Okonkwo’s Masculinity in Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”


The novel Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe is a vivid example of Nigerian literature that depicts the cultural heritage of African tribes. The author conveys the main ideas in the book through contrasts, which help to reveal images and concepts better. Such oppositions include men and women, stronger and weaker men, and African customs against Christianity. However, the central idea is the clash of traditional and innovative worldviews. The principal embodiment of the transition from old to new is the main character Okonkwo. Due to the juxtaposition of Okonkwo’s character and storyline with other characters, the author managed to depict the protagonist’s perception of masculinity and patriarchy to the full extent.

General Perception of Masculinity and the Worldview of Okonkwo

The novel’s main character, Okonkwo, is depicted based on stereotypical ideas about a man as a breadwinner, husband, father, and warrior. Despite his relatively young age, he was already known in the Umuofia clan as a superior warrior, a wealthy farmer, and a respected man. As noted by Khan et al. (2021), Okonkwo’s main character traits are competitiveness, self-confidence, ambition, and fearlessness. Cruelty is another typical feature of the protagonist, who “never showed any emotion openly unless it be the emotion of anger” (Chinua, 1959). In Okonkwo’s perception, a man should not have any other feelings except aggression. Ultimately, Okonkwo’s cruelty is aimed at self-destruction, as its last manifestation is a suicide that contradicts the clan’s traditions.

Moreover, despite the apparent opposition between traditional African culture and Christianity, these two themes in the novel are similar in their differences. As Ngendahayo (2021) points out, Okonkwo reacts aggressively to displays of femininity in men, while missionaries beat clan men for their masculinity. Okonkwo believed in his ancestors’ customs and yet sometimes he violated them by beating his wife during the holy week or following the priestess to protect his daughter. At the same time, missionaries violated God’s commandments, abusing people in prisons and turning them into their slaves. However, Okonkwo never realized this resemblance since his warrior nature required him to protect the Ibo community from extinction under the influence of the new religion and government.

At first glance, the novel’s main character seems to be a stereotypical brutal man. However, it is worth considering that Okonkwo’s character was formed under the influence of many factors and other people. Moreover, Chinua seems to force the reader to compare Okonkwo with other male characters, making his personality and actions more distinct. Although the novel describes the protagonist’s nature, his masculinity and worldview can be understood better only in contrast with his father, Ikemefuna, Obierika, and other characters.

Influence of Other Characters on the Protagonist

Father’s Role in Shaping Okonkwo’s Views

The protagonist’s whole life is built on not being like his father. To achieve it, Okonkwo sees the primary goal of life as occupying a dominant role in society. Khan et al. (2021) note that “the life of Okonkwo was to gain a position and respectable status in his society” (p.1213), which his father, Unoka, did not have. Moreover, the protagonist must achieve superiority in everything from fighting to harvesting.

Okonkwo’s desire not to be like his father is revealed even on a subconscious level. Since his father was unemployed and had much debt, the protagonist “was always uncomfortable sitting around for days waiting for a feast or getting over it” (Chinua, 1959). Even if all the work was already done, Okonkwo needed to do something. The father left nothing to his son, and Okonkwo worked hard from an early age to gain respect in the community.

The contrast between Okonkwo and his father is the most apparent character contrast in the novel, which the author repeatedly emphasizes. Unoka’s negative example and Okonkwo’s constant efforts to eliminate his father’s disrepute significantly influenced the formation of the protagonist’s worldview. His whole life was focused on not being the kind of man his father was. However, Unoka was not an example of traditional African masculinity, which led to the brutalization of the man’s concept in Okonkwo’s perception.

Place of Ikemefuna in the Novel

Ikemefuna is a 15-year-old ward of the protagonist, whom Okonkwo treats as his son, showing a particular attitude towards the boy. For example, sometimes, “he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goatskin bag” (Chinua, 1959). Ikemefuna helps bring out Okonkwo’s positive traits as a father, making the protagonist seem more kind and able to show his feelings. At the same time, the murder of Ikemefuna is the culmination of the protagonist’s brutality, after which Okonkwo’s life gradually declines.

Furthermore, Ikemefuna is an example of masculinity opposite to Okonkwo’s. He is just as hardworking and persistent, but at the same time kind and incapable of violence. Nwoye becomes attached to Ikemefuna since he effectively replaced Nwoye’s father, sharing his experiences and teaching the boy to choose “which trees made the strongest bows” (Chinua, 1959). This precise contrast between Okonkwo’s aggression and Ikemefuna’s kindness makes it easier to realize how brutal and radicalized the main character is.

Contrasting Okonkwo with Other Male Characters

The novel’s images of other male characters are contrasted with the protagonist’s image. For example, while Okonkwo was a man of action, his friend Obierika “was a man who thought about things” (Chinua, 1959). Moreover, Obierika often questioned the traditions and laws of the clan since most of them were incomprehensible to him. Obierika acts according to the laws and destroys Okonkwo’s property after his exile and yet Obierika worried about his friend and visited him regularly.

