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Critical Essay by Solomon O. Iyasere
SOURCE: "Okonkwo's Participation in the Killing of His 'Son' in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Study of Ignoble Decisiveness," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, March, 1992, pp. 303-15.
In the following essay, Iyasere explains the thematic and structural significance of the murder of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart, focusing on the character development of Okonkwo.
No episode in Achebe's memorable novel, Things Fall Apart,1 is more shocking and heartrending as the execution of Ikemefuna, an event too dreadful to endure. Circumstances surrounding the event make it even more hideous—if that is possible—and invite our moral revulsion more intensely than the killing of the messenger. Commenting on the significance of the murder of Ikemefuna, David Caroll writes:
The death of Ikemefuna is a turning point in the novel. The guardianship of the boy was a mark of Okonkwo's hard-won status and the highest point of his rise to power. The execution of Ikemefuna is the beginning of Okonkwo's decline, for it initiates the series of catastrophes which ended in his death. But this event is not only a milestone in the career of the hero. The sympathetic rendering of Ikemefuna's emotions as he is being marched through the forest to his death has wider implications.2
As crucial as this episode is to the overall thematic and structural development of the novel, especially in the development of the central character, critics have paid only cursory attention to it. With the exception of a brief study by Damian Opata, most of the comments on the killing of Ikemefuna, particularly those treating Okonkwo's participation, have been superficial and judicial, far less extensive and vigorous than the event demands.
The vexing, and paradoxical, question raised by Ikemefuna's death is why Okonkwo takes part, particularly after Oguefi Ezeudu, a respected elder in Umuofia who understands its values and traditions and the habits of the gods, warns Okonkwo against participating:
"That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death." Okonkwo was surprised, and was about to say some things when the old man continued: "Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him. The Oracle of the Hills and Caves has pronounced it. They will take him there. But I want [you] to have nothing to do with it. He calls you father." (59-60)
In defense of Okonkwo's participation, Damian Opata argues that Okonkwo has no choice but to comply with the monstrous decree of the gods; further, because Ikemefuna is already regarded as a sacrificial Iamb, his death already a fait accomplit, Okonkwo acts only as a messenger executing the decree of the gods. To stress Okonkwo's place as a victim who deserves our sympathy instead of our vilification, Opata writes:
Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna is instinctive. No time was left for him to consider his actions. In other words, his killing of Ikemefuna was not premeditated. The immediate circumstances under which he had to kill Ikemefuna seem to have been forced on him by capricious fate, he was not in control of the situation. Rather, the situation was controlling him and we should not apply the principles of morality to a situation in which he was inexorably led by uncanny fate.3
The inaccuracies of Opata's view derive from his uninformed reading of the text; Opata disregards the particularities of the rhetoric of Achebe's controlled presentation of Okonkwo's actions throughout the novel and of the circumstances leading to his execution of Ikemefuna. For example, nowhere in the novel is it hinted that if Okonkwo had time to reflect on the execution he would have acted differently, as Opata seems to imply. In fact, a close reading of the text shows that Okonkwo was informed of the intended execution by Oguefi Ezeudu two full days before the execution was carried out (59-60); if Okonkwo had been a man of thought and not of blind action, he would have reflected on the moral consequences of his action during those two days. To demonstrate his eagerness to participate in the execution, "Okonkwo got ready quickly [when] the party set out with Ikemefuna carrying a pot of wine" (60).
To suggest, as Opata does, that Okonkwo is a victim of fate, one forced by circumstances beyond his control to kill Ikemefuna, is inaccurate. Although the capricious gods decreed that the innocent Ikemefuna should be killed, the gods did not specifically order Okonkwo to participate in the event. The fact is that Okonkwo was free to choose not to participate in Ikemefuna's execution, as the following conversation between Okonkwo and his friend Obeirika makes plain:
"I cannot understand why you refused to come with us to kill that boy," he [Okonkwo] asked Obeirika.
"Because I did not want to," Obeirika replied sharply. "I had something better to do."
"You sound as if you question the authority and the decision of the Oracle, who said he should die."
"I do not. Why should I? But the Oracle did not ask me to carry out its decision."
