[Ikemefuna] was by nature a very lively boy and he gradually became popular in Okonkwo’s household, especially with the children. Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, who was two years younger, became quite inseparable from him because he seemed to know everything.
Ikemefuna came to Umuofia as a sacrifice for his home village after a Umuofian was unjustly murdered there. As this quote from Chapter 4 indicates, however, Ikemefuna’s outsider status quickly dissipates as he develops close emotional ties with the members of Okonkwo’s household. Ikemefuna grows especially close to Nwoye. The boys’ friendship improves Nwoye’s well-being, softening the harsh effects of Okonkwo’s high expectations, but Nwoye’s attachment to Ikemefuna increases the emotional ramifications when Umuofia’s elders decide to execute Ikemefuna.
Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength. He therefore treated Ikemefuna as he treated everybody else—with a heavy hand. But there was no doubt that he liked the boy. Sometimes when he went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goat-skin bag. And, indeed, Ikemefuna called him father.
Although Okonkwo habitually guards himself against expressing emotions, this description in Chapter 4 demonstrates that Okonkwo’s lack of expressiveness doesn’t mean he lacks affection. In this instance, Ikemefuna inspires feelings of fatherly love in Okonkwo, who in turn treats Ikemefuna like a favored son. The fact that Ikemefuna accompanies Okonkwo to village meetings and feasts demonstrates that Ikemefuna has become an increasingly important member of Umuofia society, and not just of Okonkwo’s home. Ikemefuna’s favored status makes his eventual execution both more surprising and more tragic.
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.
Here, a group of men pretend to escort Ikemefuna back to his home village, all the while planning to execute him on the way. Ikemefuna senses that something is not right, but he overcomes this fear by convincing himself that Okonkwo, who has treated him like his son and who has effectively become his father, would not allow anything bad to befall him. Ikemefuna’s justification increases the tension of the scene and amplifies the tragic moment when Okonkwo strikes Ikemefuna’s death blow.