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In Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is a tragic hero. Aristotle’s Poetics defines a Tragic Hero as a good man of high status who displays a tragic flaw (“hamartia”) and experiences a dramatic reversal (“peripeteia”), as well as an intense moment of recognition (“anagnorisis”). Okonkwo is a leader and hardworking member of the Igbo community of Umuofia whose tragic flaw is his great fear of weakness and failure. Okonkwo’s fall from grace in the Igbo community and eventual suicide, makes Okonkwo a tragic hero by Aristotle’s definition.
Okonkwo is “a man of action, a man of war” (7) and a member of high status in the Igbo village. He holds the prominent position of village clansman due to the fact that he had “shown incredible prowess in two intertribal wars” (5). Okonkwo’s hard work had made him a “wealthy farmer” (5) and a recognized individual amongst the nine villages of Umuofia and beyond. Okonkwo’s tragic flaw isn’t that he was afraid of work, but rather his fear of weakness and failure which stems from his father’s, Unoka, unproductive life and disgraceful death. “Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness….It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.” Okonkwo’s father was a lazy, carefree man whom had a reputation of being “poor and his wife and children had just barely enough to eat... they swore never to lend him any more money because he never paid back.” (5) Unoka had never taught Okonkwo what was right and wrong, and as a result Okonkwo had to interpret how to be a “good man”. Okonkwo’s self-interpretation leads him to conclude that a “good man” was someone who was the exact opposite of his father and therefore anything that his father did was weak and unnecessary.
Okonkwo’s fear leads him to treat members of his family harshly, in particular his son, Nwoye. Okonkwo often wonders how he, a man of great strength and work ethic, could have had a son who was “degenerate and effeminate” (133). Okonkwo thought that, "No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man" (45).
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Following Okonkwo’s seven year exile (due to Okonkwo’s accidental killing of a member of the tribe at Ogbuefi’s funeral -the climax of the novel or Aristotle’s definition of a dramatic reversal), the village Okonkwo once knew has changed due to the influence of Christianity and the influence of the British. Okonkwo’s initial reaction is to arm the clan against the colonists and drive the British out of Igbo. “Now he (the white man) has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He (the white man) has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (152). Okonkwo had always used his strength and courage to protect the community from destabilizing forces, and because Okonkwo was a traditional man the introduction of Christianity posed a threat to all the values, morals and beliefs he sought to protect. Okonkwo resists change at every step and instead resorts to violence toward anything he perceived as a threat to his culture or values.
Okonkwo’s arrogant pride makes him believe that the clan leaders would eventually reunite the clan and drive the British colonists out of Umuofia (especially following his imprisonment along with a few clansmen for burning a church as a result of the Enoch’s unmasking of an egwugwu in public). Hoping that the clan will follow his lead, Okonkwo beheads a messenger of the British who was sent to break up a village meeting regarding the possibility of going to war. However, the clan instead of following Okonkwo’s symbolic action is shocked by Okonkwo’s brutality. Okonkwo recognizes (“anagnorisis”) “that Umuofia would not go to war”, because the clan “had broken into tumult instead of action”. Okonkwo knows that he must now face his disgrace alone.
The Igbo culture had made Okonkwo a hero, but the Igbo culture changed with the coming of the British colonists. Okonkwo, a hero, would rather die than be humiliated his enemies and by committing suicide Okonkwo prevented the European colonizers from getting revenge. Aristotle’s statement, “Man, when perfect, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all”, embodies the rise and fall of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s novel. Okonkwo, like many tragic heroes before him, maybe a hero but his tragic flaw prevents him from achieving true greatness as a human being.