Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Meaning behind the Names

As the story of Okonkwo goes on and he begins to meet white men and is introduced to Christianity, the names of these men strike me rather forcefully. While I’m certain that Achebe made every name in his novel unique and have a meaning, the English names leap out at me. Each one describes the character, but not always in a terribly obvious way. They use references and sometimes visual imagery to make their point. For example, we can begin with Father Brown. To begin he’s very boring, very drab, and seems to draw people in through argument rather than excessive charisma. His deeds in helping the village, like the hospital’s construction, are what make people listen to him. Also, it should be noted that his last name, Brown, is the same color as the skin of the people of Umuofia, and he is the priest, or indeed the white man, that is most tolerated and even liked in the book. Reverend Smith, who replaces Brown, is a much stronger, harsher man, more orthodox than his predecessor. He is very much the intolerant Christian, and refuses to bow to local custom. Note also that after the church is burned down for a Christian’s defaming of a native ritual many of the new converts to Christianity become much more steadfast; in the heat of the flames from his church, Smith forges a stronger congregation.
Also, when Okonkwo’s son Nwoye converts, he does not simply take up Christianity, but begins to study to be a teacher, and eventually takes up a Christian name. The name he chooses is Isaac. The Biblical figure of Isaac is Abraham’s favored, blessed son, whom Abraham nevertheless tries to kill in order to appease his God. The parallel this draws between Nwoye, who by being the eldest son was favored, and Isaac is unmistakable. When Nwoye showed weakness, or rather weakness as defined by the harsh hyper-masculinity his father has embraced, Okonkwo nearly beat Nwoye to death, and on one occasion attempted to strangle his son. The difference between the two, however, is that Abraham was filled with grief at the prospect of losing his favored son, where Okonkwo was filled only with anger at his offspring for shaming him and failing to live up to an impossible standard. His name, unlike the priests’, does not totally define him, but rather hints at who his father has forced him to become.

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