In ‘Things Fall Apart,’ Chinua Achebe’s quest to present an authentic and functioning traditional African society sees him create characters that embody both the strength and flaws of this society. His characters are drawn from a wide variety of personalities and types, from the cruel and violent to the humane and peaceful, from the toxic masculine to the effeminate.
We have submissive wives but also authoritative and imposing women who carry out the will of the gods. The vast range of characters typifies Achebe’s point about the multi-dimensionality of traditional Africans as opposed to the one-dimensional representations of Western writers. African societies were rather made up of different sorts of individuals with qualities, motivations, and actions that anyone around the world could relate to.
Okonkwo is the novel’s main character and its tragic hero. Okonkwo is scarred by the humiliation and shame he suffers as a result of his father’s general failure to live up to the ideals of his society. Having playmates refer to his father as an Agbala or rather a man who is as good as a woman rankled deep within his psyche, setting up an intense fear of failure that he might grow up to be like his father, and a resolution to not be like his father. Hence Okonkwo’s every action later in life was motivated by these two factors.
Okonkwo’s determination to live up to his society’s ideals of masculinity and general success as a man leads him to become a successful farmer, a brave and fierce warrior, as well as an accomplished wrestler. His pathological desire to not be perceived to be weak like his father leads him to refrain from showing emotions that could be construed as effeminate such as sadness or happiness.
His desire to be seen as strong and tough makes him impatient with his wives and children. He does not hesitate to beat them severely over the slightest issues or provocations. Although he knows that his wives and children are not as strong as he is, he still makes them work as hard as himself because he does not want to be seen as lenient or compromising.
It should be noted that although Okonkwo is trying to live up to what he perceives to be the standards and ideals of the community as regards masculinity, he often runs afoul of the community’s actual standards. In this sense, Okonkwo can be more readily described as an extremist or fanatic follower of the most hardline and uncompromising interpretation of these ideals. In truth, Umuofia culture is a lot more nuanced, and there are allowances for more effeminate and peaceful ideals.
These are exemplified by their institutions and events, such as the week of peace, in which no violence was permitted. Okonkwo’s radical interpretation of his society’s ideals leads him to run afoul of this sacred rule meant to honor a feminine deity when he beats his wife during the week of peace. His decision to kill Ikemefuna himself was motivated by what he thinks to be the cold rationalism that does not have room for sentimentalism.
But opposition from the likes of Ezeudu and Obierika represents the nuance in Umuofia’s ideals and values that allows for a certain measure of this sentimentality in certain circumstances. Okonkwo’s extremism does not allow for rationality. His allegiance to hypermasculine values blinds him to reality a lot of times, and this explains why he could not take the lessons from the sack of Abame and realize why his people were hesitant to violently confront the British colonialists. Okonkwo’s uncompromising nature, pride, and resistance to change lead him to take a rash action by killing the chief messenger, leading to his downfall. Okonkwo, therefore, is a tragic hero whose flaws ultimately lead to his downfall.
Unoka is Okonkwo’s father. His actions and station in life serve to shape the behavior of his son, Okonkwo, for the rest of his life. Within the confines of Umuofia’s value system, Unoka is an unmitigated failure. He is poor, married to only one wife who he can hardly take care of, is too lazy to farm productively, and is effeminate. He is a weakling and coward who cannot stand the sight of blood. He is a gentle soul and has a flair for the arts by virtue of being a talented flute player.
An emotional and sentimental man, he derives joy in playing the flute. Unoka is a chronic debtor and only evades his debtors with his charisma and eloquence. He is also presented as a bit deluded as he believed some infernal forces were behind his failure as a farmer rather than his lack of hard work. Unoka’s bad fortune followed him to the grave. He died of a horrible illness—a swelling of the stomach and limbs—and was left to die above ground in the Evil Forest.
Obiereka is Okonkwo’s peer and best friend. Although he is just as successful and accomplished as Okonkwo, he does not entirely share Okonkwo’s temperament and values. Although committed to the values of the community, Obierika is not as fanatical as Okonkwo about preserving the order of things. He can rue the dissolution of Umuofia culture and institutions while being realistic enough to understand that nothing could be done about the situation.
Obierika is a loyal friend to Okonkwo and, where possible, always looked out for his interest. He managed Okonkwo’s yams and seed yams after Okonkwo had fled to exile. Unlike Okonkwo, Obiereka questions his society’s values where they do not seem rational to him, like when he says titled men ought to be allowed to climb palm trees and tap their palm wines. He also reprimanded Okonkwo for taking part in Ikemefuna’s death, marking him as more reasonable and humane than Okonkwo.
