In the novel, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, the traditional gender role descriptions for men are aggressive, courageous, apathetic, hard-working, and strong. Okonkwo, the main character, followed his gender role description perfectly. The reason being, Okonkwo had a goal to be better than his father, Unoka, who lacked all the typical qualities of masculinity in his village. Unoka was considered a failure in Okonkwo’s eyes because of his cowardice and being “lazy and improvident (Things Fall Apart, p. 4)” as well as an embarrassment in their village. The fear of becoming like his father, Okonkwo made every effort in becoming someone to look up and having authority to in his village. To avoid becoming like his father, Okonkwo allowed what he sought to be the best definition of masculinity, control his life.
Okonkwo was an aggressive father and leader. Aggression was a trait that fueled almost everything he has done. He feared that if he wasn’t aggressive enough he would not be respected as much as he thought he should be. He was harsh on all his children, even the girls. When his daughter, Ezinma, was searching for her iyi-uwa, he threatened her stating, “If you bring us all this way for nothing I shall beat sense into you (Things Fall Apart, p. 82).” Although he did not beat her that time, Okonkwo would beat his wives and children if he felt that was their best punishment option. He gave people the impression that if they crossed him he would become rather aggressive and violent, depending on the circumstance. Another aggressive action Okonkwo occurred when he killed his semi-adopted son, Ikemefuna. His intentions weren’t to kill him but the fear he had of looking weak took control over his actions; when Ikemefuna screamed, “My father, they have killed me (Things Fall Apart, p. 61)!” Okonkwo did not want to seem less masculine than those who were ordered to kill Ikemefuna so he participated as well. In Okonkwo’s eyes, looking less masculine was a sign of weakness and that was one of his fears; his fear also controls his masculinity.
In addition to fear controlling his actions, he did not want to appear less masculine than anyone else in his village so he demonstrated apathy frequently throughout the novel. Men showing emotions would make them look soft and vulnerable, so Okonkwo did not show much of any emotion to anyone else but he felt emotional during a few occasions when he was pleased. Okonkwo was courageous and brave; which usually masked any emotions he had. He started his journey to masculinity by being an incredible wrestler; defeating Amalinze the Cat, another wrestler who has not been defeated in seven years (Things Fall Apart, p. 1) and from there he worked his way up to being a warrior. A warrior is a perfect example of what Okonkwo sought himself to be, someone who is honored, strong, and brave. In fact, he is the first warrior that has brought a human head with him home after a battle in a tribal war. Okonkwo asserted his masculinity when the messengers came to him and his clansmen and ordered that their meeting cease. Okonkwo’s temper made him kill one of the messengers with his machete, but it was his bravery that allowed him to pull out the machete in the first place, as well as telling his clansmen that if they did not take his advice on running the “white man” out of their village he would do it himself.
Furthermore, there was a strong sense of pride in everything that Okonkwo did. He placed himself higher than the women and whoever else he felt was beneath him. The traditional gender role for women was for them to be submissive, and comforting property, in a sense. They were brought by grooms and held the purpose of cooking, cleaning, tending to farms, bearing many children, nurturing children and more. Although the women had to bear children, the men in the village said the children belong to their father; not both parents. Okonkwo placed himself above women, especially his wives. Okonkwo even thought of his daughter, Ezinma, when she grew older and beautiful, to be a high-priced bride, fit for a someone with real authority and honor; someone in the clan and not someone from his motherland where he has been exiled from accidentally killing another member of the clan.
Overall, Okonkwo fit many of the traditional characteristics of masculinity in his village, but along the way, he has also created his own sense of it as well. Okonkwo seemed to be the hard-working and aggressive man he is to rid his mind of ever becoming useless. When he did not have anything to do it made him upset, in fact, there were a few instances where he was up all night doing work and he did not have the opportunity to sleep; in his eyes that was dedication. Okonkwo was a great candidate for the highest of authority in his village because he was so hard on himself, as well as everyone else. Those who participated in what he thought of as feminine behavior he despised and wished them to be more masculine. When the white men came to their village and he wanted the clan to make them leave by force and they did not agree, he took actions into his own hands thinking it was the most masculine decision. After killing a white man, Okonkwo later committed suicide and hung himself because he thought that was better than allowing the hands of a white man to kill him. He let his own definition of masculinity guide his lifestyle choices, as well as lead him to his ultimate ending. All of his masculine acts could not save him, nor his people; instead it landed him an unsatisfying burial without all the honor of his masculine acts.