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In Things Fall Apart, a novel by Chinua Achebe, Okonkwo is described as a negative person; however, he does posses other admirable characteristics that make him a village hero. Throughout the book he has proved to be a strong leader. Okonkwo is a strong man and in fact he is the village wrestling champion. The novel mainly concentrates on the family history of Okonkwo as well as his own personal history and how British arrival of missionaries to the Igbo community served to influence the lives of the Igbo during the 19th century (Achebe 145).
Okonkwo has been considered by many as a villain who ends up destroying his village due to his ego and bigger than life character. This is a position that has been strongly by other readers of the book too. What is the truth about Okonkwo’s character? Is he a villain or a hero? Okonkwo is a hero, though he has been portrayed in a very negative manner by the author. He demonstrates this through his flaws as well as his strengths as portrayed in the book, however, the arrival of colonialist interrupted his growth as a village hero.
Understanding Okonkwo the Hero
The main character Okonkwo has been used to portray hard-work, strength and demonstrate the disadvantages of weakness. He has been used to portray the tragic hero in any particular society. He can be considered as the village hero throughout the whole story. He represents what a successful person in Umuofia was considered to be. He had three wives, had children, was very wealthy, was a powerful man and was made to lead the people of his village. He is held in high esteem by his fellow villagers and they accorded him the respect he deserved. This is portrayed when he is tasked with the responsibility of being Ikemefuna’s guardian [a young prisoner who was given as a peace settlement]. The young prisoner grows to adore Okonkwo because of his zeal for life and his principles and philosophies about how a real man should live. However, this love from the boy does not make Okonkwo relent on his quest to prove his leadership skills, because at then end he participates in killing the boy as part his duty as a village leader.
Okonkwo has portrayed his hero status in the book in many ways. Even though most people tend to associate Okonkwo with violence, this cannot be absolutely true because they fail to read the real picture behind his character. Deep inside his heart he was a good man, the only problem was that his life was dominated by the fear of the unknown, especially what comes after failure.
He did not want to resemble his father (Achebe 13). Okonkwo detested his father because his father was very lazy and very poor. Furthermore, he was an idle, cowardly and a profligate person, characters which Okonkwo loathed. This made him strive to make it against all odds, working as hard as it took to become wealthy. Unfortunately, it came at a price because he ended up committing acts not expected from a hero.
His father’s weakness fuels Okonkwo’s desire for success, that is, he becomes a very brave, wealthy and productive. However, his violent nature contradicts these qualities. Okonkwo summered, and when he could not get his words out clearly he resorted to using his fists to drive his point across. He believed in solving conflicts through brute force. In fact when the oracle advices him not to participate in the killing of Ikemafuna [because the boy called him “father”] Okonkwo goes against this. He knows that according to his culture, the strongest man in the village had to be involved in the killing of the young boy. Instead of heeding the oracles advice (Achebe 57), he participates in the killing of the boy so that he cannot be seen as a weak person.
Okonkwo portrays the importance of individual ambition. He shows that a determined person can get what he wants. However, this ambition has got to be well balanced with an individual’s other characteristics to achieve the desired target. Okonkwo had a very strained relationship with his son Nwoye because they did not share the same values about life. Okonkwo does all he can just to make his son understand his view of life so that when he will be dead, his son can continue with leading his family the way Okonkwo wanted (Achebe 52).
Okonkwo can be seen as a hero because he does not believe in losing what a person has painstakingly worked hard to accumulate in his life. This is evidenced by how hard he struggles to accept change when he was exiled. It is surprising that a person who was a role model to young men on how to overcome poverty through hard work is exiled from the village. This is a low moment for Okonkwo because the village does not recognize his past good actions; they decide to expel him on account of a single mistake. He looses all that he had struggled to build during his youth.
He is a very adamant person, even when his fellow villagers accept change, Okonkwo thinks independently and acts as he sees fit. He is not really bothered by change that is being experienced in his village. Even though he knows that the life of man is characterized by constant transitional rites (Achebe 122) he believes that these changes should serve to bring him closer to his ancestors and not lose all the property that he has worked hard all his life to accumulate.
Okonkwo has got a notion for success. This is attributed to his ambitious character and the hate he had for his father’s life. This makes him rise high in the administration rank of his village, something that his father never did. It makes him respected, and it makes him do anything to avoid failure. Okonkwo is a village hero because he cannot accept the change that the Europeans were bringing to his village. In fact he would rather die than stomach the erosion of his culture by the Europeans. In the end, Okonkwo’s death can be construed as a move by Okonkwo to have the Igbo’s culture respected.
Okonkwo would have been the perfect village hero had the colonialist not interrupted his growth because he portrays the true picture of an Igbo man. He is associated with success wherever he goes. Even though he has several flaws, his character inspires many other people to work hard and make it in life. He does not tolerate laziness or admire weakness; these are all character traits of a hero, not a villain.