Another vivid character who opposes Okonkwo is his uncle Uchendu, with whom the main character lives during the seven years of his exile. Unlike the protagonist, for Uchendu, cruelty toward women and children is unacceptable. For the elders of the Umuofia man beating his wife is just a trifle, while the Uchendu family claims that “Mother is Superiority” (Chinua, 1959), naming their children that way. However, despite the good attitude and peaceful life with his uncle, Okonkwo could not fully understand the Mbanta clan’s traditions and longed to return to his fatherland.

Family Values in the Novel

Image of the Patriarchal Society in the Novel

The character’s worldview is based on a sharp opposition between men and women. “Okonkwo believes in traditional gender roles” (Ngendahayo, 2021, p.7) in all spheres of life. Ceremonies are divided into male and female, and even in farming, women “grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans, and cassava” (Chinua, 1959), while the men grow yam. Moreover, comparison with a woman is the biggest insult for a clan male. Even in the Ibo language, ‘agbala’ means woman and is also used for a man with no social status or title.

In the Ibo community’s patriarchal society, women’s role is negligible. Women are needed only to strengthen a man’s social status because the “Igbo community deeply believed that the more wives a man has, the more wealth he has” (Kiran & Pareek, 2022, p. 8520). It is not just patriarchy, but absolute discrimination and humiliation of women who did not even have names but only numbers when they became wives.

However, it is noteworthy that Okonkwo’s second and third wives are named in the novel, while the first wife is only referred to as “Nwoye’s mother” (Chinua, 1959) throughout the book. At the same time, the first wives of other male characters are called by names since there is a hierarchy between wives, and the first of them is at the head of the husband’s household. Perhaps, by not mentioning the name of Okonkwo’s first wife, the author wanted to emphasize how big a disappointment his eldest son became for the protagonist, and his mother is not worthy of being called by name because of her son’s betrayal.

Okonkwo’s Attitude towards His Children

Okonkwo’s desire not to be like a father is inverted into the radicalization of masculinity and its brutalization. He abuses his wives and children and “holds his household with heavy hands” (Chinua, 1959). Okonkwo would like his son to be courageous and more aggressive, like himself. However, Nwoye is more like his grandfather Unoka, which angered Okonkwo even more since he hated and despised his father. In the novel, the protagonist often tells his son about what he has already managed to achieve at his age. Okonkwo says that he would like his son to “grow into a tough young man capable of ruling his father’s household” (Chinua, 1959) and often uses physical force for educational purposes. These scenes are a vivid depiction of the conflict of generations that is in the novel.

Even more remarkable are the thoughts of the main character about his daughter. Okonkwo wanted Enizma to be a boy because “she has the right spirit” (Chinua, 1959). Moreover, Okonkwo has a strong bond with his daughter. As Kiran and Pareek (2022) note, the protagonist showed his parental feelings toward Enizma, preparing medicine for her during her illness. At the same time, Enizma worries about her father’s fate during his imprisonment. She returns from her future husband’s family to ensure everything will be fine with Okonkwo, which is not characteristic of the patriarchal society of the Ibo community depicted in the novel.

The main character’s relationship with his son worsened after Okonkwo had killed Ikemefuna, Nwoye’s mentor and friend. Before, Nwoye was afraid of his father, but after that, he began to avoid and despise him. Ultimately, this results in the fact that despite his father’s will, Nwoye accepted Christianity, took the new name Isaac, and renounced his father. In this way, he repeats the path of Okonkwo himself, who tried his whole life not to be like Unoka.


Thus, the novel is built on contrasts such as men and women, strong (masculine) and weak men, and the comparison of Okonkwo with secondary male characters. All themes and ideas in the novel lead to the central leitmotif of the confrontation between tradition and innovation, which Chinua portrays through the clash of the culture of the African Ibo community, embodied in the protagonist, and Christian ideas brought by missionaries. The protagonist’s distorted perception of masculinity and patriarchy eventually lead to an internal conflict where Okonkwo’s actions often contradict the customs and traditions of the tribe. Due to the radicalization of his views, the main character does not find a place for himself in the new world, and the only way out for him remains suicide.


Chinua, A. (1959). Things fall apart. [eBook edition]. Anchor Books.

Khan, S. N., Sardaraz, K., Khan, I. U., & Khan, A. K. (2021). Exploring behavioral characteristics in Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart. PalArch’s Journal of Archaeology of Egypt/Egyptology, 18(18), 1209-1217.

Kiran, A., & Pareek, S. (2022). Narrativizing patriarchy within the framework of Things Fall Apart. Specialusis Ugdymas, 1(43), 8519-8528.

Ngendahayo, J. D. (2021). The protagonist’s masculine perceptions in Things Fall Apart as the sign of Igbo society breakup. Journal of Literature, Languages and Linguistics(JLLL), 75, 5-10. Web.

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