Chinua Achebe’s novel of life in colonial-era Nigeria, Things Fall Apart, contains the character Okonkwo as the protagonist. Okonkwo represents the idea of a successful person; an admired hero even. Characteristics such as bravery, strength, and a desire to succeed are what everyone admires about Okonkwo. His fear of becoming like his father gave him this desire to succeed, and consistently motivated him to progress through life. However, Okonkwo personifies the idea of not just a hero, but a tragic hero.
Fear is Okonkwo’s main motivation throughout the book. Achebe says, “He was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death” (Things Fall Apart 18). He was motivated to work hard and succeed by this fear. Even as a young boy, Okonkwo began to work hard at farming as an attempt to become successful and earn respectability. Okonkwo says, “I began to fend for myself at an age when most people still suck at their mothers’ breasts. If you give me some yam seeds I shall not fail you.” (Things Fall Apart 21). Okonkwo’s strong successful tone gives readers the idea that he began to work and persist at an early age.
His persistence is exemplified by the fact that the first year of cultivation was ruined by early coming of rains. “[Okonkwo] is one of the best men of his time and place; he strives mightily and is destroyed by events beyond his control,” says Dr. Diane Thompson (Thompson 25). However, Okonkwo’s will allows him to survive the rains in his first year of cultivation and continue and succeed. Okonkwo is a man possessed with the endless will to succeed. Achebe wrote, “‘Since I survived that year,’ he always said, ‘I shall survive anything.’ He put it down to his inflexible will.” (Things Fall Apart 24). The determination, persistence, and labor paid off for Okonkwo in the end, as his rewards became a barn full of yams, three wives and many children. All of Okonkwo’s actions begin in fear of his not being like his father.
Okonkwo’s admirable and heroic qualities were not limited to only the strength of his will, but they also include the physical abilities and emotional strengths. The physical strength of Okonkwo is a reason for his success. Okonkwo was the best wrestler in the nine villages and never was beaten. Amalinze the Cat who, until the time of Okonkwo’s victory, had never, in seven years, been beaten. “(Okonkwo) was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look… When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody” (Things Fall Apart 3). Okonkwo would always use his fists to settle something, rather than try to utter words and settle something.
Okonkwo’s emotional strength is another quality which makes him more fitting in the role of a hero. His bravery was one that could succeed and persist and help bring the courage of those around him higher. Okonkwo was unflinchingly ready to strike against the white men when everyone around him wished not to. He saw all the ones who wished not to wage war against the white men as womanly.
Okonkwo says, “The greatest obstacle in Umuofia is that coward, Egonwanne… Tomorrow he will tell them that our fathers never fought a ‘war of blame’. If they listen to him I shall leave and plan my own revenge,” about the town crier (Things Fall Apart 200). Okonkwo’s heated and inflamed words show his bravery did not come as the result of inspiration by those around him, but rather from his own inner emotional strength. Okonkwo’s heroic qualities of strength in mind, body, and will led him to success in life, and respect.
Despite all the great and heroic characteristics, Okonkwo has a tragic flaw. Okonkwo’s hamartia is his inability to accept change. White men entered Umuofia and many Ibo villages cleverly and without causing violence. The change of Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son, becoming a Christian affected Okonkwo to the point where he went on a rampage, and ended up deciding that his son was not worth fighting for. “If such a thing were ever to happen, he, Okonkwo, would wipe them off the face of the earth,” writes Achebe about any of Okonkwo’s offspring becoming Christian and praying to the white men’s god (Things Fall Apart 153). White men, however, began to slowly gain control of more and more of Umuofia, and Okonkwo could not accept this. What angered Okonkwo was not just the presence of the white men, but the fact that he could not act and rid the village of the white men’s presence himself.
Okonkwo’s tragic flaw is the end result of a number of factors. His rashness, anger, violence, and all of his heroic characteristics come together to form his tragic flaw of not being able to accept change. Achebe himself says, “it is dignity that many African peoples all but lost in the colonial period” (Achebe 20). The change of losing his dignity is what, in the end, overcomes all of Okonkwo’s positive strengths and aspects and causes him to take his life.
Okonkwo is the character that represents the loss of dignity, and the effect of the loss of dignity as well. “Although [Okonkwo] is a superior character, his tragic flaw–the equation of manliness with rashness, anger, and violence–brings about his own destruction,” says Selena Ward (Ward Character Analysis 24). However, Ward’s conclusion of Okonkwo’s tragic hero-like qualities is not enough. Okonkwo’s character becomes tied to the classical of a tragic hero as he is a hero who, because of his own internal tragic flaw and external forces which he cannot control, ends up losing.