"But someone had to do it. If we were all afraid of blood, it would not be done. And what do you think the Oracle would do then?
"The Earth cannot punish me for obeying her messenger," Okonkwo said. "A child's fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm."
"That is true," Obeirika agreed. "But if the Oracle said that my son should be killed, I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it." (69)
Opata's argument that Okonkwo is a victim of fate denies him his tragic stature and thereby robs him of our deepest sympathy.
More responsive to Ikemefuna's execution and Okonkwo's role in it is David Carroll, who writes:
This incident is not only a comment on Okonkwo's heartlessness. It criticizes implicitly the laws he is too literally implementing…. As we watch him [Ikemefuna] being taken unsuspectingly on his apparently innocent journey, the whole tribe and its values is [sic] being judged and found wanting. For the first time in the novel, we occupy the point of view of an outsider, a victim, and from this position the community appears cruel.4
Carroll's comment is to the point in directing our attention to Okonkwo's heartlessness and his literal minded acceptance of the decree of the gods. However, it does not specifically address the crucial question of whether or not Okonkwo had the choice of refusing to participate in the gods' hideous decree nor why Okonkwo interprets the gods so literally.
Okonkwo was faced with a paradoxical situation in participating in Ikemefuna's death. On the one hand, his relationship with the boy had evolved into a strong paternal/filial relationship; on the other hand, the gods decreed that the boy must die—a decree which had to be obeyed without question—as did the decree that the twins must die, as Obeirika recalled:
[W]hat crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the goddess, her wrath was loosed on the land and not just the offender. As the elders saw, if one finger brought oil, it soils the others. (130)
The important question raised here is why does Okonkwo participate in executing Ikemefuna? Does he fear and respect the wrath of the gods? Judging from Okonkwo's actions, we have to say that the answer is "no"; habitually, Okonkwo acts too impulsively, too violently, to think of the consequences of his actions. This habit of impulse is made clear, for example, when Okonkwo beats his wife during the sacred Week of Peace—a week of harmony, restraint, and decorum: "And when she returned, he beat her heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm, pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody halfway through, not even the fear of a goddess" (31). In fact, because of his excessive pride; because he would not admit his error, "people said he had no respect for the gods" (32). Though not afraid of a goddess, Okonkwo is not fearless, for he fears failure, as the narrator tells us:
[H]is whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic…. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. (14)
Robert Wren emphasizes Okonkwo's freedom to choose not to participate in killing Ikemefuna, "[I]f a man says 'no' strongly enough, his 'chi' says 'no' also. Okonkwo had that within him which said 'no' to the killing of Ikemefuna."5
Does he act, then, out of his own selfish motives—his inordinate ambition to be acknowledged as one of the courageous and brave men of Umuofia? Does he perceive the decree of the gods as a challenge to his manhood and, as a result, exceeds in his actions even what the gods demand? Based on a careful analysis of Achebe's controlled presentation of Okonkwo's character, his habit of mind and action, as this paper contends, Okonkwo's participation results not from obedience to the gods. Instead, like Ezeulu in Arrow of God, Okonkwo is in competition with the gods and acts out of his pathological fear of being thought weak—his fear of being perceived as like his father Unoka.
Because of the centrality of the scene in which Ikemefuna is killed to our understanding of Okonkwo's role in it, it is necessary to cite the passage of length:
At the beginning of their journey the men of Umuofia talked and laughed about the locust, about their women, and about some effeminate men who had refused to come with them. But as they drew near to the outskirts of Umuofia, silence fell upon them too.
The sun rose slowly to the center of the sky, and the dry, sandy footway began to throw up the heat that lay buried in it. Some birds chirruped in the forest around. The men trod dry leaves on the sand. All was silent. Then from the distance came the faint beating of the ekwe….
They argued for a short while and fell into silence again, and the elusive dance rose and fell with the wind. Somewhere a man was taking one of the titles of the clan, with music and dancing and a great feast….
Thus the men of Umuofia pursued their way, armed with sheathed machetes, and Ikemefuna, carrying a pot of palm wine on his head, walked in their midst. Although he had felt uneasy at first he was not afraid now. Okonkwo walked behind him. He could hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father. He had never been fond of his real father, and at the end of three years he had become very distant indeed….