Unlike Okonkwo, he does not entirely dismiss the threat or possible advantages the white man brings with him. He recognized how useful the trading stores the white men opened were to the Umuofia community. He was much more receptive to change, even if he was not entirely happy about it. Obiereka was the foil to Okonkwo. He was the voice of reason, while Okonkwo was impulsivity personified.
Nwoye is Okonkwo’s first son. He was a gentle and non-confrontational child with a taste for the fun children’s stories his mother told him as opposed to Okonkwo’s more manly and brutal stories. Nwoye resembled his grandfather, Unoka, more than Okonkwo and this greatly distressed Okonkwo. Okonkwo saw what he perceived to be effeminate traits and qualities in Nwoye and so worked to correct them by beating his son always.
Nwoye struck up a friendship with Ikemefuna during Ikemefuna’s hostage at Okonkwo’s home. His association with the enterprising Ikemefuna seemed to lead him closer to Okonkwo and, by extension, the masculine values of Umuofia. But Ikemefuna’s death reversed this trend and led Nwoye further away from his father and his community’s values. When the missionaries came with the new religion of Christianity that offered a new way of life as well as values that were more in sync with Nwoye’s natural disposition, he readily ditched his home and community to join the Christians.
On a wider level, just like Unoka, Nwoye represents the aspect of Umuofia society that is not in tune with mainstream values. These are people born within the wrong society and value system and who naturally have problems adapting. These are people with a degree of sentimentality and humanity that is untenable within Umuofia’s culture. The arrival of the Christians offered a means of escape which these people readily took.
Chielo, Priestess of Agbala
Chielo is the widowed priestess of Agbala, one of the central deities in Umuofia. An embodiment of the community’s religious system, Chielo in her capacity as priestess wields enormous power over the community. The contrast between the power she wields and the otherwise generally submissive disposition of women in the book is quite remarkable.
In a fiercely patriarchal society such as Umuofia’s, Chielo’s ability to stand up to chauvinists like Okonkwo and rebuke him for violating the week of peace bears testament to the fear the villagers have for their gods and goddesses. Chielo is also able to pry away Ezinma from Okonkwo and Ekwefi even in the face of their protests. She lives a double life and can integrate into society as a normal person fulfilling normal female roles when she is not speaking or acting in her capacity as a priestess of Agbala.
Mr Brown is the pioneering Christian missionary in the communities of Mbanta and Umuofia. Mr Brown is kind and open-minded and seeks to genuinely understand Igbo beliefs. He makes a case for conversion to Christianity on the premise that it would be advantageous to the individual in the new colonial order that is about to supplant the current order and system. Mr Brown promotes a conciliatory and mutually respectful relationship with the pagan Umuofians and to this end restricts over-eager members of the church from provoking the Umuofians.
Reverend James Smith
Reverend Smith is a missionary who replaces Mr Brown as the new head of the Christian church. Reverend Smith is strict and uncompromising, the opposite of Mr Brown, who was kind, compassionate, and accommodating. His firebrand and uncompromising attitude embolden the fanatics among his congregation, leading to an inevitable conflict with the people of Umuofia.
Ekwefi is Okonkwo’s second wife and the recipient of his routine abuses. Her character is defined by her anxious love for her daughter, Ezinma, who Ekwefi fears to be an Ogbanje, as well as her tendency to annoy Okonkwo and provoke him to unreasonable anger. She is a friend to Chielo, the priestess of Agbala. She shows some measure of rebelliousness that is not typical of the other female characters in the novel by running away from her husband to be with Okonkwo and also by mocking Okonkwo’s hunting prowess when he beats her.
Who is the central character in ‘Things Fall Apart?’
The central character in ‘Things Fall Apart’ is Okonkwo. The entire story revolves around him and his actions. Okonkwo’s rise and fall is the basic story around which the narrative of ‘Things Fall Apart’ is built.
What led to Okonkwo’s downfall in ‘Things Fall Apart?’
Okonkwo’s inability to accept the overlordship of the British colonialists ultimately doomed him. He was also doomed by character traits such as a quick temper and pride.
How is Obierika different from Okonkwo in ‘Things Fall Apart?’
Although both are best friends and belong to the same social class, Obierika is more rational and unhindered by deep-seated insecurity. Obierika is not as motivated by fear as Okonkwo.