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Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe: Loss Of Identity

3905 words (16 pages) Essay in English Literature

29/06/17 English Literature Reference this

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Research Question: how does male dominance, reputation, and responsibility lead to the downfall of Okonkwo’s and other character’s identity.

My research paper has to do with the loss of identity of the main character as well as others. The conflicting battles they had with themselves and society as a whole.

I believe this is important because within this novel, “Things Fall Apart”, there are countless conflicts that mostly ended in disarray. My gist was that the underlying themes within this novel were mostly responsible for these conflicts and so I took it upon myself to scrutinize the novel and find out for myself.

In doing so, I heavily relied on the novel attained from my high school and researched other people’s perceptions concerning this topic. Through writing this paper I have made clear the motifs in this novel such as letting power control you instead of vice versa and such things were the cause of many character’s downfall or rise within the novel.

Loss of Identity in Things Fall Apart

From reading the novel “Things Fall Apart”, you instantly pick up idea that the world of the Igbo people is engulfed in ancestral believes and hierarchy. These notions are strongly embedded within the society that the village’s resistance to the European rein by force rumbles disarray in the society. The reader is reminded of a similar paradigm in the days of Queen Elizabeth the first. From an Igbo’s view, one could pronounce that the emergence of the Europeans might have triggered the chaos follow-on their meddling with Igbo traditions. The foremost adjustment of these set in stone conventional cultures alarmed mainly the customary authority accredited to men by their known patriarchal society. Moreover, the characters’ keenness for male dominance undoubtedly interrupted various aspects of the existing ancestral believes and hierarchy, particularly reputation and responsibility which were deemed manly traits. Even more so, these traits amount to the main standard for measuring a man’s respect and authority/dominance.

The dominance of the male characters emerges inherent, within the Igbo patriarchal community where “power is usually cited as the most important factor used by men to construct their own identities as the ‘engendered representatives of humanity.”(OLI) This sort of power is portrayed at the physical level as well as on a social and interactive level. On the physical level, people who tend to be lazy are regarded as an agbala, which means a woman in Igbo. This idea is vividly illustrated through Onkonkwo’s father. Okonkwo himself achieved fame after showing his strength when he defeated Amalinze in a wrestling contest. This is the first account we have of Okonkwo’s t physical strength and ability; Okonkwo asserts comparison to the “coercive physical power” exercised by the British colonisers upon Umuofia people, and which Okonkwo uses to punish his wives (EP, p.52).

On the social plane, we are introduced to a structural supremacy which involves several privileges accorded to the person by the tribe they belong to. We see this being exemplified through Ogbuefi Ezeudu a character who “had been a great and fearless warrior in his time, and was now accorded a great respect in all the clan.” (TFA, p.57). The positive male supremacy is the ideology employed in contrast to the coercive physical power. These perceptions were values customary to clans and established by the elders as a primary foundation of their ancestral beliefs and hierarchy in the Umuofia village. Within this novel, we observe the direct link between male dominance/authority and reputation. Effectively, the structural supremacy is accorded on the basis of the person’s intelligence, and as well as some principles defined by the clan. Reputation however becomes the fulcrum around which most aspects of their ancestral beliefs and hierarchy turn. A reputation being the main focus in the organised Umuofia system is stressed upon by fact that it is a standout feature of people who are capable to accede to the leadership of the clan. Subsequently, these people (men) show a great sense of responsibility because they do not want to be viewed as failures and also to encourage values that guarantee the continuation of the ancestral beliefs and hierarchy in the clan. Likewise any man who fails to attain authority or dominance loses his identity as a true member of the tribe.

Consequently, my distress lies in depicting how male dominance, reputation, and responsibility have all directed to the downfall of Okonkwo and other characters’ identity.

