Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Things Fall Apart

In “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, the main character Okonkwo’s understanding of happiness and identity changes from the beginning of the novel to the end. These changes in Okonkwo’s understanding are due in a large part to Ikemefuna’s death, Okonkwo’s exile, and the new presence of missionaries and would eventually lead to his suicide. The changes are represented not only in the plot, but in the structure of the novel itself.

In the beginning of the novel, Okonkwo defines his happiness by his standing in the village. He is obsessed with work, wealth, and obtaining titles. His happiness is completely reliant on the ways success is defined in his village (which is the number of wives one has, the number of titles on has, the size of a man’s barn, his agricultural wealth, his strength, and overall masculine presence). Throughout the entire novel Okonkwo is very concerned with how others view him, and defines himself as he feels others define him. He not only judges his own happiness by his success, but judges others as well. We see early on that Okonkwo does not view the members of his family as loved ones, but pieces of the puzzle that is his success. His passion for hard work comes in the way of any emotional connections with his family, and consumes him. We only first start to see a hint of emotion when Okonkwo see’s what he considers to be good qualities in Ikemefuna. After the murder of Ikemefuna Okonkwo shows emotion for perhaps the first time in the novel, and cannot eat for days. Up until this point in the novel, Okonkwo had no regrets of negative repercussions for being the type of man he felt was most desirable, but killing Ikemefuna set force a change in Okonkwo that the reader does not see the full effects of until later. Okonkwo killed Ikemefuna because he felt if he did not he would not be seen as a man by his people, and when Okonkwo confronts his friend Ofoedu and asks why he was not man enough to join them, he is presented with the reality that he may have in fact made the wrong choice. In my opinion, the murder of Ikemefuna began the series of changes that would occur in Okonkwo in the second half of the novel, beginning with his exile.

When Okonkwo is exiled from his village the first notable change in his character is his opinion of work. Up until his exile, Okonkwo was obsessed with his work, and working was the only aspect of his life that brought him satisfaction or happiness. Upon being exiled, this changes. “Work no longer had for him the pleasure it used to have, and when there was no work to do he sat in a silent half-sleep” (p.131) Leaving his village, and having all of his hard work mean nothing showed Okonkwo that the value of his work could be taken from him in an instant and had no real value. Without work to define his happiness, Okonkwo was unable to view his time in his motherland as beneficial or pleasurable. The only part of Okonkwo that was still able to bring him happiness was his role as a man, and his role as a member of the Umofia tribe. In the second half of the novel the structure of the text changes drastically. Before being exiled, there was an oral quality to the novel involving looping, flashbacks, and a storytelling tone. As Okonkwo lives in exile and word of the missionaries begins to surface, the structure of the novel becomes more linear, and more similar to westernized plot structure. This is symbolic of both the missionaries influence on the natural state of the tribes, and the changes in Okonkwo’s character as he loses touch with his identity.

When the missionaries enter the villages, and more and more tribe members begin to convert to Christianity, Okonkwo see’s his tribe bending to the white man’s ways and becomes infuriated. Because Okonkwo defined himself by the traditions and customs of his tribe, and with the respect that comes from being a man, he sees that not only is his tribe being threatened, but his very identity and happiness is in jeopardy. For a moment, Okonkwo feels happiness as he convinces his tribe to fight back against the missionaries and burn down the church. “For the first time in many years Okonkwo had a feeling that was akin to happiness. The times which had altered so unaccountably during his exile seemed to be coming round again.(…) And they had listened to him with respect. It was like the good old days again, when a warrior was a warrior.”(p.192) Feeling once again like a respect warrior, Okonkwo finds peace in his identity. This happiness was short lived however, as he is arrested, humiliated, and the tribe refuses to fight back. Betrayed by his son who turns to Christianity, and betrayed by his tribe in their unwillingness to fight, Okonkwo feels lost. Unable to find happiness in work, his family, and finally his tribe Okonkwo can see no reason to live and kills himself.

Okonkwo’s definition of happiness and identity changes drastically from the first half of the book to second, and his loss of happiness and identity eventually leads to his suicide. The main events that caused the deterioration of Okonkwo were the murder of Ikemefuna, his exile, and the presence of the missionaries in the tribes. Achebe demonstrates how the essence of the tribe deteriorates with the influence of the Christian missionaries, and parallels this deterioration in the character of Okonkwo.

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