Okonkwo, the protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, is one of the greatest examples of a tragic hero. A tragic hero, in literature, is a character who makes a judgement error or has a fatal flaw that, when combined with fate and external forces, leads to their suffering and defeat. A tragic hero possesses multiple character traits.
Some characteristics exhibited by a tragic hero include being of noble birth, possessing a fatal flaw, experiencing a downfall due to this flaw, and being accountable for their own fate. This essay will examine Okonkwo as the archetypal tragic hero. One significant trait of a tragic hero is their association with nobility. Okonkwo exemplifies this attribute. Despite being in his thirties, he is already a prominent figure in the Umuofia Igbo community. As a formidable warrior, he has already proven his mettle in two wars and claimed the lives of numerous adversaries.
Okonkwo, as an eighteen-year-old, had earned the respect of his village for defeating the undefeated wrestler Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze, who had not been beaten for seven years, was renowned from Umuofia to Mbaino. In addition to his wrestling accomplishments, Okonkwo excelled in farming yams, which was considered a masculine occupation. He had three wives and his compound housed him and his numerous children in huts. Described as a formidable figure with a commanding presence, Okonkwo’s towering stature, bushy eyebrows, and broad nose gave him a stern appearance. Consequently, he was highly regarded and held prestigious titles.
However, Okonkwo was not always powerful. His father, Unoka, was described as “lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow.” Unoka was also known as “a debtor, and he owed every neighbor some money.” Instead of his father, Okonkwo supported the family during his upbringing. In Okonkwo’s eyes, Unoka was considered a failure. Okonkwo made a vow to never acquire his father’s perceived feminine and disgraceful qualities. He worked diligently to become one of the most esteemed men in Umuofia and successfully achieved this goal. Another crucial aspect of a tragic hero possessed by Okonkwo is that he has a characteristic that ultimately leads to his downfall.
Okonkwo possesses the characteristic of being fixated on presenting himself in the most masculine and aggressive manner possible, along with his impetuosity and inclination to resort to violence. He perceives his father, Unoka, as feeble and effeminate, and his father’s inadequacies instilled in him a strong aversion towards indolent and feeble men. Okonkwo made it his mission to refrain from displaying any emotion, instead opting to be an aloof, resilient, masculine individual. Despite his efforts to conceal it, there are still occasions where one can perceive feeling within Okonkwo, such as his affection for Ikemefuna and Ezinma. Amongst all of his children, he holds the greatest love for Ezinma.
Okonkwo always wished that she had been a boy. When he follows Ekwefi into the forest in pursuit of Ezinma, the loving-father side of Okonkwo is evident. The same sentiment applies to Ikemefuna, as Okonkwo preferred him over some of his own children. However, despite this fondness, Ikemefuna must be executed. Okonkwo feels compelled to accompany the men who take Ikemefuna to be executed out of fear of appearing weak. In the end, Okonkwo ends up being the one to kill Ikemefuna. In contrast to his father’s interest in music and conversation, Okonkwo despises conversations.
He was a man of action and war who disliked discussing matters. Upon the arrival of white men and their Christian beliefs to Umuofia, he opposed them as he believed they were eroding the Igbo culture. These changes necessitated compromise and adaptation, qualities that Okonkwo despised. Filled with pride, Okonkwo attempted to hold onto traditional beliefs. When the white men sent a messenger to halt a gathering, Okonkwo, driven by his excessive pride and desire to appear masculine, resorted to his familiar course of action: engaging in impulsive acts of violence.
He beheads the messenger. However, his fellow tribesmen back away in fear, leading him to realize their lack of support. This quickness to resort to violence, accompanied by his obsession with manliness and pride, eventually leads to his downfall and suicide. Like many other tragic heroes, Okonkwo was destined to make a judgment error. As previously mentioned, Okonkwo’s impulsiveness and rashness led him to believe that the only means of control was through violence. “Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand,” and violence was the only method he knew to maintain control.
His wives, particularly the youngest, constantly feared his hot temper, as did his young children. He particularly abused his twelve-year-old son Nwoye, who already worried his father with his laziness. In his father’s eyes, Nwoye’s behavior called for constant nagging and physical punishment. Okonkwo despised his father, as well as lazy men and any traits resembling his father’s, such as music, emotions, conversation, and compromise. Violence was the only approach he understood; he had no inclination for peaceful resolutions or compromise.
Okonkwo, from the beginning, is destined to exhibit his typical violent behavior by reacting aggressively to anything he perceives as a threat to his culture and people. He deals with his own family in a similar manner, using violence as the only means of asserting authority. In an attempt to convey a message of unwelcome to the Christians in Umuofia, Okonkwo takes extreme measures and beheads the messenger. This action seals his own fate and ultimately leads to his downfall. Similarly, Oedipus Rex, the tragic hero in Sophocles’ play, also shares certain qualities such as their respected positions within society as leaders.
Both Okonkwo and Oedipus held significant roles in their respective societies, with Okonkwo being a revered wrestler and warrior and Oedipus occupying the throne of Thebes. These characters were greatly respected and feared by others in their literary works. Despite their divergent backgrounds, a shared trait binds them together – they were both the authors of their own destinies. The downfall of Okonkwo and Oedipus can be attributed to the tragic flaw they possessed – an excessive amount of arrogance and impulsiveness. Additionally, both individuals had a tendency to dwell excessively on past events.
Okonkwo was distressed by the gradual disappearance of the Igbo society due to the arrival of Christians. He thought that beheading the messenger would have the support of his people, as it always had in the past. However, he found out that his actions were not approved and finally understood that he couldn’t stay in the past anymore. Okonkwo decided to end his own life, filled with sadness and mourning for the impending demise of his beloved Igbo society. His downfall was ultimately caused by his arrogance, ignorance, and refusal to accept reality.
Both Okonkwo and Oedipus exhibit the same traits of arrogance and resistance to accepting the truth. Similar to how Tireseas confronted Oedipus, it was a challenge to convince Okonkwo that he was not as superior as he believed himself to be. However, eventually both characters acknowledged their wrongdoings: Oedipus admitted to murdering his father and committing incest with his mother, while Okonkwo recognized his own responsibility for his downfall. Both characters displayed humility by setting aside their pride and embracing their destinies. They even resorted to violence – Oedipus gouged out his eyes as a consequence of his actions, while Okonkwo met an undignified death. By comparing them, it becomes evident that just like Oedipus Rex, Okonkwo embodies the characteristics of a tragic hero.