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This paper brings out the conflicting traits in the character of Okonkwo with an objective to bring out the tragic hero in him. In investigating if Okonkwo was a hero or a coward, and ultimately demonstrating the tragic hero he was, this essay will bring into perspective the high drama of his family in comparison to the collective fate of his clan the Umuofia.
Okonkwo the main character in Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," bears the traits that can be compared to that of a tragic hero. Okonkwo was what the Greek would call "hubris". He was the son of an indolent man who was only famous for his laziness and debts to everyone. Okonkwo did not desire to emulate his father a man of peace and gentleness. As a boy, Okonkwo fought and won a wrestling match with Amalinze the "cat". Amalinze had held the wrestling title for seven long years. This fight greatly endeared Okonkwo to his Umuofia clansmen since it was the most ferocious fight in a long time. Okonkwo was regarded as one of the greatest ambassadors of Umuofia and received the admiration of being "possessed" by the spirits." Okonkwo considered himself as superior to his own tribesmen.
It is imperative to note that Unoka, Okonkwo's father was a failure who was despised by his clansmen for being a loafer whom they would never again lend money to. Unoka had before his death, sought the wisdom of the priestess of the Oracle and the Hills, to find out the cause of his misfortunes in life. The priestess makes it known to Unoka that his misery was as a direct result of laziness. Unoka's death is seen as reflection of his life in misery as depicted in the Authors' words 'Unoka was an ill-fated man. He had a bad 'chi' or personal god, and evil fortune followed him to the grave, or rather to his death, for he had no grave. He died of the swelling which was an abomination to the earth goddess "He was carried to the evil forest and left there to die' (Chinua, 1958). p.13).
It follows that it was in the Umuofia custom that in case a "man was afflicted with swelling in the stomach and the limbs he was not allowed to die in the house. He was carried to the Evil Forest and left there to die. There was the story of a very stubborn man who staggered back to his house and had to be carried out again to the forest and tied to a tree. The sickness was an abomination to the earth, and so the victim could not be buried in her bowels. He died and rotted away above the earth, and was not given the first or the second burial" (Chinua, 1958. p. 17).
Okonkwo is seen in direct contrast to his father's fate although there seems to be a dark shadow cast over his life by the misery of his father's life. Luckily for Okonkwo, the tribesmen judged a man according to his own worth and not by his father's worth. Okonkwo is seen to rise from abject poverty as a boy to a wealthy farmer, and one among the lords of his clan. Okonkwo, unlike his father who was a man of peace and gentleness Okonkwo, demonstrated unbelievable prowess in two inter-tribal wars with such admirable zeal that he achieves to his credit five human heads brought from the wars. The fight he had with Amalinze had been the most fierce since the fight between a spirit of the wild and the founder of their town which lasted seven days and seven nights (Chinua,1958. p.3). Okonkwo becomes famous in and beyond all the nine villages of his tribesmen for his solid personal achievements.
Okonkwo is seen as a tall and well built genius, which portrays the benchmark of complete potential among his tribesmen. Though still youthful Okonkwo is highly respected among his clansmen contrary to the norm where according to the author "... age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered" (Chinua, 1958. p. 6). The author gives some valuable insight into the mind of Okonkwo "But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and the weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. 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" (Chinua, 1958. p.10).
Okonkwo tries to delete the embarrassing reminiscences of his father. Okonkwo detest any open exhibition of gentleness, affection, and warmth. He "ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children" (Chinua, 1958. p.9). The only emotion that Okonkwo is able to express without reservation is anger. This is seen where he ruthlessly beats-up his youngest wife for going to plait her hair before she makes lunch for Okonkwo. He later batters his second wife for equally trivial reasons. Okonkwo is later warned not to participate in the slaughter of a young boy, Ikemefuna, who had lived in Okonkwo's household for three years.
Okonkwo disregards the warning and kills the boy. This is followed by several misfortunes that cause Okonkwo to be banished from his community. The same 'chi' that was his father's source of misery seems to follow him. Okonkwo losses all the glory he had enjoyed among his tribesmen and the irony is his manner of death was also an abomination worse than that of Unoka his indolent father "It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offence against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it" (Chinua.1958. p. 186).