Re-thinking Masculinities. An Analysis of Two Characters in Achebe's Novel "Things Fall Apart"

Essay, 2022

7 Pages, Grade: B

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This paper analyzes a contemporary trend of gender-related issue under the umbrella of “Masculinity”, a household term in literary discourse for which many African writers have vigorously endeavoured to engage. The concept of masculinity aptly described in African context as “muscular,” “strong,” “hard,” “brave,” and “in control” would be the ground bases for this analysis. The character study of Okonkwo and his best friend and community folk, Obierika, are the subject of emphasis.


The term “Masculinity” can be best defined contextually. This provides a strong notion of claim that it has no one definite meaning and that to properly define it, one must draw upon the interpersonal relationship between culture and society. The meaning therefore is drawn from a broad range of social contexts as noted by Hannah Amissah-Arthur in her study; “Of Sex and Power: Phallic Masculinities”(2015).

According to Haddon (1988), masculinity can be defined in terms of the phallus. To him, it is “potent, penetrating, outward thrusting, initiating, forging ahead into virgin territory, opening the way, sword-like, able to cut through, able to clear or differentiate, goal-oriented, to the point, focused, directive, effective, aimed, hitting the mark, strong, erect”. Ordinarily, masculinity may be used to describe certain social norms or behaviours constructed for males to represent themselves with. Connell (1995) presents four patterns of masculinity in the current Western gender order such as: “hegemony”, “subordination”, “complicity”, and “marginalization”. It is partly within these patterns of masculinity that this paper critically analyses Okonkwo and his friend Obierika in the typical Igbo society through a formalist description of Achebe’sThings Fall Apart.


Chinua Achebe’sThings Fall Apart(1958),introduces us to a character who engages in a number of manly characteristics, Okonkwo. Okonkwo was a wrestler who “threw Amalinze the Cat, the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten” in “a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest” (pg. 3). “He was “tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose give him a very severe look” (pg. 3). It is even said that ‘He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists” (pg. 4). He is also the first one to bring home a human head won in a fight in an inter-tribal war. At the end of the novel, we are shown this man not afraid to take on ‘the white man’ singularly when his clan fails to fight the white man. His achievements in life are the result of a young man who never had a good start in life. His playmate reminds him that his father isagbala; a man too weak to be physically compared to a woman and one who has no title in the community. Unoka, his father, is a shaky framework of bad definition of masculinity in his son’s perception. Still worse will be Okonkwo’s judgement of him; he hated everything that his father loved: “gentleness and idleness” (pg.10).


In the text, Okonkwo’s definition of a man is one with titles. And if you were in his society without any title, then you were considered a woman. For example, Okonkwo insults a person in a meeting because he had not a title when he said: “This meeting is for men” (pg.19). Continued; “The man who had contradicted him had no titles. That was why he had called him a woman” (pg.19). This viewpoint Okonkwo makes of a man does not only put him in the process of masculinising himself, but also effeminising other males. According to his utterance “men” in society should be defined in terms of “title winning”. And this is the perfect sense Okonkwo objectively places himself within his society because he has won two titles. This, then validates Connell (1995) hierarchies of masculinity. This masculine ideology is further substantiated by Haddon (1988: 239) when he asserted that “there are only two sides to the coin; either traditional masculinity is in line with the phallic or it is considered as “the other”, feminine”.

Again, Okonkwo’s wife-beating attitude even during a sacred Week of Peace lives much to be desired. For example, when his youngest wife, Ojiugo who went to plait her hair at her friend’s house and did not return early enough to cook the afternoon meal subsequently returned, “…he beat her very heavily” (pg.21). His other wives begged him to stop but he would not listen. Because “Okonkwo was the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess” (pg.21). In perspective, Okonkwo appears very violent, domineering and unyielding. Saint-Aubin (1994: 249) reinforces the phallic metaphor for masculinity through a two-pronged definition for the term phallic. To him, being phallic in the positive sense is, for example, to be penetrating, inquisitive, persistent, steady, objective, courageous, discriminating, dominant and in the negative sense is, to be intrusive, violent, unyielding, discriminatory, exploitive, domineering as Hannah (2015) aptly noted in her study. From the foregoing, Okonkwo is demonstrated here as a violent character.

