Okonkwo as Classic Greek Hero in Things Fall Apart
A sense of foreboding envelops us from the first. We sense all will not end well for Umuofia. The chill of fear grips us as the world of Okonkwo and his clan truly falls apart. Okonkwo will need all of his power to fight the forces against his world, but tragically he is crippled by the most destructive malady of all, fear of himself. Achebe employs the form of classical Greek tragedy to tell his African tale of the rise and fall of Okonkwo.
This most fearsome warrior has proven himself from the youngest age as worthy of honor and respect. He is driven by his father's legacy of shame and has no use for unsuccessful men. But as he projects his image of strength, we find that "His whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness." (p. 13) The roots of the fear go deep. "It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father." (p. 13)
For Okonkwo, all things are measured against the traits of his father. To be successful means to be manly. And manliness implies action, physicality, structure, and seeing things in black and white. He is respected for his accomplishment and hard work, but others notice "Okonkwo's brusqueness in dealing with less successful men." (p. 26) To him, they are not men at all. They are weak; as weak as women. And anything to do with idleness and pleasure equate with weakness. "And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion- to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness." (p. 13) Purposefully, Okonkwo has formed the formidable fortress with which he deals with the world.
Okonkwo's tragic flaw is his anger and impetuousness, grounded in fear. He is the classic hero, the strong man of the village. He is victorious in wrestling, providing wealth for his family, and achieving honorary titles. We recognize his ambition, his drive to be the best- his implied excellence. In these introductory chapters, we understand the problem for the hero and his society- change is coming, but the hatred of his father and the resulting anger and fear have afflicted Okonkwo. His flaw will be his downfall in coping with the changes to come.
Okonkwo fears for his disturbingly weak son, Nyowe, and teaches him with his stories- "masculine stories of violence and bloodshed." (p. 53) But Nyowe prefers the stories of his mother- stories which teach wisdom rather than action. Nyowe knows that it pleases his father to listen to his stories, but it is apparent that Nyowe is a thinking person. As Nyowe absorbs the shock of Ikemefuna's death, we feel the first break in the solidarity of the clan. ."Nyowe knew that Ikemefuna had been killed, and something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow." (p. 61) Nyowe is forming his own impressions of the rituals of his society.