The protagonist of Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is also considered a tragic hero. A tragic hero holds a position of power and prestige, chooses his course of action, possesses a tragic flaw, and gains awareness of circumstances that lead to his fall. Okonkwo’s tragic flaw is his fear of weakness and failure.
his thirties, Okonkwo is a leader of the Igbo
community of Umuofia.
Okonkwo is renowned as a wrestler, a fierce warrior, and a successful farmer of yams (a “manly” crop). He has three wives and many children who live in huts on his compound. Throughout his life, he wages a never ending battle for status; his life is dominated by the fear of weakness and failure. He is quick to anger, especially when dealing with men who are weak, lazy debtors like his father. However, Okonkwo overcompensates for his father’s womanly (weak) ways, of which he is ashamed, because he does not tolerate idleness or gentleness. Even though he feels inward affection at times, he never portrays affection toward anyone. Instead, he isolates himself by exhibiting anger through violent, stubborn, irrational behavior. Okonkwo demands that his family work long hours despite their age or limited physical stamina, and he nags and beats his wives and son, Nwoye, who Okonkwo believes is womanly like his father, Unoka.
Okonkwo is impulsive; he acts before he thinks. Consequently, Okonkwo offends the Igbo people and their traditions as well as the gods of his clan. Okonkwo is advised not to participate in the murder of Ikefemuna, but he actually kills Ikefemuna because he is “afraid of being thought weak.” When the white man brings Christianity to Umuofia, Okonkwo is opposed to the new ways. He feels that the changes are destroying the Igbo culture, changes that require compromise and accommodation—two qualities that Okonkwo finds intolerable. Too proud and inflexible, he clings to traditional beliefs and mourns the loss of the past.
When Okonkwa rashly kills a messenger from the British district office, his clansmen back away in fear; he realizes that none of them support him and that he can’t save his village from the British colonists. Okonkwo is defeated. He commits suicide, a shameful and disgraceful death like his father’s.
A tall, thin man with a slight stoop, Unoka was Okonkwo’s father. He appeared “haggard and mournful . . . except when he was drinking or playing his flute.” His favorite time of year was after the harvest when he joined with village musicians to make music and feast; Unoka’s priority was to enjoy life to the fullest. An excellent flutist, he was happy and peaceful when he was playing his flute, in spite of the sorrow and grief that was evident in his music.
Unoka lacked responsibility. He was poor, lazy, and neglectful of his wife, and he did not plan for the future. During his life, he never took a title and, therefore, never gained status or respect from the villagers. Instead, they called him a loafer, and he was the laughingstock of the community. Whenever he managed to get his hands on money, “he immediately bought gourds of palm-wine.” Unoka was a debtor and a failure. Also a coward, he never became a warrior—wars made him unhappy because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. Unoka’s behavior was contrary to typical Igbo tradition, so he was not taken seriously and was treated in a demeaning manner by Igbo clansmen and, later, by Okonkwo, his son.
Evil fortune seemed to follow Unoka to his grave. He died of a horrible illness—a
swelling of the stomach and limbs—and was left to die above ground in the
Okonkwo’s best friend, Obierika serves as a foil for Okonkwo. That is, Obierika’s personality contrasts with and enhances the distinctive characteristics of Okonkwo’s personality. Obierika is a reasonable person who thinks before he acts, unlike Okonkwo, who is impulsive. Obierika does not advocate the use of violence to get revenge against the British colonizers—Okonkwo does. Obierika is open-minded; he understands and appreciates the changing values and foreign culture that is infiltrating the Igbo traditions. Obierika is receptive to new ideas and is willing to adapt to change, whereas Okonkwo is narrow-minded, unable to accept any change to traditional Igbo culture and beliefs.
Even though the personalities of Obierika and Okonkwo are vastly different, Obierika supports Okonkwo as a friend. He comforts Okonkwo when Okonkwo is depressed over Ikemefuna’s death, despite the fact that he disapproves of Okonkwo’s role in Ikemefuna’s murder. When Okonkwo goes into exile, Obierika sells Okonkwo’s yams and seed-yams and gives Okonkwo the profits.
Unlike Okonkwo, Obierika questions the Igbo traditions and ritual, as well as their tribal law. He thinks that change may improve the Igbo society. Whereas Okonkwo’s solution is to use violence against the British, Obierika understands that rising up against the British is too late. He comments that the white man “has put a knife on the things that have held us together and we have fallen apart.”