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Things fall apart : the role of men and women

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Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart explores the struggle between old traditions within the Igbo community as well as Christianity and “the second coming” it brings forth. While on the surface, it appears the novel narrows its’ focus to a single character, Okonkno and his inner battles, one can read deeper into the text and find an array of assorted conflicts in the realm on human vs. human, human vs. nature, human vs. society, and society vs. society. For the purposes of this paper I shall focus on the labyrinth of human vs. human and human vs. society in the framework of the role of women in Igbo society and how men assign and dictate these roles. I will also briefly explain the importance of women in terms of motherhood and wifedom.

Throughout my research I’ve encountered numerous papers on the rights women do have in Igbo society, on the importance of women in this society. They site the role of widows in Igbo society as well as the respect given to the first wife as proof that while this society is not an ideal situation for women, it is hardly the misogynist society that some make it out to be. I passionately disagree. It is obvious to me that to the characters in Things Fall Apart, women are “things” to be exploited, abused and to serve as second-class citizens to the rank of male privilege. The theme of misogyny runs rampant throughout the text whether it is exposed by the absence of women in the text, the abuses women suffer at the hands of men, or the subtle ways in which society dictates and reinforces these negative statuses and images of women.

Throughout the text women are virtually invisible and live their lives on the sidelines; it is clear from a close reading that women are to be not seen nor heard. As one critic describes, “it is an andocentric world where the man is everything and the woman nothing” (Mezu 2). A clear instance of this is the case of Okonkwo’s mother. While the presence of his father, although negative, is prevalent in much of the novel, the presence of his mother is all but nonexistent. To my knowledge, his (unnamed) mother shows up only once in the text, three days after his participation in the ritual murder of Ikemefuna, his “adopted” son (Jeyifo 3).

For the first time in three nights, Okonkwo slept. He woke up once in the middle of the night and his mind went back to the past three days without making him feel uneasy. He began to wonder why he felt uneasy at all. It was like a man wondering in broad daylight why a dream had appeared so terrible to him at night. He stretched himself and scratched his thigh where a mosquito had bitten him as he slept. Another one was wailing near his right ear. He slapped the ear and hoped he had killed it. Why do they always go for one’s ears? When he was a child his mother had told him a story about it.

But it was as silly as all women’s stories. Mosquito, she had said, had asked Ear to marry him, whereupon she fell on the floor in uncontrollable laughter. ‘How much longer do you think you will live?, she asked. ‘You are already a skeleton.’ Mosquito went away humiliated, and anytime he passed her way he told Ear that he was still alive (Achebe 53).

This could have been a critical turning point in the text pre-shadowed by what we were told earlier in the novel by Okonkwo’s uncle Uchedu, “but when there is sorrow and bitterness, he [man] finds refuge in his motherland” (Achebe 95). At this point when Okonkwo needs the spirit and wisdom of his mother the most, he casts it away as “silly women’s stories” and easily suppresses the memory of his mother.

An additional obvious instance of the invisibility of women is a communal ceremony in which the narrator confesses, “it was clear from the way the crowd stood or sat that the ceremony was for men. There were many women, but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders” (Achebe 62). This seems to be a habitual theme in the novel as women are regularly presented as wives and mothers, busy with the work of the household as men took on the more significant responsibilities of politics and society. As one critic remarks of this phenomenon “for centuries, African women languished on the fringe of their universe-neglected, exploited, degenerated, and indeed made to feel like outsiders” (Mezu 2).

The abuse Igbo women suffered at the hands of the men who supposedly loved them was horrendous, although not as removed from American culture as we’d like to assume. Wife beating was a common, if not celebrated, practice. The ultimate show of masculinity was to keep your woman in line, which was shown through mental and physical abuse. Although little is made of it, the novel shows abundant instances of wife beating. The novel takes us to two illustrations of Okonkwo beating his wives. The first occurred when Okonkwo’s first wife did not return from a friends home early enough to cook his afternoon meal. “And when she returned he beat her heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess” (Achebe 21). While Okonkwo was punished by way of paying with “one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries” (Achebe 22) it was because he beat her during the Week of Peace, not because of the actual act of physical violence.

A second instance of wife-beating transpired when his second wife cut leaves off a banana tree to wrap food (Achebe 27). The nature of womans’ place in this instance is clear. The women, in fear, stay out of Okonkwo’s way and allow him to physically abuse his wife as if it were a normal part of a husbands’ relationship with his wife. And to the people of Igbo society, it was. As Achebe explains to us, “neither of the other wives dared to interfere beyond an occasional and tentative ‘it is enough Okonkwo,’ pleaded from a reasonable distance” (Achebe 27).

Gender lines in Igbo society are strictly drawn, and the Igbo community consistently reinforces this. To be a man is to be violent and strong, showing any emotion is a sign of weakness or is considered to be a “female” trait. In Igbo society all that is good is considered masculine and all that is bad is thought of as feminine. This is shown through uses of both language and agriculture.

The language of the Igbo people is inherently sexist in nature. Okonkwo demonstrates this to the reader in his great fear of becoming “womanly” and following the lead of a powerless father. As one literary critic put it, “Okonkwo was ruled by one passion-to hate everything his father Unoka had loved” (Sengova 7). To be thought of womanly is to be thought of as worthless, powerless; traits Okonkwo is terrified of exhibiting. After the accidental murder of Ikemefuna, he flees to his mother’s town, which is called Mbanta or “small town”. This is in direct contrast to his clan Umuofia or “children of the forest” which is perceived as rugged, violent, wild (Mezu 4). Agbala was a word used for either a man who had taken no title or a “woman” (Chun 1). The chauvinistic, systematic language of the Igbo people reinforces their cultural belief in the subservience of women.

Even the agricultural system of the Igbo people supported the sex-typed gender roles. The main crop is the yam and is “synonymous with virility” (Mezu 2). We are told that “yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed” (Achebe 24). The female crop is the smaller crops of the coco yam and the cassava and have much less importance to the tribe. Once again it is reinforced that to be manly is to be supreme and that women are worthless and undesirable in comparison.

What women are esteemed for in this society (not surprisingly) is for their mere biology, their potential as mates and mothers. Men in Igbo society use women for their own gain and appear to care little about them, women are seen as property of the man and the more possessions he acquires, the more powerful he becomes. While some argue that this is an important custom to notice because women are a large part of what makes up a mans’ power, I believe it is irrelevant because the woman does not have equal access to, nor is she allowed to share in this power. One critic makes special notice of the importance of motherhood in Igbo society and defends its’ significance as “joys and tribulations of their motherhoodÖto represent some of the most meaningful cultural aspects of existence in Igbo communities” (Osei-Nyame 7). While the joys of motherhood and wifedom are boundless, ones entire state of being, conscious and happiness cannot and must not come solely from the titles of wife and mother.

While many may argue that the underlying role of woman in Igbo communities is vastly important and appreciated subtly the text of Things Fall Apart seems to dispute and contradict that theory at many times. While the text faintly shows us the significance of women (women painted the houses of the egwugwu and the first wife is given great respect) it time and time again slammed in the readers face instances of cruelty, inequality, subservience all which can not be written off simply because of a few minor instances where women are even treated as humans instead of animals or slaves. All in all the women of Things Fall Apart are treated with such enormous disrespect and disgust and the reader cannot help but be sickened and saddened by not only the reality of women in Africa but of Achebe’s portrayal of it.

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