Situated in Igboland approaching the beginning of the twentieth century, Things Fall Apart is embodied via the overlapping of various premises among which one is able to pull out male dominance, reputation, responsibility, collisions of cultures, ancestral beliefs and hierarchy. The novel points out the disarray as well as the incompatible circumstances caused by the onset of the white Europeans who on their arrival brought with them a new religion, new ways of going about life, and a shift in paradigm. The beginning phase of “Things Fall Apart” limns the integrated community of Umuofia Village, with its kingship political system.  The reader also experiences the initial exposure of male power through the central figure, Okonkwo who is portrayed as a strong fearless warrior whose celebrity status is undeniable across the Igboland,

“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 honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino”. (TFA, p.3)

Okonkwo’s reputation is given more weight by the narrator who stresses on the physical account that discloses much about his personality and gives the reader insight into the main character and his capabilities:

That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan. He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said that, when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough; he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father. (TFA, pg.3-4)

At this point you could come to the conclusion that Okonkwo is satisfied with his accomplishments taking into account his authority as a man and status within the community. In accordance to Ada Uzoamaka Azado: “In the Umuofia community of Things Fall Apart, Igbo men are constrained to achieve and flaunt [male superiority], in order to be seen and respected.” (EP, p.50) (OLI) The Nigerian civilization described within the novel has been established by patriarchy which is intern manifested throughout the novel. Regardless of the concept of Nneka, which in translation means “Mother is Supreme,” which brings to mind the assertion that “the most important factor with regard to the woman in traditional society is her role as mother”, women are often measured and represented as possessions of men: “In domestic terms, women are reckon as part of a man’s acquisitions. Hence, women are regarded in the Umuofia community as part of the several measures perceived to be associated to masculinity. The seclusion of female characters from the social hierarchy is hammered on by the narrator. “It was clear from the way the crowd stood or sat that the ceremony was for men.” (TFA, pg.87). However this circumstance is not typical to Umuofia alone. Actuality, in pre-colonial African culture, women were deemed inferior and not at pair with the opposite sex.

It is then not surprising when the author controverts Okonkwo’s father to him. His father Unoka is presented as a sluggish and irresponsible drunk;

Unoka, for that was his father’s name, had died ten years ago. In his day he was a lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow. If any money came his way, and it seldom did, he immediately bought gourds of palm-wine, called round his neighbors and made merry. He always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime. Unoka was, of course, a debtor, and he owed every neighbor some money, from a few cowries to quite substantial amounts. (TFA, pg.4)

His father’s irresponsibility is portrayed through his failure to manage money properly. His main aim is to drink palm wine and to make merry with his friends. He is talked about as a failure, an agbala. He endured mockery just because he did not live up to the standards set for men in the community;

Unoka, the grown-up, was a failure. He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat. People laughed at him because he was a loafer, and they swore never to lend him any more money because he never paid back. /…/ Unoka was never happy when it came to wars. He was in fact a coward and could not bear the sight of blood. And so he changed the subject and talked about music, and his face beamed. (TFA, pp.5-6)

The subdued image of Unoka is by no means accidental. Achebe uses this as a medium to represent male dominance in the Igbo society as well as to depict the perception against men who do not succeed. Therefore, one comes to the realisation that male dominance within the novel is strongly associated with the individual’s own pursuit for identity. This elucidates the motive behind the main character’s unending efforts to attain power which is threatened in novel from time to time. Simply, Okonkwo aims to characterize himself in the sense of creating an image that regarded as the real man with all authority accredited to him in this patriarchal community

Okonkwo appears, first, as a successful man who has achieved the self-fulfilment he tries to look for. As Ifeoma Onyemelukwe states:   

[Okonkwo] is the man who was able to resolve his identity crisis in late adolescence. At age 18 he had developed self-confidence, a high self-concept, and self-esteem and had high achievement motivation as typical of the average Igbo man. The consequence of this is his reverberating achievement and celebrity. (EP, p.37)

Okonkwo’s bodily strength in combination with the man’s keenness to attain social climax moulded a very commanding persona which is fit for such a patriarchal community.   The ideology of the male character as an influential and commanding individual is subsequently toughened by the image of the agbala which generally alludes to fruitless or sluggish men. Onyemelukwe comments: 

Things Fall Apart depicts very successful Okonkwo as showing no empathy or sympathy to less fortunate men like his father, Unoka. Such individuals, to his mind, are simply agbala (Igbo word for woman) or she-men.  

It is not surprising that Okonkwo stands out in the novel as a macho man with a great deal of self-esteem and self-confidence.            

