Major Themes in the Novel
For many writers, the theme of a novel is the driving force of the book during its creation. Even if the author doesn’t consciously identify an intended theme, the creative process is directed by at least one controlling idea—a concept or principle or belief or purpose significant to the author. The theme—often several themes—guides the author by controlling where the story goes, what the characters do, what mood is portrayed, what style evolves, and what emotional effects the story will create in the reader.
Igbo Society Complexity
Clash of Cultures
Related to the theme of cultural clash is the issue of how much the flexibility or the rigidity of the characters (and by implication, of the British and Igbo) contribute to their destiny. Because of Okonkwo’s inflexible nature, he seems destined for self-destruction, even before the arrival of the European colonizers. The arrival of a new culture only hastens Okonkwo’s tragic fate.
Two other characters contrast with Okonkwo in this regard:
For example, consider Umuofia’s initial lack of resistance to the establishment of a new religion in its midst. With all its deep roots in tribal heritage, the community hardly takes a stand against the intruders—against new laws as well as new religion. What accounts for this lack of community opposition? Was Igbo society more receptive and adaptable than it appeared to be? The lack of strong initial resistance may also come from the fact that the Igbo society does not foster strong central leadership. This quality encourages individual initiative toward recognition and achievement but also limits timely decision-making and the authority-backed actions needed on short notice to maintain its integrity and welfare. Whatever the reason—perhaps a combination of these reasons—the British culture and its code of behavior, ambitious for its goals of native “enlightenment” as well as of British self-enrichment, begin to encroach upon the existing Igbo culture and its corresponding code of behavior.
A factor that hastens the decline of the
traditional Igbo society is their custom of marginalizing some of their
people—allowing the existence of an outcast group and keeping women subservient
in their household and community involvement, treating them as property, and
accepting physical abuse of them somewhat lightly. When representatives of a
foreign culture (beginning with Christian missionaries) enter Igbo territory
and accept these marginalized people—including the twins—at their full human
value, the Igbo’s traditional shared leadership finds itself unable to control
its whole population. The lack of a clear, sustaining center of authority in
Igbo society may be the quality that decided
Underlying the aforementioned cultural themes is a theme of fate, or destiny. This theme is also played at the individual and societal levels. In the story, readers are frequently reminded about this theme in references to chi, the individual’s personal god as well as his ultimate capability and destiny. Okonkwo, at his best, feels that his chi supports his ambition: “When a man says yes, his chi says yes also” (Chapter 4). At his worst, Okonkwo feels that his chi has let him down: His chi “was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. . . . Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation” (Chapter 14).
At the societal level, the Igbos’ lack of a unifying self-image and centralized leadership as well as their weakness in the treatment of some of their own people—both previously discussed—suggest the inevitable fate of becoming victim to colonization by a power eager to exploit its resources.
In addition to the three themes discussed in this essay, the thoughtful reader will probably be able to identify other themes in the novel: for example, the universality of human motives and emotions across cultures and time, and the need for balance between individual needs and community needs.