength Okonkwo embodies is not strength at all, but leads to his fateful death, while the rest of the village ‘holds things together’.