When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often.
In Chapter 1, the narrator describes Okonkwo as a physically intimidating man who exhibits a generally aggressive personality. Well-known for his wrestling prowess, Okonkwo seems to threaten attack even while walking. This quote offers one of the first suggestions that Okonkwo’s violent tendencies border on being socially inappropriate.
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of 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.
In Chapter 2, the narrator speculates on the deep-seated motive behind Okonkwo’s violent tendencies. Okonkwo acts from a place of fear, but his fear doesn’t resemble the prevalent terrors of his clan, which relate to the supernatural world. Instead, Okonkwo suffers from the existential fear that he will not succeed in life and thus end up like his unremarkable father. Okonkwo’s existential fear plays a major thematic role in Things Fall Apart, since it drives Okonkwo to perform several acts of tremendous violence.
[Okonkwo] walked back to his obi to await Ojiugo’s return. And when she returned he beat her very heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess.
Here Okonkwo beats Ojiugo for failing to cook his evening meal, losing himself so thoroughly in anger that he refuses to stop even when reminded that such violence breaks the peace of the sacred week. The idea that Okonkwo does not fear divine wrath for his transgression is ironic, given that he’s otherwise so committed to Igbo religion. Such an irony marks an important rift between Okonkwo’s commitment to his clan and his commitment to his own power.
Somehow Okonkwo could never become as enthusiastic over feasts as most people. He was a good eater and he could drink one or two fairly big gourds of palm-wine. But he was always uncomfortable sitting around for days waiting for a feast or getting over it. He would be very much happier working on his farm.
Whereas “most people” feel enthusiastic about feast celebrations and enjoy the festivities in the company of others, Okonkwo feels driven to go back to working alone in the fields. This passage in Chapter 5 reaffirms Okonkwo’s aversion to idleness and how he never wants to appear weak or ineffectual.
As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, “My father, they have killed me!” as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.
This passage from Chapter 7 narrates Okonkwo’s execution of Ikemefuna. This scene represents a tragic culmination of two contrasting emotions in Okonkwo. Okonkwo has grown to love Ikemefuna like a son, but this love amplifies Okonkwo’s fear of being considered weak. In the end his fear wins out. Okonkwo’s act also has significant implications for his future. Not only does the event mark a break in Okonkwo’s relationship with his son Nwoye, who loved Ikemefuna, but the execution represents yet another instance when Okonkwo goes against the wisdom of the clan.
“I do not know how to thank you.”
This dialogue concludes Chapter 15 and marks a rare moment of humor in the novel. When his good friend Obierika visits during his exile in Mbanta and brings him news of Umuofia, Okonkwo feels thankful and wants to express his gratitude. Obierika introduces an element of dark humor in response, which gives both men something to laugh about in an otherwise difficult time. However, the joke Obierika makes about Okonkwo killing himself foreshadows Okonkwo’s tragic end. This moment of levity bears great symbolic weight.
Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation. He saw himself and his fathers crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the while praying to the white man’s god.
In Chapter 17 Okonkwo learns that Nwoye has converted to Christianity, the white men’s religion. Initially enraged, Okonkwo’s thoughts turn fearful as he imagines his clan’s “annihilation” should all of Umuofia’s sons forget their heritage. Okonkwo imagines himself in the afterlife among his forefathers, waiting in vain for his still-living sons to pay tribute to their ancestors. Okonkwo’s anxious vision of a meager afterlife helps explain the depth of his existential fear: the annihilation of the clan means that Okonkwo will be completely abandoned in death.
“Let us not reason like cowards,” said Okonkwo. “If a man comes into my hut and defecates on the floor, what do I do? Do I shut my eyes? No! I take a stick and break his head. That is what a man does.”
In Chapter 18 Okonkwo responds to other clansmen who say that Umuofia has never fought on behalf of its gods and shouldn’t do so now. Okonkwo argues that the white men pose an existential threat that could contaminate Umuofia’s entire way of life. To make his point, Okonkwo likens Umuofia’s situation to one in which a man bursts into another man’s hut and contaminates the space. The only appropriate response to such an act is retaliation. However, Okonkwo doesn’t convince the others to take a strong stand, and the longstanding difference in opinion between him and his fellow clansmen remains intact.
If Umuofia decided on war, all would be well. But if they chose to be cowards he would go out and avenge himself. He thought about wars in the past. The noblest, he thought, was the war against Isike. In those days Okudo was still alive. Okudo sang a war song in a way that no other man could. He was not a fighter, but his voice turned every man into a lion.
After Okonkwo gets released from the white men’s jail in Chapter 24, he commits himself to taking vengeance—even if the rest of the clan lacks the courage to do so. As he sits alone planning, Okonkwo’s thoughts retreat to times past, when Umuofia was at its height and its warriors could be easily stirred into action. Okonkwo’s reliance on idealized images of the past may suggest that, unlike his fellow clansmen, he has failed to reckon with the newness of Umuofia’s current problems. This failure of adaptation will have tragic consequences for Okonkwo.