Representations of Masculinity in Things Fall Apart and Wide Sargasso Sea
While jotting down some notes in preparation for my essay, I caught myself faltering at the sentence ‘Okonkwo is the epitome of manliness’. Was my intention not to write about masculinity in Things Fall Apart and Wide Sargasso Sea ? Unable to overcome the confusion over the terms ‘manliness’ and ‘masculinity’ without expert help, I swiftly consulted the Oxford English Dictionary in hope of assistance. Interestingly, though, the entries for these terms read practically identically. One reads ‘having the qualities or physical features that are admired or expected in a man’, the other ‘having the qualities or appearance typical of men’. But what exactly is typical of men, and does everyone expect the same of them? Both of the above definitions are normative, asserting what men ought to be. But, ‘what is normative about a norm hardly anyone meets?’ What this question implies is very unambiguous, namely, that masculinity, just as femininity and gender in general, are social constructions. Neither of these categories ‘exist organically’, they are ‘a way of structuring social practice’, fabricated by humans. And just as humans are different from one person to the next, so are their cultures and their social conceptions of masculinity. In other words, there are multiple masculinities. ‘‘Masculinity’ is not a coherent object about which a generalising science can be produced.’ Moreover, it is important to notice at this point, that the different concepts of masculinity are always tightly interweaved with other social constructs and the respective expectations thereof, such as race, gender, class, age, religion, and so forth. Hence, in order to have a look at representations of masculinity in the above mentioned novels, a close reading of the texts will be necessary. While doing so, I shall try to analyse the ways in which Okonkwo and Mr Rochester live their masculinity, how they try to assert it and the constraints they encounter while trying to do so.
From the very first pages of Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is characterised as a hard-working, courageous, aggressive man. ‘He [has] a slight stammer and whenever he [is] angry and [can] not get his words out quickly enough, he [will] use his fists.’ He has over time become ‘well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rest[s] on solid personal achievements.’ Not only is he known for his qualities as a wrestler, he has also ‘taken two titles and [has] shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars.’ Moreover, he has become a wealthy farmer, who has just married his third wife. As for his appearance, ‘he is tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose [give] him a very severe look.’ In other words, not only does he look manly with his tall, muscular built, it seems like he lives the values that are perceived as manly by Ibo society. ‘Military virtues such as aggression, strength, courage and endurance have repeatedly been defined as the natural and inherent qualities of manhood.’ And his eminence as a warrior is exactly one of the ways in which Okonkwo asserts his manhood. Throughout the novel, readers are reminded of his bravery. It is him who finally throws Amalinze the Cat, a wrestler unbeaten for seven years. He is also the first one to bring home a human head won in a fight in an inter-tribal war. Furthermore, he is, at the end of the novel, not afraid to take on ‘the white man’ singularly, if the clan fails to go to battle with him. Bravery for him is a quality so undeniably and inextricably linked to masculinity and the condition of manhood that ‘he mourn[s] for the warlike men of Umuofia, who ha[ve] so unaccountably become soft like women’ during the time of his exile. It becomes clear in this quotation that Okonkwo affirms his manhood, not only by exercising activities which in his eyes are manly, but also by hierarchically placing himself above women. Ibo society, very much like Western society in pre-feminist times, organises its social practice through gendered binaries. Thus, courage, bravery, aggression, activity, are all deemed to be ‘masculine’ features, whereas, in direct opposition, weakness, gentleness, passivity, and submissiveness are regarded as ‘feminine’ attributes. By definition then, ‘no masculinity arises except in a system of gender relations.’ ‘Agbala’, for instance, is not only a term for a woman, but also the term for a man who is said to be weak and has not taken any titles within his clan.
And it is this term precisely which also takes the analysis to the very core of Okonkwo’s need to assert his masculinity: his father Unoka. In the very first chapter of the novel, it becomes clear from where Okonkwo’s conception of manliness originates. In his eyes, ‘Unoka, the grown-up, [is] a failure,’ as he ‘ha[s] taken no title at all and he [is] heavily in debt’ when he dies. ‘And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything his father had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.’ In other words, Unoka, the ‘agbala’, with all his character traits of friendliness, improvidence, musicality, laziness, and gentleness, functions, for Okonkwo, as a negative version of masculinity, on which, by exact reversal, he is able to build his own, ‘proper’ notion of manhood. His version of manhood is based, therefore, on the fear of being considered weak. It is explicitly exemplified in the way in which he treats his son, Nwoye. Nwoye, for him, is too ‘feminine’, like his grandfather: he likes music, he adores his mother’s moral tales (which he denies, in order to please his father) and he is simply too sensitive and emotional. Okonkwo feels disgraced by his effeminate son, even more so when he joins the Christian Church:
‘You have all seen the great abomination of your brother. Now is no longer my son or your brother. I will only have a son who is a man, who will hold his head up amongst my people. If any one of you prefers to be a woman, let him follow Nwoye now while I am alive so that I can curse him. If you turn against me when I am dead I will visit you and break your neck.’
Again, there is the gendered differentiation between weakness and women, and strength and men. Masculinity is, for Okonkwo always asserted by this gendered, binary opposition. ‘Men no more than women are chained to the gender patterns they have inherited,’ and Okonkwo seems to be aware of this, as he uses this construct to almost ‘force’ his other sons into behaving manly.
 R.W. Connell, Masculinities, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), p. 70
 Imperialism and Gender: Constructions of Masculinity, ed. C.E. Gittings, (West Yorkshire: Dangaroo Press, 1996), p. 4
 Connell 1995, p. 75
 Connell 1995, p. 67
 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 3
 Achebe 2001, p. 6
 Achebe 2001, p. 3
 Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes, (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 1
 Achebe 2001, p. 133
 Connell 1995, p. 71
 Achebe 2001, p.4
 Achebe 2001, p. 6
 Achebe 2001, p. 11
 Achebe 2001, p. 126
 Connell 1995, p. 86
- Quote paper
- Jenny Roch (Author), 2005, Representations of Masculinity in Things Fall Apart and Wide Sargasso Sea, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/49144