As a child, we are introduced to not only the world we live in, but in how we must live in it. We are taught how to speak, act, dress, etc… all from those that are molding us to conform to what they have also grown up learning. Culture is an essential part of our identity and where we come from.
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Our cultures dictate and shape our mentalities and create that roadbridge to which we walk on as we mature and develop into adults. In Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, Achebe introduces our “strong” protagonist Okonkwo and his Ibo village in Nigeria to guide us on a journey not only within Okonkwo himself, but a clash of cultures that threatens to destroy Okonkwo’s world. Achebe suggests that cultural teachings and social norms dictate and sculpt a person’s personal identity and way of life.
From the moment a man is born in the Ibo society, they are put into the same box that their father has built for himself, observed and tested to whether or not they will surpass their father and carry on to create their own legacy, or become just like them and be another representation of what a man isn’t. Reputation in the Ibo society plays a major role in the rankings of each male individual and the respect that they are given by their community. The men are able to earn power within the community by demonstrating courage and strength on the battlefield, the amount of wrestling matches they have won, and the size of their yam harvest, which reveals their hard work.
Unoka, Okonkwo’s father was deemed as “lazy and improvident” (Achebe 4) a debtor who owed every neighbor some money. Achebe goes on to give the readers a glimpse into who Unoka, the grown-up, was. Unoka was “poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat” the laughing stock of the village (Achebe 5). In contrast, Okonkwo was a “wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife “being one of the greatest men of his time” (Achebe 8).
Okonkwo is a man of wealth and power, acquiring many materialistic things and a higher rank at an earlier age then his father ever could. Achebe juxtaposes Okonkwo and Unoka as a way to expose Okonkwo’s fear of being perceived as weak and shameful as his father was, overcompensating by taking any opportunity to prove his bravery and courage, and working tirelessly on his farm. It is this fear that drives Okonkwo to commit unspeakable acts that go against Ibo norms and customs.
In the scene where Ikemefuna – a young boy from the neighboring clan Mbaino, who was given to Okonkwo to look after as a sacrifice for killing one of the women of Umuofia, and had become greatly attached to Nwoye and an adoptive son to Okonkwo – is killed by the man who he called father cried, “‘My father, they have killed me!’ as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.” (Achebe 61) This tragic scene not only revealed the lengths to which Okonkwo would go to show his masculinity and his complete difference from his father Unoka, but was a major shift in which Okonkwo feels guilt towards killing a boy who he came to love as his own son, and is therefore haunted throughout the rest of the book. Ikemefuna embodies “masculinity” and has hard working qualities that Okonkwo appreciates and believes will be a good influence on Nwoye his eldest who has a lot of pressure to maintain his father’s legacy.
Much like in our modern day society, gender roles play a major role in the traditional Ibo society. The ranking of each member is made very clear, and it is a cultural norm as to how each member is treated, both within the family and within the community. Family life is centered around this unspoken commonly accepted rule that men are the heads or leaders of the family and the women are subordinate to them. In Ibo culture, women are the weaker sex and their sole purpose is to make a pure bride for an “honorable” man, bear children, and be submissive to their husbands. The men on the other hand provide for their family while continuously showing their strength and dominance on the battlefield.
Okonkwo, our main character, is consumed with this need to consistently show his masculinity and qualities that his society deems as being “a man”. During a kindred meeting – which the men held to discuss the next ancestral feast – a man who “had no titles” contradicted him and Okonkwo responded by saying, “This meeting is for men.” (Achebe 26) making known that it is an insult to be called a woman. Okonkwo repeatedly asserts his dominance and “had no patience with unsuccessful men” (Achebe 4), displaying his pride in his own reputation and his title as a highly ranked man in his village.
In addition to that, Achebe again shows how important it is to Okonkwo in being completely opposite of his father. Achebe illustrates many instances in which Okonkwo, who is motivated by pride and cultural customs, portrays the role of a man in Ibo society. Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand and “his wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper.” (Achebe 13) again Achebe makes clear to his readers that in the Ibo world, men are the dominant sex and the women must follow their husband’s orders, often living in fear, yet Okonkwo unquestionably having the right to display violence and aggression at home.
During the Week of Peace, a sacred week before planting to honor the Earth goddess, Ani, Okonkwo was “provoked to justifiable anger by his youngest wife who went to plait her hair at her friend’s house and did not return early enough to cook the afternoon meal”(Achebe 29); Okonkwo responded by beating her, ultimately being scorned by the priest Ezeani who would not “eat in the house of a man who has no respect for our gods and ancestors”(Achebe 30) displaying not only how women are considered weaker and at the mercy of their husband, but how this form of treatment and abuse in accepted and “justified” as long as it did not intervene with the Week of Peace or mock the gods in any way.
Spirituality along with their attachment to their ancestry influences not only the daily lives of the people within the Ibo society but their culture as a whole. They believe that there are spirits in each area of vulnerability; whatever they are worried, scared, or concerned about has a god or spirit assigned to it (Animism). The villagers are influenced by fear and their beliefs of the spirits that correlate with nature.
The Ibo gods embody nature and all its elements. Their agricultural society depends on the consistency of the seasons to survive, therefore, they avoid committing sins against the earth goddess Ani in fear of her retaliation, the god who ultimately determines agricultural success or failure. When Okonkwo beat his wife during the Week of Peace, Ezeani exclaimed, “The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish.” however, “Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess”(Achebe 30).
This enables the readers to infer that this fear that Okonkwo has of becoming his father overrides everything else, the Ibo society may fear the gods and let their spiritual beliefs control their everyday actions, Okonkwo on the other hand breaks the rules of his society, undoubtedly showing his unfazement of the wrath the gods may bring or the disapproval of his community.
Throughout time, society has consciously and unconsciously created social norms that not only “keep the peace” per say, but to differentiate between what is socially right and wrong. Norms were created to control society and dictate what is accepted and rejected. In our day to day lives, we are witnesses to social norms being broken and in response those around them “checking them”; in contrast, we are also unaware of when we are actively upholding a social norm.
The act of deviance on the other hand, is when a person or a group of people violate a social norm which could be influenced by the location/environment, their audience, or the individual themselves. Throughout the novel, Okonkwo deviates from many of the social and cultural norms that make up the foundation of his society, challenging those around him and creating more turmoil within himself. Ibo culture plays a significant role in shaping Okonkwo and his character development, his culture and society influencing his actions, thoughts and emotions.
Culture is a strong part of people’s lives, it influences someone’s views, values, and beliefs, allowing them to create and become aware of their own cultural identity. Throughout the novel, Okonkwo is having an internal battle with himself and unable to truly understand his own identity, allowing fear to consume him and drive his actions, ultimately leading to his death.
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