Free Essay On Gender Roles And Masculinity In Things Fall Apart
Type of paper: Essay
Topic: Tribe, Culture, Family, Masculinity, Women, Fall, Parents, Things Fall Apart
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe showcases an intimate portrayal of the culture of a Nigerian tribe, chiefly through the perspective of the Umuofia warrior Okonkwo. As a part of the Igbo tribe, Okonkwo personifies the traditional, masculine tribal culture that tries (and fails) to adjust to the clash of cultures that occurs within the Igbo community in the arrival of white missionaries to their home. When a traditional community is suddenly left to deal with an incredible number of new ideas, this can lead to inevitable and bloody conflict, and Okonkwo finds himself in the middle of such a situation. The deeply specific and traditional view of masculinity that Okonkwo holds in Things Fall Apart soon proves to be his downfall, even in the face of hegemonic Christian values invading their people. By focusing so much on Okonkwo’s sense of masculinity, Achebe showcases the poisonous and tragic nature of aggressive masculinity as an ideal, even within the auspices of African tribal culture, and appeals for change.
Okonkwo himself is a harsh taskmaster and leader, whose values are largely in line with old-fashioned ideas of masculinity within the Igbo tribe. He believes that respect is earned through power and violence, and takes an extremely heteronormative view of male and female gender norms. He only mentions his mother once in the book, and his sense of abuse and misogyny demonstrates a decided lack of care for women’s troubles (Jefiyo 848). This is in keeping with much of Igbo culture in the novel, as they talk about buying women with dowries, and consider their customs to be much better than others: “All their customs are upside-down. They do not decide bride-price as we do, with sticks. They haggle and bargain as if they were buying a goat or a cow in the market” (Achebe, Ch. 8).
The source of Okonkwo’s bullheaded masculinity may well be Umuofia, the tribal leader, whose “masculine traditions are heralded and celebrated,” with Okonkwo playing out his various ideals of seeking power and recognition through masculinity (Osei-Nyame 150). Okonkwo was taught and mentored by Umuofia, leading him to conduct himself in the manner of a tough, hard-headed leader. Okonkwo is shown to “invent” himself as a young man, defeating Amalinze the Cat – by doing this, "Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan" (Ahebe 3). With this, Igbo tribal culture is shown to spread and perpetuate itself through the advancement of masculine ideals by the men of the tribe. By legitimizing these male-centered traditions, Umuofia establishes the dominant discourse within the tribe that people like Okonkwo must adhere to in order to be given the power and respect that they desire.
Weakness is closely tied with affection in Igbo culture, and Okonkwo illustrates this through his sense of emotional distance. Okonkwo’s relationship with his biological son Nwoye shifts and changes from disapproval to approval when Nwoye becomes more hard-headed and aggressive, as opposed to lazy; Okonkwo approves of this because he sees this as him becoming a man. Okonkwo clearly has issues with his own father’s perceived weakness, seeking to overcompensate for that by becoming hypermasculine: “And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion-to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness” (Achebe 10). As a result, Okonkwo’s own masculinity becomes a defense mechanism in order to make sure he feels like a real man, and that he is someone that people will not look down upon. This is what he uses to justify his actions, as well as escape the shadow of his own father’s shame.
At the same time as his biological son works to fit the demands Okonkwo places on him Okonkwo has a much more complicated relationship with his adopted son Ikemefuna, whom he receives in a settlement from another tribe. Over time, Okonkwo starts to feel affection and love for him; however, he refuses to show this affection to his son, even after the boy starts calling him father. Since this does not match his stoicism that he feels he must stick to as a man, he refuses to give his son the time of day. Instead of showing this as evidence of how principled he is, Achebe paints Okonkwo as inflexible, and as a consequence the idea of masculinity itself is shown to be limiting in its scope and adaptability.
This inevitably leads to tragedy, as the village elder Ezeudu tasks him to execute Ikemefuna; though Okonkwo tries to do his duty, he does so with a great deal of hesitation and trepidation. In the actual moment, he just cuts the boy free, which leads to the clansmen attacking the boy and killing him. In his choice, Okonkwo is forced to Mbanta in exile, out of shame; however, this showcases a slight change in his willingness to display emotion and weakness: “The Earth cannot punish me for obeying her messengerA child’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm” (Achebe, Ch. 8).
Okonkwo’s treatment of his wife, however, proves to be too macho and backwards even for the other tribe members. When he hits his wife because she does not sufficiently take care of the home, the tribe responds with disapproval; to this end, Okonkwo works harder at filling the traditional notion of masculinity than even his culture demands, since he is scared of seeming weak. Despite this, however, he seems to be indicative of the kind of masculine presence the rest of the tribe looks to in order to solve their problems, his violence becoming purposeful: “ince the majority of Igbo in the novel tend to be less violent than Okonkwo, those forms of violence they do condone and enact are especially revealing of the widespread cultural forces that foster violence” (Hoegberg 69).
Despite these masculine ideals, the world of the tribe has seemed to move forward by the time the events of the novel occur. Okonkwo himself seems to be somewhat of an anachronism within the Ibgo culture. The tribe itself shows itself to be incredible capitulating and compromising, willing to get along with others and demonstrate a sense of social compromise. The tribe itself has settled somewhat into an even-handed admittance of gender norms, with roles and duties stratified by gender – the men hunt, lead and administrate, while the women provide more maternal duties, such as child-rearing, cooking and the like. Okonkwo, however, in his own aggression, is out of tune with the even-handed attitudes of the Igbo, refusing change and fighting it in a way that is anathema to the social order that has been established.
Okonkwo feels a tremendous amount of pressure to look strong and noble, and he initially benefits greatly from the cultural customs that allow him to have the respect he has earned. Because he has such a strong work ethic and leadership skills, he proves to be a valuable resource to the Igbo, which is part and parcel of their tolerance of him. Okonkwo’s cultural attitude is central to the Igbo tribe’s sense of cultural memory, as he showcases the most ardent extremes of the old culture’s masculine emphasis (Irele 3). Okonkwo realizes this, and perhaps even thinks of himself as a dike against the waters of change and the softening of his people.
In the end, Okonkwo’s fate is sealed by the tribe’s decision, in a notable moment, to abandon the hypermasculine aggression that has come to define people like Okonkwo. When dealing with the white missionaries who have come to convert the tribesmen to Christianity, Okonkwo, in a fit of rage, cuts down a court messenger with a machete, expecting everyone to join him in battle. However, to his surprise, everyone simply backs down, valuing peace and contrition over fomenting revolution. It is in this moment that Okonkwo realizes that he does not fit in with the clan; he decides to hang himself, which prevents them from being able to have a true burial. This one final gesture shows Okonkwo’s admission that he is obsolete, as are his masculine ideals; because the tribe has changed so much, it has turned into something he no longer belongs to.
The Igbo society is shown to be an incredibly complex and fascinating society, one which wrestles with its own treatment of gender and masculinity. Okonkwo, in this context, comes to represent the unflinching representation of hyper-macho, domineering behavior in such a patriarchal culture, who refuses to change even though the tribe itself does so. Here, Achebe paints him as a tragic figure for not getting with the times, causing him to lose his family, his tribe, and in the end, his life. To that end, Achebe showcases the limiting and restrictive nature of masculinity, as it turns men into people who feel the need to do unnecessary but terrible things to assert the power they have been told to value above all else, to the detriment of those around them and the stability of their tribe. The Igbo tribe moves beyond these ideas, but Okonkwo simply cannot, and his suicide is an acknowledgement of that fact.
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