What is Gender Roles in Things Fall Apart
How it works
Extreme traditional gender roles may begin to dictate an entire society; how they function, how they set their laws and rules, how they punish, and so forth. In Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the author explores the idea of toxic masculinity. Throughout the entire novel, Okonkwo the main protagonist dedicates himself to being as masculine as possible, and through his rise to become a powerful man of his tribe, he subsequently falls both within the tribe and actually ends up taking his own life because he was unable to deal with the rapidly changing aspects of his community and its traditions. Ultimately, Okonkwo’s adherence to highly toxic masculinity and extreme aggression leads to his fall in society.
In the very first few pages, Okonkwo reveals himself as both brave and violent; his strength is impressive but also takes rash and aggressive forms. It states, “…[Okonkwo] was not afraid of war. He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia’s latest war he was the first to bring home a human head” (10). Okonkwo first defines himself in terms of “action” and “war,” indicating that these are the primary components of his identity. Next, he contrasts these features with those of his father, reiterating the way Okonkwo chooses assertive behaviors as a way to distance himself from his father’s weakness. The reference to a “human head” serves as an example of this military strength and adds a further piece of information about Umuofia society: warfare includes the taking of prizes and trophies to demonstrate one’s military prowess. Yet one should note that Okonkwo does not pause to consider other reasons a meeting would have been called—instead he immediately jumps to a violent conclusion. Although Okonkwo is indeed correct that the call signals conflict with another clan, his tendency to jump to aggressive conclusions foreshadows how his defaulting to violence will bring his downfall.
How it works
Next, “Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness” (13). Okonkwo’s great aversion to weakness can be pinpointed to a single memory, and indeed a similar word: “agbala”. Once more, the narrator stresses the importance of language within Umuofia society, for the label “agbala” to designate a feminine and untitled man is sufficient to structure Okonkwo’s entire relationship to his father and to his own identity. That one word defines the “one passion” that controls Okonkwo, indicating that his personality is singularly driven—and thus corroborating the way he is remarkably strong but unable to deviate from this harsh singular viewpoint. He can see no need for “gentleness” or “idleness” in any setting whatsoever. This passage implies that Okonkwo’s strict personality is neither an inherent quality he was born with nor a reflection of Umuofia society, but rather a reaction to his father. It also gives a complicated image of gentleness in Umuofia society, and the narratorial distance from Okonkwo’s perspective implies that his may not be the only pertinent viewpoint. Indeed, the text implies that Okonkwo’s single-mindedness may have left him blind to the way that gentleness may indeed be an effective element of his household rather than unnecessary aggressiveness.
Lastly, when Okonkwo is exiled from his tribe after accidentally killing Ezeudu’s son. It states, “It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years…” (124). The narrator describes the social impact and symbolic significance of how Okonkwo accidentally kills Ezeudu’s son and clarifies the necessary punishment in terms of the gendered nature of the act. As before, Okonkwo performs an act that is “a crime against the earth goddess,” only here the punishment is far harsher than personal repentance. The distanced language of the phrase “a man who committed it” highlights how the punishment is not tied specifically to Okonkwo’s identity but is rather an application of a universal law to his specific case. Next, the narrator delineates between male and female crimes: Since Okonkwo killed Ezeudu’s son by accident, his act is deemed “female,” but the murder is also presumably “male” due to its violent nature. That Okonkwo has committed an act representative of both genders is quite revealing: if before, his character had been fully and overly identified with masculine acts, instead here we see the influx of the very thing he most fears: femininity. Yet the female crime is not the result of weakness, but rather the way that Okonkwo’s obsession with violence and strength has caused him to act rashly.