Okonkwo: A Tragic Hero
Class: English (ENG3U1)
Date: March 27, 2006
The Assignment: Explain why Okonkwo is a tragic hero.
Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, tells the story of Okonkwo’s accomplishments and his demise. Okonkwo is determined to become a lord of the clan, but he encounters several setbacks along the way. At eighteen, Okonkwo becomes significant in his society due to his wrestling victories and various other achievements. Soon, his success goes to his head and he begins to make bad decisions and ignore the gods. He is punished for his actions and eventually he commits suicide. Each of these things shows that the character of Okonkwo is a perfect example of Aristotle’s tragic hero.
Okonkwo’s story begins with demonstrations of his great pride and various accomplishments that help him to become an important member of the tribe. One of his first accomplishments is becoming a renowned wrestler: “As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat” (Achebe, 3). Amalinze had been undefeated for several years and this shows that Okonkwo is a force to be reckoned with, even at such a young age. Okonkwo also shows his wealth and strength with his “large compound… long stacks of yams… [and] his three wives and eight children” (10). Property, yams, and family are all instrumental in securing the value of a man in Ibo society, and Okonkwo has all of these things. Despite beginning his life with disadvantages, Okonkwo becomes a great farmer. He was young, but also hard working and “he had begun even in his father’s lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future” (13). Okonkwo approaches successful men who trust and believe in him for help, and they know that by helping Okonkwo, he will give back to the tribe in the future. Wrestling, property, and farming are important in the Ibo tribe. By achieving these things, Okonkwo becomes an important leader in his society.
Okonkwo is essentially a good man, but he is often too proud of himself, which makes him capable of making bad decisions and displeasing the gods. The sacred week is a time when no one works and are kind to the other tribe members. During this time, Okonkwo’s anger gets the better of him: “[H]e had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace… but Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess” (21). This shows that Okonkwo is more afraid of being weak than he is of a god. Gods and goddesses are very important in Okonkwo’s society, and many of the tribe members think Okonkwo’s actions were wrong. Okonkwo makes a habit out of beating his family, even for the slightest wrongdoing. When one of Okonkwo’s wives takes a few leaves off of a banana tree, “Okonkwo gave her a sound beating” (27). Okonkwo over-reacted, accusing her of killing the banana tree; he felt he had to beat her in order to assert his power. Another major bad decision Okonkwo makes is killing Ikemefuna. Okonkwo takes part in the murder, despite warnings from his friend: “If I were you I would have stayed at home. What you have done will not please the Earth. It is the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families” (47). Once again, Okonkwo’s fear of weakness wins out against fear of gods, causing him to make the wrong decision. Many of Okonkwo’s actions result in negative attention from other tribe members and friends who had previously held Okonkwo in high regard.
However, Okonkwo does not escape from his bad decisions; he receives punishments for his actions. For the violence against his family, the rest of the tribe gossip about and ridicule Okonkwo: “[P]eople said he had no respect for the gods of the clan. His enemies said his good fortune had gone to his head” (22). These incidents make the tribe members think less of Okonkwo, so they constantly talk about him, much to Okonkwo’s dismay. Killing Ikemefuna results in feelings of guilt for Okonkwo: “[H]e did not sleep at night. He tried not to think about Ikemefuna” (45). Okonkwo’s behaviour following the murder is very nervous and jittery, which shows that he feels guilty for his decision; this overwhelming guilt is his punishment. Okonkwo’s overall punishment for the bad things he has done is his exile: “The only course open to Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman” (89). This is Okonkwo’s greatest punishment, for it means that he has to start over on his journey to becoming a lord of the clan. Due to his exile and other punishments, in the end Okonkwo commits suicide, the final act that distinguishes him as a tragic hero.
Okonkwo rarely deviates from Aristotle’s pattern of a tragic hero. Beginning with his successes and ending with his death, including the negative actions leading to this end, Okonkwo demonstrates many traits of a tragic hero. Okonkwo’s crimes do not go unpunished, showing that even successful people like Okonkwo are capable of doing bad things.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1958.
Bradley, A.C. “Aristotle’s Tragic Hero in Things Fall Apart”. Humanities 211. 23 Mar 2006. <http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/achebtfa.htm>.