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Uprooting the Strong Oak

Okonkwo’s Battle Against the Feminine

Kevin Jefferson

2 Okonkwo’s entire life is ruled by fear. He believes he is as strong as a man can be, in both body and mind, and yet fear influences nearly all of his actions. But it is a fear of weakness that propels him to at least appear strong. He tries so hard to convince himself that he has an absolute mental firmness that he becomes helplessly deluded by this assertion. This becomes his greatest conflict in the novel, in which he tries to avoid what he believes is feminine and turn towards what is masculine. Through his struggle with the other members of his tribe and the introduction of European colonists to the area, Okonkwo experiences strains from the conflict between the brutal masculine and the rational feminine that ultimately causes him to snap from his stubborn lack of pliancy. Okonkwo does everything in his power to immerse himself in a masculine haven of brute strength. This state is achieved through the traditions and actions of his tribe reserved for men. For example, he is famed for his might in wrestling, with which he is able to far surpass all of the other wrestlers in his tribe. (Achebe 3) With that same brute strength, he prides himself in having killed several people in battles defending Umuofia’s interests with competing tribes in the area. (Achebe 10) Similar machismo is required of him for the harvest of the yams, “the king crop,” the responsibility of which is left to the male figures of each family. (Achebe 29) Okonkwo takes great pride in his farm of yams and conventionally does not allow his wives and daughters to take part in this harvest. (Achebe 28-29) However, he attempts to raise his oldest son to harvest the crop with him, but is ultimately unsuccessful. (Achebe 29) He displays his brute strength yet again when the village elders sentence Ikemefuna, a war prize taken under the protective wing of Okonkwo’s house, to death. (Achebe 49) Okonkwo cannot restrain himself from carrying out this sentence himself. (Achebe 52) The wise and respected Ogbuefi Ezeudu, representative of the other elders’ will, even commands him not to kill Ikemefuna, who looks to

3 Okonkwo as a father. (Achebe 49) Despite the warnings, Okonkwo acts completely on his own accord so that he can appear as emotionlessly firm as possible. This represents Okonkwo’s rebellious defiance of law and reason, the beginnings of his fight against the feminine. More importantly, he regards social status with supreme importance. Unlike his father had before him, Okonkwo holds many titles and is treated with great respect from the entire tribe. These titles symbolize his triumph over the legacy of his father’s agbala status, as he had taken no titles at all. (Achebe 7) Okonkwo is able, through his titles, to exert a great influence over the governing of Umuofia. Among the highest-ranked members of the tribe, he performs duties as one of the egwuwu, implicating that he is strong enough to be able to credibly act the part of a divine spirit. Furthermore, the tribe respects him and his opinions enough that Obierika, his closest friend, requests his presence at his son’s marriage settlement. Through the power he is able to exert upon those around him, Okonkwo is established as the most extreme embodiment of the masculine in the novel. To Okonkwo, the most essential part of his highly esteemed masculinity is the quality of self-sufficiency. The easiest method for him to define this quality is by recognizing its polar opposite, a complete reliance on aid from others. Even from his childhood, Okonkwo was disgusted by the actions of his father, Unoka, whom he saw as a lethargic moocher. Just as Unoka drank and partied in excess, he also borrowed money in excess. (Achebe 4) To Okonkwo, it was bad enough that Unoka could not support himself and his family on his own money as the head male figure in the family. Even more to Okonkwo’s disgust, Unoka seldom paid off his debts. Unoka was not ashamed that he did not have enough money to pay off debts when he was asked to, and even joked at times about how many debts he had and how he was unable to pay them off. (Achebe 7) Increasing Okonkwo’s hatred of him, Unoka held absolutely

4 no affection for the brute strength of battle. In fact, war so disgusted Unoka that when the topic appeared in conversation, he turned it towards music, which is the offspring of feminine creativity. (Achebe 6) This feminine quality pervaded the entire rest of his being, which allowed the village to refer to him as agbala, which literally means “woman.” (Achebe 12) The state of agbala, which also refers to a man who had taken no titles, is what Okonkwo fears most. In turn, he strives to be everything his father was not – masculine. When Okonkwo reluctantly brings his family to his motherland in exile, Uchendu, his uncle, attempts to calm his frustration with a metaphor that depicts a helpless child running away from an abusive father to a comforting mother for refuge. (Achebe 111) Although he has enough courtesy not to outwardly show it, Okonkwo receives no comfort from such a metaphor and takes it as an insult. Okonkwo believes that if his father(land) abuses him, he should put up a fight, not turn around running. For the seven years that he spends in exile, Okonkwo feels weak and out of place, wishing that he could return to the masculinity of his fatherland. He even names his second child born while in exile Nwofia, which means “begotten in the wilderness.” (Achebe 135) In the same way that Okonkwo feels at home in his fatherland and dislikes living in his motherland, he makes himself a metaphorical ally to the masculine and enemy to the feminine. Okonkwo associates any abstract quality that strays from the physical with the feminine. Therefore, when the European colonists arrive with new philosophies, new religious ideas, and new forms of government that challenge the village’s traditional paternal, strength-based society, Okonkwo immediately shuns them. (Achebe 122) The introduction of these European ideals represents a sudden change in the culture from physical to abstract qualities, as a large portion of the village, including Nwoye, his oldest son, begins to follow the European ways and leave

