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Repression and Tragedy in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a novel full of individuals, within a tribe, as they deal with the frequently tragic and disappointing events of their lives. Okonkwo, the protagonist, and his son, Nwoye, are two of these individuals who must learn to cope with these difficulties and heartaches. The murder of Ikemefuna, the adopted son of Okonkwo, is a pivotal event in Things Fall Apart and the use of repression by both Okonkwo and Nwoye provides us with a better understanding of the characterization of Okonkwo through desperate yearning for masculinity and Nwoye through his desire to alienate himself his father and their tribe.

Okonkwo constantly felt an unconscious fear of failure and weakness stemming from an anxiety that he would become like his father Unoka. One of the first things that we learn about Okonkwo is that “he had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father” (Achebe 4). His father, “Unoka…was a failure. He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat” (Achebe 5). As Okonkwo grew older, he wanted nothing more than to be successful and masculine, the exact opposite of his father. “His whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness…and so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved” (Achebe 10). According to Peter Barry, “All of Freud’s work depends upon the notion of the unconscious, which is the part of the mind beyond consciousness which nevertheless has a strong influence upon our actions” (Barry 96). Despite the fact that Okonkwo is not consciously aware that all of his actions stem from a fear of becoming like his father, these fears drive him in his continual search for validation of his masculinity. Linked with this idea of the unconscious is that of repression, “which is the ‘forgetting’ or ignoring of unresolved conflicts…or traumatic past events, so that they are forced out of conscious awareness and into the realm of the unconscious” (Barry 97). The unresolved conflict that Okonkwo has with his father as well as the trauma and humiliation of growing up in poverty with an effeminate father have taken their toll on Okonkwo’s psyche, and we can see its effects throughout the novel. Okonkwo was especially affected by the presence of Ikemefuna within the tribe. Ikemefuna is a young man from a neighboring tribe that is sent to live in Umuofia and then cared for by Okonkwo. He lives with them for three years and becomes an integral part of their family and community. “He was by nature a very lively boy and he gradually became popular in Okonkwo’s household, especially with the children. Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, who was two years younger, became quite inseparable from him because he seemed to know everything… Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it

Okonkwo was especially affected by the presence of Ikemefuna within the tribe. Ikemefuna is a young man from a neighboring tribe that is sent to live in Umuofia and then cared for by Okonkwo. He lives with them for three years and becomes an integral part of their family and community. “He was by nature a very lively boy and he gradually became popular in Okonkwo’s household, especially with the children. Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, who was two years younger, became quite inseparable from him because he seemed to know everything… 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” (Achebe 18). Ikemefuna comes to represent the type of son that Okonkwo would like to have, a younger version of himself because he sees many masculine traits in him that would make him strong and powerful. However, at the same time, he also possesses some of the traits that remind Okonkwo of his father, Unoka. Both Unoka and Ikemefuna “had an endless stock of folk tales” (Achebe 20). Ikemefuna’s blending of both what can be seen as masculine and feminine traits make him the ideal character, someone that Okonkwo, unconsciously, wishes to be like.

After three years the tribe decides to kill Ikemefuna. Okonkwo is warned by an elder of Umuofia that he should not join in the murder because Ikemefuna saw him as a father. However, when the moment comes and Ikemefuna is struck down, he cries out, which then drives Okonkwo “dazed with fear, [to draw] his matchet and cut him down” (Achebe 38). F. Abiola Irele states that “We are told that he is ‘dazed’ with fear at the moment of the boy’s appeal to him, but it is fear that has been bred in his unreflecting mind by the image of his father…Indeed, for Okonkwo to be reminded anew of his father’s image by Ikemefuna’s artistic endowments and lively temperament is to be impelled toward a violent act of repression” (Irele 471). This can also be considered sublimation, another theory belonging to Freud. The repression of his feelings towards his father and those that are more feminine, drove him to sublimate his feelings by lashing out to the other extreme—acting in intense masculinity instead of seeking a balance. This longing for masculinity is an important part of the characterization of Okonkwo.

The murder of Ikemefuna not only allows us to see more into the character of Okonkwo, but also the character of his son, Nwoye and his desire to separate himself from his father and their tribe. F. Abiola Irele says that “the killing of Ikemefuna represents a pivotal episode in the novel not only as a reflection of Okonkwo’s disturbed mental state but in its reverberation throughout the novel as a result of its effect upon his son, Nwoye. It marks the beginning of the boys disaffection toward his father and ultimately his alienation from the community that Okonkwo has come to represent for him…Ikemefuna has come to embody for Nwoye the poetry of the tribal society, which is erased for him forever by the young boy’s ritual killing, an act against nature in which his father participates” (Irele 471). The killing of Ikemefuna marks for Nwoye, a sudden change in his life. In the novel it is described that “something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a bow” (Achebe 38). Like Irele says, this is the moment where Nwoye begins to drift further away from his father and the culture that he believes would have condoned the murder of a young boy that he looked to as an older brother. Without the example of Ikemefuna, Okonkwo sees Nwoye as weak and effeminate. He tells his friend Obierika, “I have done my best to make Nwoye grow into a man, but there is too much of his mother in him” (Achebe 40). Both Okonkwo and Obierika then acknowledge that he has too much of his grandfather in him. This is another reminder to Okonkwo of his father, who to him is the embodiment of weakness and failure. This leads to both repression and sublimation on the part of Okonkwo and Nwoye.

When the white Christian missionaries come into the tribe and begin to convert people, Nwoye is one that joins him. This essentially becomes an act of sublimation and rebellion for Nwoye, a way to turn his back on his father and the culture that betrayed him when it sanctioned the death of Ikemefuna. His repression essentially drives him away from the culture he has known his whole life and he sublimates by joining group that is completely opposite of what his father values. As part of his Christian conversion he changes his name to Isaac. Irele asserts that “the particular name [Nwoye] takes suggests an import beyond its immediate meaning of individual salvation, for the name Isaac recalls the biblical story of the patriarch Abraham and his substitution of an animal for the sacrifice of his son, an act that inaugurates a new dispensation in which we are made to understand that fathers are no longer required to sacrifice their sons to a demanding and vengeful deity. Nwoye’s adoption of this name in effect enacts a symbolic reversal of the killing of Ikemefuna” (Irele 472).

Ultimately Okonkwo and Nwoye’s experiences with Ikemefuna drive them to repress and sublimate their feelings by alienating them from each other when Okonkwo seeks extreme masculinity and Nwoye seeks a separation from the family and tribe that he feels have betrayed him. These methods they use to cope serve as rhetorical methods for characterizing Okonkwo and his son Nwoye as well as revealing the means that they use in dealing with the tragic and conflicting events of their lives.

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