The cap fits Okonkwo in many instances in the given description. Achebe portrays him as one who is neither patient nor tolerant. (EP, pp. 37-38) 

Okonkwo’s authority is as a result of his will to attain success. This is evidently highlighted within the novel:  

But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands. That was why Okonkwo had been chosen by the nine villages to carry a message of war to their enemies unless they agreed to give up a young woman and a virgin to atone for the murder of Udo’s wife. (TFA, pg.27)

Achebe allows the speaker to broaden the confines of Okonkwo’s authority, evoking what his own father could not achieve: accomplishing himself as a man and building up his reputation. However, Okonkwo was unsuccessful in effectively conveying the authority he possessed. One might argue that the power controlled his actions and in the end the rationale behind his failure may be to shed light on the flaws of the hero blinded by his reputation of and his edge to climb up on the social ladder.

Okonkwo’s reputation drops suddenly following his accidental murder of a young boy. He is no longer deemed as the figure of authority, fame and masculinity just because a bullet from his gun inadvertently killed a young boy. In addition, the laws and regulations customary to the Igbo community demands that any being found guilty of taking another’s life must be banished to his or her motherland. This in contrast to Okonkwo’s macho personality highlights the shame that adorn him.

“Overnight, great Okonkwo, the great warrior, the great warrior, the great wrestler, one of the most outstanding achievers of his time, most respected and revered, loses all he has laboured to achieve just in the twinkle of an eye. His hope or remaining “one of the lords of the clan,” is shattered.  

His flight to Mbanta implies starting life afresh, from the scratch. It means loss of self-esteem, peace, happiness. His ego is obviously punctured. His fame transforms into shame. His identity crumbles. Crises and conflict set in again”. (EP, pp.41-42)

It is evident that the situation Okonkwo finds himself in is a paradoxical one because, in spite of the patriarchal trend, he is still banished to his mother’s village. This occurrence can be regarded as a device Achebe utilizes to reconstruct the image of women. In this regard the author celebrates the ‘Mother as a Supreme Being’, a concept which is recurrent in Achebe’s writings.

Noticeably, Okonkwo’s return to his motherland plays an important role as it secures him from European influences. At this point, Okonkwo becomes fully aware of his of himself in exile. The identity alteration is first observed by his mother’s brother who pertinently comments.   

“Why is Okonkwo with us today? This is not his clan. We are only his mother’s kinsmen. He does not belong here. He is an exile, condemned for seven years to live in a strange land. And so he is bowed with grief. But there is just one question I would like to ask him. Can you tell me, Okonkwo, why it is that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka, or “Mother is Supreme?” We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding. A child belongs to its father and his family and not to its mother and her family. A man belongs to his fatherland and not to his motherland”. (TFA, pg.133)

The speaker highlights Okonkwo’s responsiveness to his loss of identity. “[He] knew these things. He knew that he had lost his place among the nine masked spirits who administered justice in the clan.” (TFA, p.171) However, his return in the subsequent lines stress upon his reputation and responsibility:  

He was determined that his return should be marked by his people. He would return with a flourish, and regain the seven wasted years. /…/ Even in his first year in exile he had begun to plan his return. (TFA, pp.171)

One might wonder if the changes that have occurred in his society would allow him to achieve his reintegration without troubles. However taking into account Okonkwo we knew at the early stages of the novel, you would come to think that his return would once more rekindle the ancestral beliefs and hierarchy within the village of Umuofia. Nonetheless the overlapping of models like reputation, male dominance, and responsibility are such that they compose in a common focus characterised by violent behaviour and also the downfall of Okonkwo’s fame and persona

Revisiting Okonkwo’s reassimilation within his society, he is put in the skeleton of the above body depicting that his final condition is by no means perchance. Effectively, Okonkwo composes a blend of male dominance, reputation, and responsibility. Okonkwo’s petulance and zeal to succeed demonstrates the fundamental nature of his character. Hence, the violent condition that has propelled Okonkwo into an inevitable downfall is a produce of the overlapping of male dominance, reputation and responsibility.

