After their release, the prisoners return to the village with such brooding looks that the women and children from the village are afraid to greet them. The whole village is overcome with a tense and unnatural silence. Ezinma takes Okonkwo some food, and she and Obierika notice the whip marks on his back.
The village crier announces another meeting for the following morning, and the clan is filled with a sense of foreboding. At sunrise, the villagers gather. Okonkwo has slept very little out of excitement and anticipation. He has thought it over and decided on a course of action to which he will stick no matter what the village decides as a whole. He takes out his war dress and assesses his smoked raffia skirt, tall feather headgear, and shield as in adequate condition. He remembers his former glories in battle and ponders that the nature of man has changed. The meeting is packed with men from all of the clan’s nine villages.
The first speaker laments the damage that the white man and his church have done to the clan and bewails the desecration of the gods and ancestral spirits. He reminds the clan that it may have to spill clansmen’s blood if it enters into battle with the white men. In the middle of the speech, five court messengers approach the crowd. Their leader orders the meeting to end. No sooner have the words left the messenger’s mouth than Okonkwo kills him with two strokes of his machete. A tumult rises in the crowd, but not the kind for which Okonkwo hopes: the villagers allow the messengers to escape and bring the meeting to a conclusion. Someone even asks why Okonkwo killed the messenger. Understanding that his clan will not go to war, Okonkwo wipes his machete free of blood and departs.
He had already chosen the title of the book . . . The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
When the District Commissioner arrives at Okonkwo’s compound, he finds a small group of men sitting outside. He asks for Okonkwo, and the men tell him that Okonkwo is not at home. The commissioner asks a second time, and Obierika repeats his initial answer. The commissioner starts to get angry and threatens to imprison them all if they do not cooperate. Obierika agrees to lead him to Okonkwo in return for some assistance. Although the commissioner does not understand the gist of the exchange, he follows Obierika and a group of clansmen. They proceed to a small bush behind Okonkwo’s compound, where they discover Okonkwo’s body dangling from a tree. He has hanged himself.
Obierika explains that suicide is a grave sin and his clansmen may not touch Okonkwo’s body. Though they have sent for strangers from a distant village to help take the body down, they also ask the commissioner for help. He asks why they cannot do it themselves, and they explain that his body is evil now and that only strangers may touch it. They are not allowed to bury it, but again, strangers can. Obierika displays an uncharacteristic flash of temper and lashes out at the commissioner, blaming him for Okonkwo’s death and praising his friend’s greatness. The commissioner decides to honor the group’s request, but he leaves and orders his messengers to do the work. As he departs, he congratulates himself for having added to his store of knowledge of African customs.
The commissioner, who is in the middle of writing a book about Africa, imagines that the circumstances of Okonkwo’s death will make an interesting paragraph or two, if not an entire chapter. He has already chosen the title:
It is in Okonkwo’s nature to act rashly, and his slaying of the messenger constitutes an instinctive act of self-preservation. Not to act would be to reject his values and traditional way of life. He cannot allow himself or, by extension, his clan to be viewed as cowardly. There is certainly an element of self-destructiveness in this act, a kind of martyrdom that Okonkwo willingly embraces because the alternative is to submit to a world, law, and new order with which he finds himself inexorably at odds.
Unoka’s words regarding the bitterness of failing alone come to have real significance in Okonkwo’s life. In fact, they can be seen as a fatalistic foreshadowing of the bitter losses that befall Okonkwo despite his efforts to distance himself from his father’s model of indolence and irresponsibility. He values his personal success and status over the survival of the community and, having risen to the top of the clan’s economic and political heap alone, he fails alone.
Okonkwo’s lack of concern for the fate of his community is manifested when, before the clan-wide meeting, he doesn’t bother to exchange greetings with anyone. He is not interested in the fate of anyone other than himself. Despite his great success and prestige, he dies in ignominy like his titleless, penniless father. This solitude persists even after his life ends, as the supposed taking over of his body by evil spirits renders his clan unable to handle his burial.
One way of understanding Okonkwo’s suicide is as the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding his fear of failure. He is so afraid of ending up precisely the way he does end up that he brings about his own end in the worst manner imaginable. No one forces his hand when he slays the messenger; rather, the act constitutes a desperate attempt to reassert his manhood. The great tragedy of the situation is that Okonkwo ignores far more effective but less masculine ways to resist the colonialists. Ultimately, Okonkwo’s sacrifice seems futile and empty.
The novel’s ending is dark and ironic. The District Commissioner is a pompous little man who thinks that he understands indigenous African cultures. Achebe uses the commissioner, who seems a character straight out of
Whereas Achebe has written an entire book about Okonkwo, he suggests that a European account of Okonkwo would likely portray him as a grunting, cultureless savage who inexplicably and senselessly kills a messenger. Achebe also highlights one of the reasons that early ethnographic reports were often offensively inaccurate: when Obierika asks the commissioner to help him with Okonkwo’s body, the narrator tells us that “the resolute administrator in [the commissioner] gave way to the student of primitive customs.” The same people who control the natives relay the accepted accounts of colonized cultures—in a manner, of course, that best suits the colonizer’s interest.
Achebe’s novel seeks at least in part to provide an answer to such inaccurate stereotypes. Okonkwo is by no means perfect. One can argue that his tragedy is of his own making. One can also argue that his