Masculinity in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Wow, this book is hard to understand. I mean, it’s wonderful to read and imaginative like an old folk story, but when I look back on what I’ve read, it’s insanely complicated.

One of the main things I wanted to explore in this blog post was the different representations of gender roles in the novel, and the attitudes of different characters towards them. I would also like to ask where these attitudes fall in the context of what is traditional view of masculinity vs. femininity.

The first character we meet is of course Okonkwo, and it is pretty clear where he stands on the issue of gender. According to him, masculinity equals virtue, femininity equals weakness. Everything about him screams an obsession with being masculine – an obsession for power, reputation, wealth, and the ancient ways where men were men and women were women.

Okonkwo seems to have a certain contempt for the feminine, which is mostly due to his father, who had failed in his manly role and brought shame upon the whole family. This contempt is reciprocated onto his son Nwoye, whom Okonkwo thinks weak for spending too much time with his mother, and also for joining the Christian missionaries.

However, I do not think it is possible to say that Okonkwo’s views are exactly congruent with the views of the rest of the tribe. For example, he believes that to be manly, one must be aggressive and exert one’s power over others. He takes this view too far, though, on several occasions, namely beating his wife, almost killing her, killing his “adopted” son just to show he was not a coward, and killing someone at a funeral (albeit by accident). The other members of the tribe do not approve of this kind of behavior, and generally think that he is a violent and dangerous man. He also rarely thinks about things, and instead acts based on instinct and anger.

His exile provides him with an opportunity to “get in touch with his feminine side”, but instead, he reassures himself that his manliness is his virtue and that all his unmanly children are the ash from his roaring fire. He also grows contempt for the more diplomatic nature of his maternal tribe, and stubbornly refuses to accept the need to change his attitudes.

I’m stuck wondering whether there is some meaning in Okonkwo’s failure to change – what is Achebe trying to say about traditional (or ultra-traditional) attitudes?

And also, if the tribe’s attitudes are not quite as radical as Okonkwo’s, then is Okonkwo in some way defying tradition, or just overexaggerating it???

Is Achebe commenting on masculinity, or just drawing out a problem?




I think I’m losing my mind.

1 Thought.

  1. Ah, I wish I could just say, okay, THIS is what is going on. But alas, I can’t.
    I completely agree that Okonkwo is criticized in the text in many ways, including in his view of what it takes to be a “man.” In that sense, I don’t think of him as upholding the tradition of his people in any straightforward sense. I mean, he does in the sense that he is upset when people turn away from their ancestors towards this new religion, but not in all of his actions or attitudes.

    But what might Achebe be saying with his focus on Okonkwo? Here’s a preliminary thought. If we focus on the idea of things falling apart, and how it’s emphasized a few times in the text that the clan is coming apart (e.g., 167, 176, 183), we can see Okonkwo as contributing to this. He won’t go along with the rest of the group at the end; he says that if they decide not to go to war with the Christians he’ll take revenge by himself. And though the speaker at the last meeting in the village is starting to suggest that they fight back, Okonkwo doesn’t wait for the decision to be made by the group as to what to do–he acts on his own. He is therefore, I think, contributing to the clan falling apart, not acting in unison. He is too focused on himself, his achievements, rather than the group and his relationships with others.

    But what more Achebe might be saying, what bigger point he might be trying to make, I’m not sure of (yet?). I’m curious to hear what others think!

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