Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe, is a story of Okonkwo whose life is dominated by his fears-“the fears of failures”. There are many subtle themes throughout the book Things Fall Apart. One theme that cries out over the rest is Okonkwo’s, the main character, fear of weakness as seen through his childhood, his oldest son, and eventually his death. The novel is also a tragedy and Okonkwo is a tragic hero. Okonkwo's tragedy can be connected to a tragic flaw in his character. He was afraid of being considered weak. His fear motivates him to take actions which are often unnecessary and ultimately destructive. His fear of being feminine leads him to assist in the murder of Ikemefuna whom he loved, to beat his wives, be emotionally distant from his children, and to disown his oldest son.In the end, his fear of being thought weak was his final undoing. He killed the white man's messenger because he did not want the other elders to consider him weak.
An ambitious man who has risen from nothing to a man of importance in his tribe, Okonkwo rules his family with an iron fist. The cause of being so strict and rude to his family is his fear of being considered as weak. Since his childhood, Okonkwo was ashamed of his father, “In his day he (Unoka) was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow”. His father Unoka was a failure in every sense of the word. Unoka was lazy, wasteful and un-ambitious. He loved a life of pleasure without hard work. He was always in debt and was not able to take any titles in accordance with tradition. By the standard of his clan, Unoka was a coward and squanderer. When he was a child, a boy called Okonkwo’s father an agbala. This word means “woman” as well as a man who has no title. His carelessness left numerous debts unpaid at his death. Ashamed of his father, Okonkwo worked hard and fought well to gain a reputation of high status and influence in his clan. He acquired three wives, one whom gave him his first son. Okonkwo’s first wife, whose name is never mentioned, gave birth to his first son, Nwoye. Okonkwo saw Nwoye weak and lazy from an early age. For this, Nwoye was beaten constantly.
Okonkwo was highly demanding of his family because of his obsession not to be like his father. He mistook this behavior as masculinity. He wished his son were a promising, manly son like his friend Obierika’s son, Maduka, who was also a great fighter. One night the town of Umuofia was told that someone in Mbaino had killed one of their “daughters”. The woman was Ugbeufi Udo’s wife. The blood price for the murder was a virgin and young man to Umuofia. The virgin was given to Ugbeufi Udo as his wife. They did not know what to do with the young boy, Ikemefuna. Okonkwo was asked on behalf of the clan to take care of the boy. Secretly, Okonkwo grew fond of Ikemefuna, “Even Okonkwo himself became very fond of the boy-inwardly of course. Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger”. Ikemefuna lived with Okonkwo and his family for three years until the time came when the Oracle said that Ikemefuna had to be killed. Okonkwo was warned not to have any part in killing the boy who called him father. He ignored this and upon returning sank into a deep depression which kindled the affliction inside of him. Not only the death of Ikemefuna, but also the accidental killing of Ogbeufi Ezeudu’s son, which gets Okonkwo and his family exiled for seven years, aides in his depression. To atone for the killing of his clansmen’s son, Okonkwo and his family were cast out of Umuofia and were forced to go live with his mother’s clan in Mbanta.
In their second year a group of six missionaries traveled to Mbanta and tried to persuade the people from their false gods of wood and stone to the one true God. They captured Nwoye and he later joined their congregation. When Okonkwo was informed of the news he strangled Nwoye in anger. He questioned how he could have fathered such a weak son. At the end of the seven-year exile, Okonkwo was able to return home. However, the church had taken over Umuofia also. Nothing was the same. Okonkwo refused to integrate with the new visitors. He thought that the clan’s failure to remove them was “womanly”. Almost happy again, Okonkwo began to accept the new Umuofia. Then the leaders of the clan, including Okonkwo, were taken for ransom by the church. Deeply angered by what was happening, Okonkwo killed one of the leaders at a meeting. The pacification of Okonkwo’s clan is what depressed him. He knew his clan would not go to war. This desire to act violently all goes back to his father’s lack of desire. In the end the violence settled on Okonkwo, when he hung himself.
In conclusion, all these aspects: his childhood, his first son and Ikemefuna, and his death contribute in explaining Okonkwo’s fear of weakness. Okonkwo’s life was controlled by his fears. He valued the success of his family and the community with his own success. If Nwoye was weak it was because he had failed as a father. The pacification of the town was a reflection of Okonkwo’s failures, he thought. Not being able to control those events, Okonkwo, out of desperation or either out of the pride in his manhood or perhaps both, killed himself.
In the final analysis, Okonkwo's character is typical of tragic heroes in every tragedy. He was a great man but he was destroyed because he had a tragic flaw- fear.