As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, "My father, they have killed me!" as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. (61-63)
This tragic event takes place during or immediately after the celebration of the coming of the locust—an occasion of joy, laughter, and excitement, especially among the children of Umuofia. "Locusts are descending" was joyfully chanted everywhere, and men, women, and children left their work or their play to run into the open to see the unfamiliar sight. Ikemefuna's death comes only two days after "Okonkwo sat in his obi cruching happily with Ikemefuna and Nwoye and drinking palm wine copiously …" (59), sharing with Ikemefuna the joy which enveloped the whole community. The feast of the locust thus serves as a foil for and throws into sharp relief the killing of Ikemefuna.
These contrasting events are presented as occurring almost simultaneously to underscore the brutality and inhumanity of the Umuofia society. On the very day that Ikemefuna sits happily with his "father" Okonkwo, Ezeulu reports, "Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him" (59). The narrator's terse, mournful description of Ikemefuna's death intensifies both the horror of the event and the dastardliness of Okonkwo's participation: His "son" runs to him for protection only to be felled by the hard steel of Okonkwo's machete. Okonkwo's deliberate participation makes the death of Ikemefuna too horrible to endure.
Okonkwo is consistently presented in the novel, as in the above episode, as a man of ignoble decisiveness, one who acts strong but is mentally weak. He is a man who rushes headlong into action and will not allow himself to be contained, as he should be, by the bonds of interpersonal relationships, by the prickings of conscience, or by the customs and values of his society.
Okonkwo's predisposition to commit himself with tragic intensity to irrevocable violence is made clear in the narrator's first description of him:
He was tall and huge and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said that when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get the words out quickly enough, he would use his fists…. (4)
Emphasis here and throughout is on Okonkwo's intimidating physical strength and his reliance on force to achieve his ends. As Eustance Palmer observes, "In a sense, Okonkwo is presented as a life-denying force. He was always associated with death, whereas his father, with all his faults is associated with life … always charged and tense like a loaded cannon…. [O]ne expects his fiery temper and nervous energy to find outlet in violent action in that he will plunge headlong into self destruction."6 Equally important, the narrator's emphasis on Okonkwo's monstrous energy and brute strength calls attention to Okonkwo's primary weakness—his inability to think, to use language to channel and communicate his thoughts and thereby interact meaningfully with his environment.
To Okonkwo, words are mere shapes to fill a void, not prime instruments for conceptual expressions or for giving outward experience its form and making it definite and clear. According to Susan Langer, "all genuine thinking is symbolic, and the limits of expressive medium are therefore really the limits of our conceptual powers. Beyond these, we have only blind feeling, which records nothing and conveys nothing, but has to be discharged in action … or other impulsive demonstrations."7 Because of his limited metacognitive power, Okonkwo habitually resorts to blind and impulsive actions; he approaches every problem—no matter how complex or paradoxical—with a singleminded, preconceived solution: force without thought, action without regard for consequence. Unlike his friend Obeirika, his uncle Uchendu, and his father Unoka, Okonkwo is too impatient, too much a man of action to deal with subtleties, with nuances that do not fit easily into his monochromatic view of life. Okonkwo's rigid use of language corresponds to his rigid approach to life. (In significant ways, his attitude towards life and language help explain why he accepts the decree of the gods literally, without questions). Okonkwo's rhetorical ineptitude further alienates him from Umuofia, further divorces him from his goal of being Umuofia's champion, because Umuofia prides itself on its rhetorical refinement. In Umuofia, as among the Ibos, the art of conversation is regarded highly, and proverbs "are the palm oil with which words are eaten." As Wren observes. Okonkwo "does occasionally use a proverb—four or five times in the course of the novel—but they do not seem to flow from him…."8 In general, Okonkwo finds words poor substitutes for action. As C. L. Innes observes, "Phrases or statements which reaffirm rather than extend the existing world view of a person or his society are typical of Okonkwo…. His contributions to a discussion are generally short and commonplace…. For Okonkwo talking is never a prelude to action, it leads nowhere."9 Lacking rhetorical skill, Okonkwo overcompensates for his deficiency in this area by being too quick to act, by doing more than Umuofia and even the gods demand.
