He always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime. Unoka was, of course, a debtor, and he owed every neighbor some money, from a few cowries to quite substantial amounts.
Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, had an easygoing philosophy about life, which the narrator describes here in Chapter 1. The basic premise of Unoka’s life philosophy was this: a person must take full advantage of life while still alive. As sound as this philosophy may seem, the next sentence undercuts it with subtle irony, indicating that Unoka’s way of living resulted in him becoming a debtor and therefore a drag on society. The irony of this passage underscores Okonkwo’s frustration with his father’s apparent laziness.
Unoka was never happy when it came to wars. He was in fact a coward and could not bear the sight of blood. And so he changed the subject and talked about music, and his face beamed. He could hear in his mind’s ear the blood-stirring and intricate rhythms of the ekwe and the udu and the ogene, and he could hear his own flute weaving in and out of them, decorating them with a colorful and plaintive tune.
Compared to Okonkwo, who has proven himself a formidable wrestler and fierce warrior, Unoka never excelled in any context that demanded violence. Instead, Unoka strongly preferred the arts, and he was a particularly enthusiastic musician. Okonkwo looks down on Unoka for his failure to live up to masculine standards, but here the narrator offers an alternative perspective, enabling the reader to see how music profoundly affected Unoka’s sense of well-being. Thematically, Unoka’s love for music connects him to his grandson, Nwoye, whom Okonkwo also demonizes for his apparent laziness and love of feminine activities.
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. When a man was afflicted with swelling in the stomach and the limbs he was not allowed to die in the house.
Unoka died from abdominal swelling, which the Igbo interpret as an abomination. To prevent divine wrath, Unoka’s family had to banish him from the house, so that he would die outside and remain there unburied. The conditions of Unoka’s death make it seem that Unoka’s personal god betrayed him. This description goes some way to justify Okonwko’s harsh evaluation of his father.