Masculinity vs. Femininity in Things Fall Apart
If viewed on the surface the story line of Things Fall Apart is a tragedy, but when viewed in a wider perspective it is a story of deeper conflict. The main issue is that the British have come to establish a mission and receive converts. Less evident is the conflict this intrusion inserts between the Ibo and British. The underlying issue is masculinity
. By this I mean to say that the Ibo are an agrarian people who are a patriarchal and see any sign of weakness as being less than desirable. The protagonist in the story, Okonkwo, is the champion of this thought. As what would happen to him seems to happen to the Ibo. When Okonkwo disagrees he is usually correct and the tribe would suffer the same fate and vice versa.
In the novel the Chi is a powerful spirit that determines a man's lot in life. One such instance is when Okonkwo was disbanded from his home for a Feminine murder; Clearly his personal god or Chi was not made for great things. A man could not rise above the destiny of his Chi.
The saying of his elders was not true---that a man who said yea his Chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose Chi said nay despite his own affirmations. (p. 131) The Chi then is the most important aspect
of Ibo society. The most compelling argument for conflict between the British colonists and the Ibo lies directly within the tribes Chi.
Chi, as stated, is the will of a man. The Ibo are guided by this and believe that they can only rise to the level to which their personal God will allow. (p.131) This being the case the Ibo themselves are destined to rise only as far as their cumulative Chi will allow. If the Chi of the British is strong, even if the British do not recognize it, they will prevail over the Ibo. Okonkwo, whose Chi is perceived to be strong, although at times doomed, leads the Ibo into disaster when he forces his will on the Ibo. The greatest evidence of his Chi is when he kills the messenger from the governor. This may have been an act of self preservation resulting from the indignation of being detained, but it was his Chi that said yes.
"In that brief moment the world seemed to stand still...." "In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete...descended twice on the man's head."(p.204) Clearly it was Okonkwos' Chi that outweighed that of his clansmen because the narrator then stated, "He knew the Umuofia would not go to war." (p.205)
Foregoing Chi and focusing on obvious conflict a few stark events come to mind. First the church itself alters the structure of Ibo society by threatening to dilute the native language through assimilation. Language and the telling of ancient stories are the thread that holds the Ibo together. This is evidenced when the narrator describes a delicate conversation between Okonkwos father Unoka over the settlement of a debt. "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palmoil with which words are eaten."(p.7)
Clearly the Ibo would prefer to speak in reference to common traditional values and respect. The conflict here is the direct nature with which the western culture speaks, avoiding any reference to an anecdote relevant to the situation, thus separating the two cultures for lack of any common background. This conflict is referenced in chapter twenty as Okonkwo speaks with a friend about the division between them. "Does the white man understand our customs about land?" "How can he when he does not even speak our tongue"? (p.176) This lack of common language results in a division in understanding that would impinge on legal, religious and cultural appreciation.
With the arrival of Europeans came new laws and religion. Consequently, when referring to the beating of Okonkwo's wife a disparity exists. (p. 30) Domestic violence was not frowned upon by the British because it occurred during a week of non-violence, but rather that the crime of beating anyone had occurred at all. It is cultural divisions such as this that separate the two cultures and lead to an ethnocentric approach to dealing with each other. What might appear to be the correct solution by one group is harsh or unequal in another. Although the tribal law was harsh, the Europeans were no better. A significant argument needs to be made against the radical methods Europeans used in dealing with the aboriginal people. As with the American Indians the Africans were thought to be savages, that because of their animistic rituals and lack of written law they were uncivilized and needed to be converted to a Christian way. Unfortunately this was usually a harsh reality that at times entailed beating them into submission.
Neither society in the novel is idealized. This is evident as explained above. Both cultures have their faults; however, it is these faults which create the biggest problems. One such source of trouble is sacrifice, which was not out of the question for the Ibo if it meant clan survival through the appeasement of the gods. Such was the case for a young man who was surrendered to the Umuofia through a peace agreement between two tribes. This young man was in essence a ward of the tribe, but brought up by Onkonkwo. As mentioned this young man was to be sacrificed by the clan to please the Gods. Although it was deeply upsetting to Onkonkwo he knew it would serve to benefit his people. This type of religious sacrifice was looked down upon by the missionary's. They believed in one God, and He would never kill another man to placate Him, or at least this is what they preached. This action taken by the Africans would have caused great controversy between the two groups had it occurred while they were in their midst's, they were not. However, stories of similar episodes had been told to the pastors when they did arrive and was a reason the missionary's were determined to make good Christians out of the native Africans.
Drawing on comparisons between the white infiltration and Okonkwo's struggle to be as different from his deceased father as possible, a vague parallel exists. Onkonkwo states clearly that he wants to distance himself as much as possible from his father. He believes his father is weak and lacking any quality of a strong warrior or contributor to the clan, he is effeminate. Therefore, Okonkwo endeavors to be a strong warrior and a powerful elder with many titles. It is then understandable that the Umuofia, and in particular Onkonkwo, would distain the whites for making their young lazy and reliant on the whites. When Okonkwo's own son joins the church he must have felt a great sadness that his son was weak in mind, and would become softened by the white culture. Feminine versus masculine traits is the controversy in this instance. Okonkwo has built his whole life on the masculinity of the tribe. The masculinity is what helps the tribe survive.
Chi as discussed in this novel is the concept most important to understanding the conflict within. Okonkwo's Chi is strong, and immersed the Umuofia in a battle with the British. Further underlying conflict resides in the lack of written law in African society, which led the British to assume they were not civilized, and in a constant state of anarchy. These characteristics coupled with an effeminate church led to the tragic end to Okonkwo's life, and eventually the Umuofia culture.