Okonkwo possessed a monomaniacal commitment to placing success and achievement above everything else—even the need to love and be loved—and identifying his whole existence with gaining power as one of the lords of the clan of Umuofia. This commitment to and drive for power ruled his life. Worse still, this habit of mind leads tragically to Okonkwo's denial of his true self and makes inevitable his suicide. He resorts to force instead of dialogue, acts violently when flexibility and compassion are called for.
The murder of Ikemefuna, though the most dreadful, is the climax of a series of extreme actions Okonkwo takes to assert his manliness—his existence. Other key moments arise when he savagely beats his son, repudiates his father. Unoka, kills the messenger, and ultimately turns his own violent hand against himself.
Okonkwo's impulsive violence marks his relationship with his only biological son, Nwoye. The boy seeks his father's love and understanding, but Okonkwo is incapable of responding to these basic human needs; he considered them unmanly and effeminate. When Okonkwo is confronted by the failure of his own rigid code as Nwoye turns to Christianity for love and succor, Okonkwo responds in the only way he knows—with violence:
It was late afternoon before Nwoye returned. He went into the obi and saluted his father, but he did not answer. Nwoye turned around into the inner compound when his father, suddenly overcome with fury, sprang to his feet and gripped him by the neck.
"Where have you been?" he stammered. Nwoye struggled to free himself from the choking grip.
"Answer me," roared Okonkwo, "before I kill you!" He seized a heavy stick that lay on the dwarf wall and hit him two or three savage blows.
"Answer me!" he roared again. Nwoye stood looking at him and did not say a word. The women were screaming outside, afraid to go in.
"Leave that boy at once," said a voice in the outer compound. It was Okonkwo's uncle, Uchendu. "Are you mad?"
Okonkwo did not answer. But he let hold of Nwoye, who walked away and never returned. (157)
In another crucial event, the final gathering of the clan, everything seems to point toward the need for dialogue and flexibility in responding to the clan's increasing fragmentation, "They have broken the clan and gone their several ways…. Our brothers have deserted us and joined a stranger to soil their fatherland. If we fight the stranger we shall hit our brothers and perhaps shed the blood of a clansman" (210). Okonkwo reacts predictably, decisively, violently. Early in the morning, under a somber silence, the elders of Umuofia gather in the marketplace to decide collectively what action they will need to take to stop the Reverend Smith and the District Commissioner's ruthless violations of the customs and traditions of Umuofia. A foreign judicial system has been established in place of indigenous laws; a foreign religion, Christianity, has begun to supplant the local gods. Umuofia's existence and all that gave the people's lives substance and meaning are being destroyed from within and without. As the elders deliberate, five messengers from the District Commissioner arrive, and tragic drama unfolds, with Okonkwo at center stage:
He [Okonkwo] sprang to his feet as soon as he saw who it was. He confronted the head messenger, trembling with hate, unable to utter a word. The man was fearless and stood his ground, his four men lined up behind him.
In that brief moment the world seemed to stand still, waiting. There was utter silence. The men of Umuofia were merged into the mute backcloth of trees and giant creepers, waiting.
The spell was broken by the head messenger. "Let me pass!" he ordered.
"What do you want here?"
"The white men whose power you know too well have ordered this meeting to stop."
In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo's machete descended twice and the man's head lay beside his uniformed body.
Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: "Why did he do it?"