Another of Okonkwo’s characteristics is that he “was a very strong man and rarely felt fatigue” (pg. 10) compared to his father Unoka who was very lazy and died in indebtedness. Unlike Okonkwo, his late father was addressed asagbala(a man too weak to be physically compared to a woman). The play word,agbala,often addressed to Okonkwo by his playmates, one may say, underscored his definition of masculinity. By this referent, Okonkwo took on a new viewpoint of redefining the identity of his family by becoming a hardworking person. In declaring his method supreme, Okonkwo fed his family on the chief of crops; yams. From this angle, it is also proper to consider that perhaps, Unoka represents a version of masculinity of an old system (a man who was not interested in private property) which was about to expire.

In contrast, Obierika, Okonkwo’s best friend represents the positive side of masculinity presented in the text. Maybe consciously, but whatever the case is, Achebe achieves the objective of portraying the two sides of the coin of traditional masculinity to the Western world. From the foregoing, Okonkwo represents the negative aspects of phallic masculinity as noted earlier (See Saint-Aubin 1994: 249; Haddon 1988: 239).

Conversely, a more directly opposite Okonkwo is Obierika who at one point, is strong and weak, courageous and gentle, and all together a very thoughtful character. Obierika has more titles in the land than Okonkwo has and yet he is humble. Obierika also disapproves of Okonkwo’s killing of his adoptive son, Ikemefuna, saying, “If the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it” (pg. 41). Not participating in the sacrifice of the boy was his choice, “you know very well, Okonkwo, that I am not afraid of blood, and if anyone tells you that I am, he is telling you a lie” (pg. 41). There is a sense in which Obierika is the voice of amendment in his culture against ruthlessness. Through Obierika we see how Africans detested barbarous masculinity pushed to its utmost extremes and judged it harshly turning no blind eye on it.


This paper analysed the character portrayal of Okonkwo an Obierika inThings Fall Apartfrom the Masculinity theory viewpoint. In describing their actions and activities in the text, it was revealed that Okonkwo is a domineering and/or a misogynistic character who toes the line of effeminising other male characters who are not in his purview of the real sense of the word “man”. We have been told that he beats his wives without consideration; he insults his fellow men he considers to be “title-less” and he tries not to identify with his late father’s kind of personality. On the other hand, Obierika epitomizes another male representation who is strong and weak, courageous and gentle, and all together a very thoughtful character. These characters studied reveal the critical discourse of what should constitute masculinity.


Amissah-Arthur, Hannah Woode. "Of Sex and Power: Phallic Masculinities in Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero and Amma Darko’s Beyond The Horizon." discourse 2 (1997): 3.

Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart” (New York, 1959). All subsequent quotations are from this edition.

Connell, Raewyn W. “Masculinities”. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin. 1995

Flannigan-Saint-Aubin, A. “The Male Body and Literary Metaphors for Masculinity” Research on Men and Masculinities Series: Theorizing masculinities.Eds. In H. Brod, &M. Kaufman. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. 1994. 239-259.

Haddon, G. P. “Body metaphors: Releasing god-feminine in all of us”. New York: Crossroads, 1988.

Reeser, Todd W. “Masculinities in Theory: An Introduction”, USA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010


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Re-thinking Masculinities. An Analysis of Two Characters in Achebe's Novel "Things Fall Apart"
University of Education  (English language Education)
Critical Approach to Literary Text
Catalog Number
re-thinking, masculinities, analysis, characters, achebe, novel, things, fall, apart
Quote paper
Joseph Peter Yaw-kan (Author), 2022, Re-thinking Masculinities. An Analysis of Two Characters in Achebe's Novel "Things Fall Apart", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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