The society of Umuofia is structured such that man must climb up on the social ladder if he wants to gain respect in the community. The other side of the coin is set aside for women, or in this case, men incapable of achieving masculinity. In effect, the permutation female honour / power do not lead to a decline because a woman moving upward on the social ladder is tantamount to re-examination. It’s an amelioration of their rank and cannot be viewed as a downfall. This is also evident in Achebe’s works; “A Man of the People” and the “Devil on the Cross” when Eunice and Warrîînga respectively, rid themselves of their male tyrannisers. These individuals found their identity and repositioned themselves at superiors on the social ladder and hierarchy.  In consequence, Okonkwo who is unable to find some of his previous attributes is, inevitably excluded from his rank on the social hierarchy. No longer is he perceived as a role model that he was and, as a result, declines on the hierarchy as low as an agbala, like his father. Okonkwo’s shift on the social hierarchy is negative. The only factor resultant from the overlapping talked about themes is violence. Eunice uses this as a tool however; this is not the same in Okonkwo’s situation. In the first instance, violence is utilized at the personal level to liberate themselves from the Europeans, whiles the second instance has an effect on the entire village of Umuofia. Moreover, because the violence in the case of Okonkwo is not tied to one person, the reparation thereafter is irrepressible and, ‘things fall apart’.

To shed light on Okonkwo’s failure, Achebe distances the main character from the various revolutions taking place and affecting the people of Umuofia. The author shows a significant role in conjunction to his banishment and uses that as a tool to segregate Okonkwo from the occurring changes. The altercation is no more among Okonkwo and his community, but his cultural beliefs and the European imposed culture. In point of fact, the Europeans having accomplished their efforts in convincing the Igbo people, Okonkwo is left standing alone defending the traditions of Umuofia. His accomplishments and disappointments rest on his capability to formulate a suitable decision of the three principles that constitute to his personality: reputation, male dominance, and responsibility

Okonkwo inhabits a society where male dominance is the focal point of traditional beliefs. The patriarchy that he and many others have emulated from ancestral traditions vitalizes him to adopt a mind-set of superiority over the opposite sex by abusing his wives. Okonkwo rose to fame as early as the age of eighteen and since then has been most certainly blinded by fame. As a result, his main aim is to stay at the peak of his power. Okonkwo then shifts from a well-liked hero to a villain. This shift in Okonkwo’s character demonstrates violence as a predestined outcome of the transformations which affected Okonkwo’s community. For Okonkwo and many others like himself, the only respond is through violence.

Achebe exemplifies Okonkwo’s calamity as a character falling victim to social violence on the one hand, but also of himself on the other. The first of the violence is one brought upon the Village of Umuofia by European colonisers. This violence was physically imposed and it goes up against the two different lifestyles and their cultures. The second is violence imposed by traditions on the characters. For example; Okonkwo serves seven years banishment for having killed a Klansman; the intentionally killing of twin children to avoid a curse that may strike the village; also Ikemefuna as young as she is sacrificed to Ani (the Earth goddess,) to provide justice after the death of a member of the neighbouring village.

Also the individual violence Okonkwo works out on his own personality. We first observe this particular type of conflict mentally. This was where he strongly believed in recapturing his lost identity and to achieve his cause, he ends up as the physical victim of his own violence choosing to hang himself rather than fall into captivity. However, in doing this, he sheds off his reputation. 

It is apparent that the last few sections of Things Fall Apart reveal an Okonkwo who has come to terms with his failure, and tries to evoke his identity. Okonkwo now is not the same

Okonkwo who “said yes strongly; so his chi agreed” (TFA, pg.27). Sadly for Okonkwo, he came to realisation a little late and his strive to keep the little honour he had prove to be futile. Consequentially, committing suicide is gaze at as a taboo: “It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offence against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen.” (TFA, pg. 207). He is forsaken even in death just because his ordeal was against [their] custom.” (TFA, pg.207). However, the speakers convey some compassion through Obierika: 

Obierika, who had been gazing steadily at his friend’s body, turned suddenly to the District Commissioner and said ferociously: “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog…” He could not say any more. His voice trembled and choked his words. (TFA, pg.208)


The narrator attributes the blame of Okonkwo’s death to the District Commissioner’s men. And at this point Achebe condemns the negative and brutal aspects of the arrival of the colonisers in Africa in general and the Igboland in particular. Things Fall Apart can also be considered as a novel that Achebe uses to epitomise the irrationality of certain traditions which in the end have overwhelming effects on the individual and the entire society. Hence I conclude with this famous quote by W.B Yeats,

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Word count: 3,582

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