He wiped his machete on the sand and went away. (210-11)
To understand the reason why Okonkwo acts as he does, we need to examine Okonkwo's relationship with Unoka. Okonkwo's relationship with his father, Unoka, is devoid of love and marked by hate. Okonkwo violently and decisively repudiates Unoka, obliterating his father's existence from his mind because Unoka is known to be weak, a failure: "[H]e had long ago learned how to slay that ghost. Whenever thought of his father's weakness and failure troubled him, he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and success" (68-69). At his death, Unoka had no title; when he died, he was not accorded the proper traditional funeral but was buried like a dog. In trying to obliterate all Unoka represents, Okonkwo casts off not only Unoka's undignified irresponsibility but also those positive attributes—love, compassion, creativity—which Unoka embodies. What Okonkwo does not recognize is that by attempting to obliterate his father's reality, he symbolically destroys his own existence and his own place in Umuofia society and ends up, in death, just like his father. To Umuofia, Okonkwo's death by hanging is an abomination. an offense against the earth; as a result, Umuofia buries Okonkwo, as Obeirika mournfully observes, "like a dog." The clan's attitude toward Okonkwo's death is tersely summarized: "His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it…. We cannot bury him. Only strangers can. We shall pay you men to do it. When he has been buried, we will then do our duty. We shall make sacrifices to cleanse this deserted land" (214).
Okonkwo's fatal gift is his predisposition to violence; he commits himself with tragic intensity to become the champion of the heroic tradition of Umuofia through extreme and decisive action. These attributes appear to serve him well, especially when he channels his strength towards industry. He threw himself into whatever he did like a man possessed. For example, during the planting season, Okonkwo worked daily from cock-crow until the chickens went to roost. He was very strong and rarely became fatigued. Consequently, Okonkwo became prosperous and well known throughout the nine villages and beyond; he had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth, and his own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the wall. Each of his three wives had her own hut and "the barn was built against one end of the red wall and long stacks of red yam stood out prosperously in it" (15). Okonkwo was respected for rising so suddenly from great poverty and misfortune to be one of the lords of the clan.
Paradoxically, the same qualities that contribute to Okonkwo's greatness also account for his isolation, his blindness, and his ruin. To achieve success, fame, and power, Okonkwo habitually resorts to and comes to rely on thoughtless violence. Without regard for consequences, Okonkwo acts: he kills Ikemefuna, beats his son, repudiates his father, butchers the messenger. He becomes the apotheosis of violent action and as such ultimately destroys himself.
Yet Okonkwo is not a classical Machiavellian. Although bound to violence to achieve his goals, deep down in his heart, he is not an evil, heartless man. As I have argued elsewhere,10 he is capable of love, warmth, and compassion. To maintain the image of his "grandiose self," he struggles and succeeds in burying these positive human attributes within himself because he considers them unmanly. He allows his buried humanity to surface only in private, unguarded moments: for example, it is in the dark that he shows his spontaneous response and deep-felt anguish in saving his dying daughter Ezinma from Chielo, and it is in his private dark room that he shows brief remorse after his brutal killing of Ikemefuna.
On the one hand, we admire Okonkwo's heroic determination to achieve personal success and applaud his strong commitment, though futile, to preserve the legacy of Umuofia's heroic tradition. At the same time, we condemn and despise him when his determination to succeed and his commitment to preserve the tradition become an insane preoccupation leading to inhuman acts and violence, such as his slaughtering his "son" Ikemefuna.
All in all, Okonkwo is a man of uncommon achievement and uncommon failure. The overriding paradox of his life and death is that if he had not been obsessed with avoiding the life of failure which his father Unoka lived, he would have been less prone to violence, but if he had been less violent, he probably would not have achieved success as a lord in Umuofia. He is, as tragic heroes often are, a victim of the defects of his virtues.
1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Astor, 1959). All subsequent quotations from the text are from this edition.
2. David Carroll, Chinua Achebe (New York: Twayne, 1970), pp. 48-49.
3. Damian Opatu, "Eternal Sacred Order Versus Conventional Wisdom: A Consideration of Moral Culpability in the Killing of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart," Research in African Literature, 18, No. 1 (1987), 75-76.
4. Carroll, p. 49.
5. Robert Wren, Achebe's World (Washington, D.C.; Three Continents Press, 1980), p. 44.
6. Eustance Palmer, An Introduction to the African Novels (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972), p. 54.
7. Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987), p. 87.
8. Wren, p. 57.
9. C. L. Innes, "Poetry and Doctrine in Things Fall Apart," in Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, ed. C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfurs (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1978), pp. 114, 120.
10. Solomon O. Iyasere, "Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart, New Letters 40, No. 3 (1974).
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