Okonkwo A Tragic Hero? Essay, Research Paper
Is Okonkwo a tragic hero? To answer that question one must start by defining the term ‘tragic hero’ first introduced by Aristotle. Aristotle defined a tragic hero simply as being a character fulfilling three different requirements. The character must be larger than life, and must have a high social standing. The character must also have ordinary human qualities, and must have a tragic flaw that leads to his downfall. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, all these characteristics are found in Okonkwo of Umuofia.
The first characteristic of a tragic hero according to Aristotle’s definition is that the character must be larger than life. The character must be better or greater than his fellows in the sense that he is of a higher than ordinary social significance. In that sense we find that Okonkwo was a very strong wrestler and that his strength had brought fame to him along with his town,
“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. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights … 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” ( Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, page 3)
From this text we can see how Okonkwo was a larger than life character in the terms of his physical strength and wrestling abilities. Also it is obvious that his victory over the Cat, who has been previously undefeated, had raised him to a higher level of popularity. The text in the first few chapters suggests that Okonkwo had a high social standard not only in the shape of titles, but as being the most important man in nine villages –referred to in the previous passage.
The second condition for a character to be a tragic hero according to Aristotle is that he should share common human qualities and concerns. He is a mixture of good characteristics and bad ones. Also, he must be someone that people can relate to, and, therefore, must have the same human problems and must go through life with the same obstacles of ordinary people. This we can see when the author is describing Okonkwo’s feelings for Ikemefuna, a young boy who has been in his household as compensation to the village for a murdered citizen of Umuofia,
“Even Okonkwo himself became very fond of the boy –inwardly of course. Okonkwo never showed any emotions openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength. He therefore treated Ikemefuna as he treated everybody else –with a heavy hand. But there was no doubt that he liked the boy. Sometimes when he went to the big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goatskin bag. And, indeed Ikemefuna called him father” (Achebe, page 28)
From this text we find out that Okonkwo actually had feelings of fondness and admiration toward Ikemefuna. This we see when Okonkwo takes Ikemefuna with him to important village meetings. This shows us that Okonkwo has an ordinary positive human quality which is fondness and caring for other people. Another quality we find common in certain people especially in people who have a tough character is that they do not express any feelings of love and tenderness but keep them deep inside them. This is the case with Okonkwo who refuses to express his feelings towards Ikemefuna as he sees such expressions as a sign of weakness. Thus, we find at least two ordinary human qualities in his character.
One of the most important requirements to be a tragic hero is that the character must have a tragic flaw that eventually leads to his downfall. In the case of Okonkwo, his flaw is obviously his fear of weakness. This is clear in the description of how he manages his household,
“Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness … And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion –to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of these things was gentleness and another was idleness.” (Achebe, page 13(
This passage exposes the manner by which Okonkwo manages his household. His constant fear of failing and following the steps of his father reflects in his dominating character. This manner we can still see in the case of ordinary people, which supports the second requirement of Aristotle for a character to be named a tragic hero that is having ordinary human qualities. Furthermore, it is his constant fear of failure and weakness along with his experience of his father’s failure that is considered his flaw. It is his dislike for whatever his father likes and how this reflects on his personal character and the way he treats others that will lead to his downfall.
Therefore, we see that Okonkwo is a person larger than life in the sense of physical strength. He is also of a high social standing since he is the most famous person in the whole nine villages of the Igbo civilization. Moreover, we see in him ordinary human qualities such as fondness, and caring, as well as toughness and violence. Furthermore, we find a huge tragic flaw in his character, which is his fear of weakness and failure and hating all that his father likes –being a failure himself. Seeing that Okonkwo has satisfied all the conditions Aristotle put forth for being a tragic hero, he is worthy to be considered one.