Several quotes in ‘Things Fall Apart’ perfectly encapsulate the themes within the novel, as well as illuminate the overarching philosophy of both the community and the author himself. Here are some of the most important quotes in ‘Things Fall Apart.’
Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.Ch. 4, p. 20
Okonkwo’s life was dominated by his determination to live up to his community’s ideals and values, among which are their prescription of what proper manly behavior should entail. This motivation was driven to the maximum by Okonkwo’s shame and resentment at his father’s inability to live up to these manly expectations.
Okonkwo’s father was disrespected and derided for being cowardly, effeminate, weak, and unsuccessful, and so Okonkwo resolved to not be these things. His extreme desire to not be seen as weak often came at the expense of his relationship with others around him.
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…Ch. 2, pp. 9–10
Here we see quite ironically that Okonkwo’s drive towards building up a perception of strength was influenced by a feeling of deep insecurity and fear. Okonkwo’s incomplete mastery over himself and absence of security in his capabilities drives him into unnecessarily performative actions to display his strength.
This pathetic desire to always remind people of his strength, to not allow himself moments of vulnerability, comes at the expense of his essential non-cruel nature, convenience, and comfort. For example, although he did not have to, he participated in the killing of his adoptive son, Ikemefuna, because he was afraid of being thought of as weak. This murder, however, deeply affects him and causes much emotional suffering- suffering that could have been avoided or lessened had he stayed away from the murder.
Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination.Ch. 17, p. 110
In this quote, Okonkwo contemplates the implication of his first son’s drift toward the Christians. The Christian missionaries and the colonialists offered a worldview that differed fundamentally from the values Okonkwo, and the Umuofia community hold dear. The Christian concepts of tolerance and peace stood at variance with traditional concepts of masculinity and strength.
Their competing religion and power structure promised a drastic reordering of societal hierarchy in such a way that the outcasts, the poor, and otherwise disadvantaged would be considered equal with every other member of the society. In this way, the arrival of the missionaries does not just challenge Umuofia’s political autonomy, it threatens to eliminate the advantage Okonkwo’s wealth and fulfillment of traditional conceptions of masculinity and strength would have afforded him over the less endowed.
This was an untenable situation that Okonkwo could not accept, and this made Nwoye’s decision to join the Christians seem like serious treachery to Okonkwo.
Clearly his personal god or chi was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi…Ch. 14, p. 94
Okonkwo has always believed in bending fate to his advantage through sheer will, and for the most part, despite starting with nothing and experiencing setbacks establishing himself initially, he was able to achieve great success. However, his confidence in himself is tested after he was banished to his mother’s land after his great abomination of accidentally murdering someone at a funeral.
Okonkwo and his family were forced to flee Umuofia and start afresh in his mother’s place. He lost his wealth, properties, and reputation. This misfortune causes him to despair greatly. Despite working all his life to avoid the fate of his unsuccessful father, Okonkwo is made to confront the possibility that maybe there are infernal forces at work against his success and that he has little say in the matter, no matter how much he tried.
Destruction of the old order
As he lay on his bamboo bed, he thought about the treatment he had received in the white man’s court, and he swore vengeance. If Umuofia decided on war, all would be well. But if they chose to be cowards he would go out and avenge himself.Ch. 24, p. 142
Perhaps more than any other Umuofian, Okonkwo found it hardest to accept the new reality of the Whiteman’s ascendant power and the inevitability of their suzerainty over him. When he and other prominent Umuofia sons were arrested and humiliated for the part they played in razing the church building to the ground, he felt humiliated and swore vengeance.
The humiliation inflicted on him for carrying out a punitive action as empowered law enforcement actors on errant members of Umuofia society represented an untenable challenge to the old order and the potency of Umuofia’s traditional institutions and structures.
Being a key part (or aspiring to be a key part) of some of these institutions as a member of the Ndi Ichie, the Ogwugwu, and the Umuofia law enforcement organ, Okonkwo is essentially watching his power diminish within this new order. His act of vengeance would then constitute a last-gasp attempt to arrest this development and preserve the old order within which he was more relevant.
They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: ‘Why did he do it?’ He wiped his matchet on the sand and went away.Ch. 24, pp. 146–147
Okonkwo’s attempt to rouse Umuofia to violent resistance against the colonialists failed because, apparently, he was the only one who failed to see that there was no salvaging the old order. The Umuofians know that the war with the British was suicide, maybe just a more prolonged one than what Okonkwo carried out. They were not strong enough to resist the British, and nevertheless, they were not united enough to put up significant resistance.
The British began to win when they brought religion. A new religion found a place for the outcasts, the poor, and the otherwise disadvantaged members of society. Its proposition was also enticing enough for some of the wealthy too. They brought a trading store that promised riches to many Umuofians. With their religion and market, the Europeans already made sure the Umuofians did not feel so great an attachment to the old order that they would sacrifice their convenience and lives to resist the new one.
It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow.Ch. 16, p. 106
Although Achebe presented the fall of an independent Umuofia society as a tragic event that disrupted the idyllic and communal life of a group of people, he did not fail to relay how the transformation of this society came with its advantages. For one, the British came with a religion and legal system that was more inclusive and progressive than traditional Umuofia society.
Their arrival promised the elimination of certain discriminatory and barbaric practices. Nwoye perhaps best represents that section of Umuofia society that was liberated by the coming of the Christians and colonialists. Having suffered physical and emotional abuse from his father as well as enormous pressure to conform to his society’s conception of masculinity, Nwoye saw in the Christians a new community that would allow him to be himself.
What is Okonkwo’s greatest motivation in ‘Things Fall Apart?’
Above every other thing, Okonkwo was motivated by a great fear of being seen as weak or as a failure, much like his father, Unoka. He worked hard to be a successful and well-regarded person for this reason.
Why was Okonkwo unable to accept British overlordship in ‘Things Fall Apart?’
In ‘Things Fall Apart,’ Okonkwo is a proud warrior who is fiercely independent. He also almost fanatically subscribes to the culture and religion of the land. British rule, therefore, threatens his independence and self-expression.
Was Okonkwo inherently evil in ‘Things Fall Apart?’
No. Okonkwo is capable of sentimental emotions, but he shuts that part of himself away because he fears being thought of as soft or weak.