Consider the Aristotelian tragedy. It has yet to go the way of Eddie Bauer. In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe devised a tragic African hero in Okonkwo, consistent with the classic stipulations of the figure. Thus, the novel–to its greatest practicable extent inherently existed as a tragedy on all levels to accommodate Okonkwo. To illustrate this, I will dissect and analyze the many factors that make Things Fall Apart an exemplary model of Greek tragedy by Aristotle s own towering ideals. First and foremost, the tragic hero must be of noble stature, occupying a high position within the community, innately embodying virtue and majesty.
Okonkwo distinguished himself as an exceptional wrestler, defeating Amalinze the Cat who had not been defeated in seven years and winning thus a reputation as a manly figure. In his family compound, Okonkwo lives in a hut of his own, and each of his three wives lives in a hut of her own with her children. The prosperous compound also includes an enclosure with stacks of yams, sheds for goats and hens, and a medicine house, where Okonkwo keeps the symbols of his personal god and ancestral spirits and where he offers prayers for his and his family.
Though the hero may be great, he may not be perfect. We must be able to identify with him, seeing him perhaps in others or ourselves. Having a notoriously short temper and an infamously wasteful father rendered Okonkwo imperfect, one who has problems and a past like everyone else. The hero’s downfall, therefore, is partially his own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate.
In fact, the tragedy is usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the hero’s lack of perfection noted above. This error of judgment or character flaw is known as hamartia and is usually (albeit hesitantly) translated as “tragic flaw”. Often the character’s hamartia involves hubris. The proud Okonkwo, a prisoner of his own male-centric culture and his disgrace-ridden ancestry, was determined to be the paragon of masculinity, producing his tragic flaw: the fear of being thought womanly, or the fear of weakness.
His readiness to explode into violence sans provocation demonstrated his need to express anger through brutality and without rationalization; his stubborn and irrational behavior began to divest him negatively from the other villagers. Okonkwo s feelings differed from his words and actions, evident in the killing of Ikemefuna in the seventh chapter, where the tragic hero disregarded his inner feelings of love and protectiveness, showing that the deep abyss between his divided self accounted for the beginning of his decline.
The hero’s misfortune is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime, which is seen at different occasions: banished to the motherland for seven years (chapter fourteen) for an accidental womanly crime and his concurrent Euro-induced suicide upon his ill fated return (chapter twenty-five). Okonkwo sought to protect Umuofia s culture, only to face apathy from the townspeople, and final failure in taking his own life. The fall is not pure loss. There is some increase in awareness, some gain in self-knowledge, some discovery on the part of the tragic hero.
In chapter fourteen, Okonkwo seemed to realize that his chi was not made for great things a reluctant admission that he may not achieve everything he wants because it is not his fate to do so. Two chapters later, the Roaring Flame understood the destructive nature of his behavior with the insight: Living fire begets cold, impotent ash; it left only coldness and powerlessness in others evident in his son. In the next to last chapter, he finally knew he could not save his village and its traditions no matter how fiercely he tries.
The Umuofia he had loved and honored was on the verge of surrender, and Okonkwo himself felt utterly defeated. Though it elicits solemn emotion, tragedy does not leave its audience in a state of depression. Aristotle argues that one function of tragedy is to arouse the “unhealthy” emotions of pity and fear and through a catharsis (which comes from watching the tragic hero’s terrible fate) cleanse us of those emotions. Achebe accomplishes this with the successful final epiphany, completing Things Fall Apart as an exemplary model of Aristotelian tragedy, to the greatest extent possible.