The role of a tragic hero within a storyline is essential in a dramatic film or written work. The hero has the standards of becoming a great character that can take charge of the story through courageous action and bold dialogue. However, since the character is deemed a “tragic” hero, his flaws will ultimately be his downfall, usually leading to the characters own demise. Nowhere is this idea of a tragic hero more relevant that in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart.
The story is set in the late nineteenth-century in a small village in Nigeria. The tragic hero in this case is a young man named Okonkwo. He is a dynamic growing character but is doomed from the beginning of the story with two major flaws that in the end will destroy his character. Okonkwo cannot physically display any of his emotions because he thinks it is a sure sign of weakness. His second flaw is that if and when he does show any emotion, it is an uncontrollable rage. Both of these flaws will get Okonkwo into trouble that he cannot handle.
Okonkwo has been taught from a very young age that showing his emotions is a feminine characteristic, a sign of weakness within his culture. This is brought about because when Okonkwo was a child his father was not very involved with the community or with the elder council. The community is the most important aspect of everyday life for Okonkwo’s people. The village does not have a centralized government, but it does have democratic ruling through the elder males (Ohadike xxii). Since Okonkwo’s father was lazy and drank too much, he did not receive any respect from the majority of the community. Okonkwo did not want this for himself so he always displayed a tough exterior so that he could have respect.
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This characteristic is clearly shown throughout the story. One such example is when Okonkwo becomes very fond of a boy that is in his care. Even though he likes the boy, Ikemefuna, he still treated him “as he treated everyone else – with a heavy hand” (Achebe 20). Even to a person who was considered part of his own family, he could not show the emotion of affection or graceful attention.
In addition to not being able to show any true emotions, Okonkwo has trouble controlling his temper. His anger and rough treatment of everyone around him, particularly his wives, once again springs from the fact that his father was segregated from the community. Also, his short-temper towards his wives may have been fueled by the fact that women were beneath men within the village’s social ranking. Okonkwo thinks that the only way he can gain the village’s respect is through being bold and strong. It was also very important to show strength during this time of need because there was much change going on in the community itself with the coming of the white man and new traditions. He must absolutely display only anger and strength “when the institutions he had fought so hard to sustain collapse in the face of European colonialism” (Gikandi x).
The most infamous scene of Okonkwo’s irrational anger and lack of respect is when he beats his wife for not preparing the meal for their children during the Week of Peace (Achebe 21). This is just a single case of Okonkwo beating one of his wives, but the village punishes him more severely because it is during their Week of Peace in which everyone should be nice and kind to their neighbour. The village was shocked because no one ever breaks the rules of that week. “Even the oldest men could only remember one or two other occasions somewhere in the dim past” (Achebe 22).
Another instance where Okonkwo’s disorderly behaviour takes control of his actions is when he kills the boy he was fond of, Ikemefuna. Okonkwo’s clansmen are attacking the boy, so Ikemefuna runs to seek help from Okonkwo. However, since Okonkwo “does not want to look weak in front of his fellow tribesmen, [he] cuts the boy down” (Ward 1). He lets his rage and pride take over and kills the boy whom he considered his own son.
The characteristics of a tragic hero are clearly visible within Okonkwo. If his ideas were prevalent in someone during this day and age in the United States, it would be quite interesting. It is almost shocking to say, but someone with those characteristics would be very successful in the competitive and fast-paced market of the United States. They could take charge of their business career as well as not buckling under pressure due to the lack of physical emotions. Okonkwo’s manners are instinctual in most humans, no matter how primitive or modern.
Wall Street brokers and fast-talking businessmen can be compared to primitive African men whose attitudes have “been masculine-based even before the advent of the white man” (Mezu 1). In a country based on the powerful business ethic of “only the strong survive,” there is no doubt Okonkwo could make it far.
It can be easily concluded that Okonkwo’s flaws were the leading means of his character’s destruction. His lack of emotions and uncontainable anger were definite components for the deterioration of his character. However, the meaning in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart would have been lost without Okonkwo as the dominant character. The tragic hero is still and always will be the stable character of any deeply meaningful epic novel or movie.
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