Last time, I started talking about dealing with change, and in particular, I looked at it through the eyes of Tevye from Fiddler On the Roof. I lightly alluded to how Tevye’s handling of the various changes in life differs from that of other fictional characters I have come across in recent months. This contrast is most handling change is in my opinion, most exemplified by Okonkwo from Chinua Achebe’s classic book, Things Fall Apart. (I can finally claim to be a good Nigerian boy for having read the book)
Okonkwo and Tevye are alike in many ways. They’re both pillars in their community. They place a strong emphasis on tradition and family values. They both struggle to come to grips with how drastically the world around them is changing, but they differ in what they do as a result. Since I’ve already talked about Tevye, today’s post is going to be about Okonkwo
Okonkwo is the prototypical stoic African warrior. He displays few emotions (with the exception of an overabundance of anger). He believes very deeply that if a person is strong enough, the world must bend to that person’s will – especially if that person is a man. He despises men that he deems to be effeminate, which tends to be how he describes men who would prefer not to be warriors. In fact, I would imagine that he had ever met a guy like Tevye, he would be more than a little peeved at Tevye’s easygoing nature.
These traits have served him well on the battlefield and made him a force to be reckoned with in the community, but they were ultimately his undoing. Whenever Okonkwo faced changing circumstances, he met each challenge with the same decisive force that he used countless times on the battlefield. When that didn’t work, he broke into pits of bitter despair. He held on desperately to the world he knew and the world he once ruled and even though that world had moved on he refused to move with it. When he finally understood how much the world he once loved had changed, he became dejected and died a broken man.
Okonkwo’s character definitely has its merits. At the very least, he proves time and again, that almost anything can be overcome if one tries hard enough. Nevertheless, I’ve never been a huge fan of this style of machismoism for one simple reason: brittle things break. Strength (especially physical strength) was Okonkwo’s greatest asset, but it also caused him to be unyielding and at times, irascible. It made him so rigid that in the end, he couldn’t fit into the new world around him. Perhaps, the realization that there was no place for him in the new world is what really killed him.