Okonkwo as Epic Hero in Things Fall Apart
Achebe’s work, Things Fall Apart, is an epic; it resembles stories about heroes found in many cultures. In these stories, the heroes are extraordinary individuals, whose careers and destinies are not theirs alone, but are bound with the fortunes and destinies of their society. They become heroes by accomplishing great things for themselves and their communities, winning much fame as a result.
Okonkwo fits this pattern. The first paragraph of Things Fall Apart is notable in this respect, for it describes Okonkwo as follows:
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old man agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights. (3)
In an epic story, the hero undergoes many tests, which we can see as rites of passage. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo undergoes such tests, including the wrestling match with Amalinze the Cat, his struggle with the negative legacy of his father, and the struggle to succeed on his own.
Praising heroes is a basic function of epics. As a story about heroes and heroism, the epic tends to be built around a praise song. Put another way, the epic tends to function like a praise song. Things Fall Apart exemplifies this very well; it contains many passages in praise of Okonkwo and other heroic characters. There is, for example, the famous praise song for the champion wrestler, Okafo, which closely mirrors Okonkwo's own achievements:
"Who will wrestle for our village?
Okafo will wrestle for our village.
Has he thrown a hundred men?
He has thrown four hundred men.
Has he thrown a hundred Cats?
He has thrown four hundred Cats.
Then send him word to fight for us." (36)
African praise songs often simultaneously praise and criticize the intended person. The same is true of Things Fall Apart. This novel presents both positive and negatives aspects of Okonkwo. Since we tend to see Okonkwo as representing his society, we can say that Things Fall Apart both celebrates and critically appraises the culture whose tensions and contradictions he embodies.
The contradictions in Okonkwo have deep implications. One of the most troublesome questions concerns the nature of heroism, and Okonkwo's heroism in particular. Is Okonkwo really a hero?
Before we go into this question, let us remember that Okonkwo's culture is achievement-oriented. Achebe makes the following remark about Okonkwo's society:
Age was respected among his people,...