Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Tragic Representation of Repressed Femininity in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

ENG 258 World Literatures
Dr. Rahman - WIU
February 9th 2005

The Tragic Representation of Repressed Femininity in
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Although colonization is an obvious tragedy in Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, his narrative is also a tragedy about self-rejection and self-hatred, which is manifest in Okonkwo’s aggression and fear of femininity. As a tragic warrior, Okonkwo’s greatest battle is with himself. Okonkwo’s rejection of his father, Unoka, is the beginning of his long struggle with self-acceptance. He clings to dichotomous gender roles in his struggle against feminine influences—including those embodied in his family members and the earth—in order to destroy the femininity in himself, and this leads to his destruction. Humans are multifaceted creatures who are best able to move freely along continuums—we defy dichotomous labels of masculinity and femininity, yet those labels strongly influence our sense of identity and comfort in ourselves. Because he allows dichotomous labels to determine his self-worth, Okonkwo feels like an outsider and is tragically consumed by feelings of otherness, fear and self-hatred.

Just as Okonkwo cannot separate himself from his father, he cannot separate his son, Nwoye’s, identity from his own. As Achebe’s narrator describes, Okonkwo is “not a man of thought but of action” (1053). Okonkwo’s impulsivity and critical spirit is a symptom of his self-rejection. He criticizes his son for not being driven to be masculine, but he does not reflect on any resemblances that he and his son may share, believing that Nwoye is hopeless because he is weak like his mother and grandfather (Achebe 1051). Okonkwo rejects his connection to his son in order to preserve his own sense of security, which is dependent on his ability to maintain an image of masculinity.

Nwoye represents the gentler and more reflective qualities in Okonkwo, qualities that Okonkwo fears and represses in order to uphold a masculine image. Though he desires to be in control of every element of his life, he does not have control of himself or those around him. Okonkwo is easily disturbed by anything that he deems weak, including his son, Nwoye, with whom he feels greatly disappointed. He does not attempt to understand Nwoye, and instead, blindly rejects him in order to maintain his belief in strictly dichotomous gender roles.

Similarly, Okonkwo does not recognize or acknowledge potential shown by his daughter, Ezinma, because he is fearful of how it might reflect upon or expose his own femininity. Okonkwo isn’t able to accept her personality because he isn’t able to accept his own. He praises Ezinma, but he cannot do so without commenting on her femaleness, for example, when he tells Obeirika, “If Ezinma had been a boy I would have been happier. She has the right spirit” (Achebe 1051). From his male-centered perspective, he does not see Ezinma as an autonomous individual with potential, but as a woman with unusual potential that is useless because she was not born a man. Okonkwo feels sorry for himself, wishing that she had been a boy instead of being happy that he has a female child with a strong spirit. His spirit is never at ease because he compulsively struggles to put his surroundings into categories, as being either masculine and decent or feminine and inferior.

Okonkwo is critical of the world around him because he is critical of himself. He meets a tragic end because his self-hatred and rejection of parts of his being cause him to act out in a destructive manner. He is driven by his emotions of disgust for anything remotely feminine and overcome by a need to prove his own masculinity. Even though he has allowed the young man to call him father, Okonkwo does not think, but immediately acts on impulse when he is faced with the choice of whether to kill Ikemefuna. Okonkwo chooses to kill his son because “he was afraid of being thought weak” (Achebe 1049). He thoughtlessly destroys anything that threatens to come between him and masculinity, not coming to terms with his actions or repenting for his betrayal of Ikemefuna, but instead, continuing to ignore and reject his feelings of remorse.

Okonkwo’s rejection of his feelings is also, in part, a rejection of the earth because the earth is associated with femininity and embodied in the figure of a goddess. Okonkwo rejects passivity and peacefulness because he equates those qualities with weakness. His disregard for the earth is unmistakable when he beats his wife, Ojiungo, during the community’s Week of Peace. Though such an act was easy for Okonkwo to commit, others considered it “unheard of to beat somebody during the sacred week” (1035). Okonkwo’s violence contrasts with the peacefulness that is associated with the earth goddess, and his extreme reactions and lack of restraint reflect his need to repress his own femininity. Violence is the only means through which he feels he can express his inner hostilities and self-hatred in a masculine manner.

Okonkwo’s self-hatred is manifest in his volatile personality—he is driven toward violence and uncomfortable with anything less aggressive. He does not escape his inner battle with his own feminine qualities, and as a result, he meets a tragic end. He cannot accept femininity in others because he is incapable of accepting it in himself, and this renders him isolated from his community. Suicide was merely another one of Okonkwo’s attempts to assert his aggressiveness in order to gain control. It was also an act that was offensive to the earth (1112). Okonkwo does not escape from or overcome his struggle with self-hatred. Instead, he makes a final attempt to destroy what he fears most—losing control. He ends his own battle as most battles end, in violence, never accepting himself or peacefully coming to terms with his fear of femininity.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997. 861.

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