The concept of the tragic hero has been present throughout ages of literary work. As defined by Aristotle in his Poetics, the classical tragic hero not only illustrates the tragic nature of the protagonist, but reflects the ideals of the particular civilization or culture in which his story is set. His character is basically good, yet doomed to fail as a result of his hubris—or tragic flaw—which determines the decisions that lead to his eventual fall. Common to most tragic heroes are their convictions which prevent them from realizing an important truth. In most instances, their human ignorance leads to the tragic fall. Regardless, their demise is not an isolated event, as their distinguished social standing causes tragedy to others. Perhaps more significant is the culture of the tragic hero himself: his idealistic principles represent an archetypal model of the quintessential hero of his age and culture, and thus his flaw is often directly associated with these characteristics. Nevertheless, the reader can still relate to the hero, for the rationale of his downfall is intrinsically related to desires and wants that the reader can identify with universal human qualities. His desires do not necessarily mirror those of the reader, yet the hero’s sheer vehemence to protect his status is generally something the audience or reader can identify with or at least pity the loss of. From the lens of the Igbo people, Achebe’s Okonkwo reflects exactly that: a man who immediately benefits from the conventions of his civilization as a result of his zealous dedication to overcoming his initially disadvantaged social position. When European colonizers encroach on Igbo land and threaten the delicate power dynamic Okonkwo has dedicated his life to cultivating, he is understandably outraged; however, his conceit prevents him from rationally responding and adapting to the situation; thus his rigid conformity leads to his tragic downfall.
Okonkwo fundamentally embodies the tragic hero through his obstinate pride in his culture, breeding an ignorance that blocks his emotional adaptability and forewarns of his eventual ‘fall’. In Igbo culture, cultural standing is based off an individual’s work ethic, wealth, and physical prowess; however, Okonkwo’s father pursued an occupation in music, which, from the lens of Igbo social stratification, is culturally valued less than a warrior (Achebe 18). This hierarchical system is not applicable only to the Igbo people, though, as most societies within the 19th century also favored the more practical implementations of combatant forces over musical pleasure. Regardless, Okonkwo dedicates his entire life conforming to these cultural expectations to such an extreme that his consistent admonishment of “unsuccessful” men are considered excessive to other Umuofia residents (Achebe 26). His rigid adherence to cultural standards extends into his perception and physical treatment of family more acutely: the patriarchal nature of Okonkwo’s culture convinces him that his masculinity is inextricably determined by his perception of women; thus he believes that women are often inconvenient and something to be ruled over (Achebe 53). Okonkwo uses this logic to justify physically and psychologically abusing his numerous wives. He does not assault his wives solely for cultural gratification, though, but because he is afraid: Okonkwo profoundly fears appearing weak as his father was because of his lifelong investment in crafting a dominant image for the village, thus projecting these fears onto his family. Yet, his rash behavior is a testament to the irony of his imprecise convictions.
Despite Okonkwo’s often flawed mentality, his obsessive dedication maintains a universally understood convenience for his ignorance and stubbornness. Okonkwo is torn between his repressed fondness for Ikemefuna and the ideals of his society, so, congruent with his fixed line of thinking and misdirected sense of who he should obey, Okonkwo kills him (Achebe 61-63). Ikemefuna’s murder is a demonstration of Okonkwo’s priorities. Inwardly, Okonkwo is more emotional and considerate than he likes to admit, so, by murdering his cherished adoptive son, Okonkwo reassures himself that he has not resigned himself to ‘degrading’ and ‘effeminate’ sorrows. Yet, he contrasts his determinations with alcoholic escapes because the beliefs he has come to rely upon have fallen apart; Okonkwo has committed a misdeed so extreme that not even he can ethically or emotionally justify it. Even still, he refuses to alter his reactions according to his subconscious moral compass and unrealized desires because he wants complete conformity to his disillusioned understanding of cultural expectations. Without foreign influence, Okonkwo would have never understood the futility and burdensome nature of an unchanging culture, and perhaps he never completely understood their consequences into his death; however, that is not to say that the manner through which European colonizers tampered with Igbo culture was entirely beneficial, as it was more often the opposite. Ultimately, Okonkwo’s stubborn dutifulness to his culture produces a man gratified solely in his social prestige and frustrated in every other facet of his life, which portends his crippling end as a result of the loss of his primary source of satisfaction: status.
Source: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. (Penguin Classics, 2006).
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