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.
The narrator makes this comment early in the novel, immediately after describing how Okonkwo’s fiery temperament inspires fear in his family members, and particularly in his children. In this quotation, the narrator does not simply distinguish between Okonkwo’s outward behavior and his internal thoughts. Instead, the narrator suggests that Okonkwo does not fully know his own thoughts and feelings, and that his life is unknowingly dominated by fear. This means that Okonkwo represses his fear, and his outward cruelty results directly from this repression.
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.
Here the narrator slightly revises the earlier implication that Okonkwo does not know his own thoughts and feelings. This quotation suggests, alternatively, that Okonkwo does have some awareness of an emotional life rooted solely in the “masculine” expression of anger. In this case, the narrator points to Okonkwo having a soft spot for his children, and particularly for his adopted surrogate son, Ikemefuna. Despite the affection he feels, however, Okonkwo’s long-held assumptions about masculine behavior prevent him from externalizing that affection, so he overcompensates with unkindness.
Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut [Ikemefuna] down. He was afraid of being thought weak.
Despite the deep affection that Okonkwo has for Ikemefuna, his deep fear of failure and weakness ultimately wins out. Achebe renders the moment of Ikemefuna’s execution concisely, but with great psychological complexity. Before Okonkwo brings down his machete, Ikemefuna has already been struck by another man. In his shock, the boy turns to Okonkwo for help. At once feeling and fearing the filial bond that he has developed with Ikemefuna, Okonkwo instinctively resorts to a demonstration of strength that violently represses his affection.