5 behind the old traditions. (Achebe 119) From the beginning of his childhood, Nwoye was practically labeled as a feminine character, for he did not share his father’s thirst for violence and strength. By association of Nwoye with the colonists, Okonkwo declares the colonists’ ways feminine and fights for a way to get the Europeans out of their society. In Okonkwo’s eyes, the mother-child relationship is very much a feminine one. Children are always able to count on their mothers for solace, almost in the exact same manner that newborns rely on their mothers for comfort and nursing. Okonkwo is constantly surrounded by this weakness-exposing feminine relationship, as his wives take care of the children in their huts next to his obi. (Achebe 26) Nwoye, whom Okonkwo probably believes is destined to become agbala, feels drawn to his mother more than to Okonkwo. The boy experiences life with both Okonkwo and his own mother over the course of the novel, hearing stories told by each of them. While Okonkwo’s stories focus mainly on war and bloodshed, his mother’s stories are folk tales and fables that employ creativity and morals. Okonkwo believes that a son should prefer to hear war stories (for he rejoices when Nwoye finally begins to listen to them, although this stage does not last long) and is utterly disappointed in Nwoye’s overwhelming fascination for fairy tales. (Achebe 45-46) Furthermore, these two types of stories are symbolic of their respective ideas. Okonkwo’s war stories, through their subject matter and absence of developed plot, project an image of the brute strength that is characteristic of the masculine. On the other hand, fables contain more complex plots and lessons – both abstract concepts – and are thus associated with the feminine. Okonkwo constantly attempts to avoid falling to the feminine’s weakness of submission and cooperative tolerance. In the tribal traditions, it is the norm for men to have several wives, each of whom completely submits to her husband. They are expected to do as he wishes: they

6 do chores, they cook and serve meals, they clean, they have children, they care for and raise the children – all completely at his command. (Achebe 39) The wives and their children must always be prepared to carry out his desires, and he pushes them back into line whenever they stray from his will. Overall, Okonkwo sees qualities that are based on abstract or well-pondered ideas as part of the feminine. When the winds of change blow the colonists and their foreign abstract ideas into African society, Okonkwo does all he can to resist this change. (Achebe 122) At first, he tries to stop Nwoye from joining their mysterious religion, but eventually realizes he cannot and completely dissociates himself and his family from Nwoye. (Achebe 119) What was it that made Okonkwo hate this religion? He could not grasp the abstraction of the concepts held by Christianity and could not relate to something that did not completely revolve around power and strength. The idea of unconditional love (compassion being a feminine quality) did not make sense to him, for he thought that certainly any being with divine power would exact punishments on sinners, just as he, the head of his household, could punish those under him. Okonkwo’s struggle with the feminine evokes a memorable image described by Catullus: a strong oak tree is blown over by hurricane-force winds and destroys everything in its path as it falls. (Catullus online) Okonkwo is this oak tree. He is a symbol of strength, deeply rooted in tradition and society. He is so strong that he can resist the minor winds of “feminine” rainstorms that try to bend him into another shape. He holds firm until he is attacked by much stronger winds, the changes brought by the colonists. The colonists’ winds are so radically different from the wimpy winds of the bearable small storms that he is literally knocked over dead. Okonkwo’s suicide is not a sign of weakness, but rather an indication of his strength. A lack of pliancy brings about his demise such that he will not bend to the will of the hurricane,

7 and instead falls not bit by bit, but as a whole. His suicide is the end of his battle against the feminine – a battle won. It may be true that he kills himself out of frustration with the struggle, but his decision puts a final stamp on the battle so that none of the tribe will be able to forget the man who hanged himself. He makes a bold statement to the colonists with his suicide, and in the process leaves a legacy, a symbol of the old traditions. The audacity of his statement is representative of and end to the practicing of the old traditions. This is not quite the same as destroying them, as the oak did to its surroundings, but the impression it leaves surely cannot be easily missed.

WORKS CITED Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Boston: McDougal Littell, 1997. Catullus, Gaius Valerius. “Carmina.” The Latin Library. Ed. Bill Carey. 01 Dec. 2006 <>.