Okonkwo is the novel’s protagonist. He’s a gifted athlete and a well-respected warrior, and he possesses a drive to achieve personal distinction among his peers. However, Okonkwo’s drive also leads him to act aggressively and to champion an inflated interpretation of masculinity. Okonkwo’s personality frequently brings him into conflict with others. For instance, his excessive commitment to masculinity comes to a head when he takes responsibility for executing his own adopted son, Ikemefuna.
The killing of Ikemefuna has familial and communal repercussions. For one thing, it breaks the heart of Okonkwo’s eldest son, Nwoye, who had loved Ikemefuna like a brother and feels betrayed by his father’s brutal action. The killing of Ikemefuna also has a symbolic connection to the event that leads to Okonkwo’s exile—an event that affects the Umuofia community at large. Prior to Ikemefuna’s execution, Ogbuefi Ezeudu had warned Okonkwo against participating in the killing. Okonkwo ignores this advice. After Ezeudu dies, Okonkwo accidentally shoots and kills Ezeudu’s son during the burial. The ominous manslaughter of Ezeudu’s son represents a crime against the earth goddess that can only be cleansed by burning Okonkwo’s compound and forcing him into exile.
Over the course of the novel, Okonkwo grows increasingly at odds with the other members of Umuofia and the rest of the nine villages. As European missionaries and civil servants begin to infiltrate the region, Okonkwo wants to protect Igboland against foreign influences. While he longs to maintain traditional values and defend his people’s pride, other members of the nine villages feel increasingly attracted to what the Europeans have to offer. Okonkwo cannot accept the sense of emasculation that comes with the invasion of Europeans into Igbo territory, and he becomes furious as his fellow villagers flock to the missionaries to take advantage of health care and education.
This conflict reaches its climax following the most emasculating event Okonkwo experiences in the novel, when the British arrest him and several other villagers. For Okonkwo the arrest is the last straw, and he wants the villages go to war. But when Okonkwo draws first blood by killing a British messenger, Okonkwo’s peers reject the act, signaling that Okonkwo and his values are no longer relevant. Sensing his final defeat, Okonkwo takes his own life.