“As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his matchet, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow…He heard Ikemefuna cry, ‘My father, they have killed me!’ as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.”
I think it’s fair to say that this passage of Ikemefuna’s death brought chills to the reader’s spine and an anguish to the reader’s heart. Out of a pang of fear, Okonkwo chose to partake in his own pseudo-son’s extermination despite Obierika’s strong suggestion otherwise.
What I find most tragic about this passage is the sort of character reflection of Okonkwo in Ikemefuna. Ikemefuna is an innocent victim, as he is ripped apart from his family for a crime committed by his father. Like Okonkwo, Ikemefuna rises above the unfortunate legacy of his father and makes a name for himself in his new home despite his young age. Ikemefuna is portrayed as an intelligent budding man, a role-model for Nwoye, and a beloved member of the family whom even Okonkwo inwardly develops fondness for. Although the village seemingly forgets about Ikemefuna’s presence, the village accepts the pair’s relationship as father and son, as gathered by Obierika’s response to Ikemefuna’s ordered death:
“Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him…But I want you to have nothing to do with it. He calls you father.”
Okonkwo’s decision to defy Obierika’s opinion in addition to delivering the fatal blow shows the reader that Okonkwo’s method of coping with loss is violence and the removal of his emotions. The second he became overwhelmed with fear, he reacted with violence. For several days after, Okonkwo berated himself for the depression that shrouded over him. Although Okonkwo acts out based on his fear of how society views him, he is ultimately the only one who doubts his masculinity. We get a clearer picture of Okonkwo’s internal psychological struggle when he attacks Obierika for not participating in the killing of Ikemefuna:
“But someone had to do it. If we were all afraid of blood, it would not be done.”
Okonkwo in this passage becomes defensive of his actions, as he seeks affirmation in Obierika and instead receives criticism. Okonkwo implies that Obierika is not a man, but in reality, it is Okonkwo who needs outward confirmation of his masculinity as opposed to Obierika’s internalized acceptance of what it means to be a man.
(Obierika): “If the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it.”
Achebe drives home the irony of Okonkwo’s character when Okonkwo’s self-doubt leads him to commit the most cowardly and least-masculine crime of all in society’s eye: the taking of his own life.