Reviewed by Dr. Soloman O. Iyasere, professor of African-American Literature and African Literature at California State University of Bakersfield
*Essay was written with citations derived only from the text itself as required by the professor.
From the beginning of China Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, we see that the main character of the novel, Okonkwo, is not a man of thought but rather a man of action. This means that he rarely thinks on what he does before he does it and does not seethe consequences of his actions. He exerts a heavy hand on his wives and children as a sign of masculinity and dominance over his household. However, no matter how hard he handles his family, Okonkwo begins to feel an emotional fatherly attachment to his adoptive son Ikemefuna. Throughout the story, unto Ikemefuna’s death, Okonkwo’s relationship with his children create an a contributing factor in the internal conflict between Okonkwo’s reputation and his fatherly instincts.
Okonkwo’s relationship with Ikemefuna begins from the start of the novel. After a woman of the Umuofia tribe is killed at Mbaino village’s market, the Mbaino tribe offers Ikemefuna to Umuofia as recompense for their crime. Ikemefuna is put under Okonkwo’s care for three years until the elders of Umuofia decide that he must die as sacrifice. When Okonkwo takes Ikemefuna into his care, the relationship between the two starts off as nothing else – in the eyes of Okonkwo – but another child to feed.
Ikemefuna, naturally being homesick in the start, progressively adapts to the life of Okonkwo’s family. “At first Ikemefuna was very much afraid. Once or twice he tried to run away, but he did not know where to begin. He thought of his mother and his three-year-old sister and wept bitterly” (p. 27). Young Ikemefuna soon learned that Okonkwo “ruled his household with a heavy hand” (p. 13). However, Okonkwo did not do this because he was a cruel man but rather because “his whole life had been dominated by fear, the fear if failure and of weakness [that he saw in his father]” (p.13). This was the whole underlying reason why Okonkwo renounces all emotional dealings of gentleness and idleness because in his eyes, these such things are effeminate.
No matter how hateful he was towards gentleness, Ikemefuna managed to wiggle his way into the likings of Okonkwo because “he was by nature a very lively boy and he gradually became popular in Okonkwo’s household, especially with the children” (p. 28) and hence, a fatherly bond was created between the two. “[He] himself became very fond of [Ikemefuna]…Sometimes when [Okonkwo] went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts, he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goatskin bag. And indeed, Ikemefuna called him father” (p. 28).
Comparatively, Okonkwo treats his two children, Nwoye and Ezinma differently from his adoptive son Ikemefuna, opening a window to show the large differences and similarities between the three. From the beginning of the novel, Nwoye “was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness” (p.13). However, Okonkwo genuinely cared for daughter Ezinma because of her strong masculine qualities. “I wish she were a boy”, Okonkwo thought within himself. “She understood things so perfectly. Who else among his children could have read his thoughts so well” (p. 173). In comparison, Ikemefuna was well on his way to becoming liked by Okonkwo possibly as much as Okonkwo liked Ezinma. That is to say Ikemefuna cared had what Nwoye lacked; for hie was well-spirited and lively and all the while, even if Okonwko did in fact care for Ikemefuna as much as he did for Ezinma, he chose not show it because of his own fear of weakness that ultimately brings upon his downfall.
The fact that Okonkwo has come to like Ikemefuna and vice versa makes Ezedu warn Okonkwo not to participate in the death of Ikemefuna – once the elders had decided that he should be sacrificed- because as Ezedu said, “that boy calls you father”(p.57). This is the key example of how Okonkwo’s fear of being liked his father – gentle and caring – drives him to make the poor decision of striking down Ikemefuna himself. In order to understand why Okonkwo killed the boy he was becoming closely attached to, one must understand that Okonwko is a man of action and not a man of thought. Yet, the death of the child was all too unbearable for Okonkwo but not so much the death itself but the fact that he had participated in it for fear that if he hadn’t done it himself, he would be seen as weak and cowardly.
By the time Okonkwo has slain his adoptive son, Ikemefuna, Okonkwo is overcome by the emotions of fatherly love and care and in a way also feels guilt and regret yet shows no outward emotion specifically on the matter. Nonetheless, “Okonkwo did not taste any food for two days after the death of Ikemefuna” (p. 63).
Throughout the novel, Ikemefuna was a boy who was liked by his adoptive family and yet became the very epitome of the fear that rages inside Okonkwo. It was not the death of the boy itself that troubled Okonkwo for days but rather because he himself had slaughtered the boy against all wise counsel that urged him not to do so.
I realize that I have only begun to scratch the surface on this particular aspect of the novel but it has been my pleasure to have provided, if any, insight on what the father-son relationship between these two characters represents and how it ties into the tragic fall of Okonkwo.