Okonkwo’s first son, Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness. At any rate, that was how it looked to his father, and he sought to correct him by constant nagging and beating. And so Nwoye was developing into a sad-faced youth.
As these words from Chapter 2 demonstrate, Okonkwo places great pressure on his eldest son from an early age. Okonkwo’s anxiety about Nwoye’s laziness relates directly to Okonkwo’s disappointment in his father, Unoka, who had lived a life of unproductivity. To prevent Nwoye from taking after Unoka, Okonkwo resorts to verbal and physical violence. Okonkwo’s treatment seems to alienate and sadden Nwoye more than motivate him.
Okonkwo encouraged the boys to sit with him in his obi, and he told them stories of the land—masculine stories of violence and bloodshed. Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories that his mother used to tell, and which she no doubt still told to her younger children—stories of the tortoise and his wily ways, and of the bird eneke-nti-oba who challenged the whole world to a wrestling contest and was finally thrown by the cat.
In addition to treating Nwoye harshly, Okonkwo indoctrinates his son into a traditional understanding of masculinity. As indicated here in Chapter 7, such indoctrination involves regaling Nwoye with violent stories, even though Nwoye actually prefers the more creative tales his mother tells. Nwoye’s strong draw to traditionally feminine stories marks an important difference between him and Okonkwo—a difference that foreshadows Nwoye’s eventual abandonment of Igbo ways for the Christian religion.
As soon as his father walked in, that night, Nwoye knew that Ikemefuna had been killed, and something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow. He did not cry. He just hung limp.
This moment, recounted in Chapter 7, represents a turning point for Nwoye in Things Fall Apart. Nwoye cannot live up to Okonkwo’s high expectations, and the execution of Ikemefuna further opens the rift between Nwoye’s personal values and the values of Umuofia. Nwoye loved Ikemefuna like a brother, and Okonkwo had effectively become the boy’s father. The fact that the clan would kill Ikemefuna despite his integration into Umuofia social life causes something to break inside Nwoye.
Nwoye had heard that twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest, but he had never yet come across them. A vague chill had descended on him and his head had seemed to swell, like a solitary walker at night who passes an evil spirit on the way. Then something had given way inside him. It descended on him again, this feeling, when his father walked in, that night after killing Ikemefuna.
Shortly after learning of Ikemefuna’s death in Chapter 7, Nwoye reflects on an Igbo custom in which newborn twins are abandoned in the forest to die. Just as he had experienced discomfort at learning about this tradition, Nwoye experiences a similar feeling when he learns of Ikemefuna’s execution at the hands of the clan, indicating that his own moral compass may not align with that of his society. The rift between Nwoye and Umuofia—and between Nwoye and Okonkwo—continues to grow.
It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul—the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth.
The conclusion of Chapter 16 describes what Nwoye finds appealing about the Christian religion. Although Nwoye doesn’t understand the basic theological principles of the new religion, such as the idea of the Holy Trinity, he feels emotionally drawn to the beautiful hymns. Much like the tales his mother used to tell him, the hymns satisfy his desire for storytelling, and more significantly, they answer questions that had previously remained mysterious for Nwoye, such as why Ikemefuna had to be killed.