Gender In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart

1920 words - 8 pages

This paper will look at the contradictions in the work of Chinua Achebe in relation to his placement of woman and femininity. Kristen Holst Petersen states that ‘the African discussion is between feminist emancipation versus the fight against neo-colonialism, particularly in its cultural aspect...which comes first, the fight for female equality or the fight against Western cultural imperialism’. This paper will attempt to highlight these contradictions in relation to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Above all the tribe values physical prowess, it places a great deal of importance on individual achievement, these attributes are in fact intended to ensure the security and permanence of the group. For like most early societies this is a society that is dominated by a passion for survival. Umofia therefore cultivates the notion of the heroic ideal based on physical prowess. The centrality of the yam in the novel highlights the tribe’s respect for physical strength. As a result of the intense muscular effort required for its cultivation the yam crop comes to represent an annual triumph wrested from nature, a signifier of the dialogue between the human world and the natural environment. However a reader soon realizes the contradictions between the constraints of the social ideal, that privileges the interests of the group, and the truths of individual human yearnings.

Unoka, Okonwko’s father, embodies the counter-values that stand in opposition to the rigid social ideal of the tribe. His unorthodox style of living is, it may be argued, a conscious subversion of the manly ideal. His oppositional values are those of art, in tandem with a playful irony and an amorality that resounds with his relaxed disposition to the world. His refusal to abide by the norms of his society turns him into an object of general contempt. The fact that he comes to a particularly bad end seems to vindicate the tribes’ norms. It is important to note that ‘When they carried him away, he took with him his flute’. This is not a minor detail, in effect the reader’s sympathy is attracted by a certain humane simplicity. The portrait we have of Unoka is that of a folk hero whose nonchalance stands as a constant rebuke to the vanities of the great and powerful of the world. A reader will soon realize that his son, Okonkwo, forcefully repudiates the subversive significance of Unoka’s refusal to conform to the prevailing ethos of the tribe.

Okonkwo in effect becomes the antithesis of all that his father represented. And whilst we are not privy to the psychological workings of Okonkwo’s mind we are made aware of his blatant physicality that is projected outward in all directions in effect incarnating him as his society’s ideal of manhood. It is this attitude and manner that develops into an overbearing masculinity. On more than one occasion we are alerted to the fact that Okonkwo’s adoption of the manly ideal is excessive. Obierika seems to have been conceived...

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