Gender Analysis of Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"

Paper Type:  Term paper
Pages:  7
Wordcount:  1712 Words
Date:  2022-09-11


First published in 1958, "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe examines life in pre-colonial African village through the life of Okonkwo. Okonkwo is a hardworking and respected leader in the tribe but he lives in fear of turning out like his father- a man known only for his cowardice and laziness. As a result, he strives to be the exact opposite of his father. The traditional life of the Ibo people is deeply shaken by the coming of the colonialists and the Christian religion. In the highly patriarchal Ibo society, women are seen to occupy a lower hierarchy than their male counterparts, almost throughout the entire narrative. However, women are the holders of significant social and economic roles in the society and a keen mind soon finds that although they may initially appear as the weak gender, they are the custodians of socially vital roles in the Ibo society such as educators, caretakers of the crops, the continuity of life, the caretakers of the homes, and leaders in important religious functions. This paper will examine in detail the complex role of women in Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart."

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In this book, women are associated with weakness and failure. Okonkwo associated his father with failure and weakness, something that his fought fiercely to avoid. Okonkwo associated his first son, Nwoye with women because he too reminded him of weakness and failure. Consequently, he wishes that his daughter Ezinma was a boy. There is the notion that if she were a boy, he would love her more. After the sacrificial killing of Ikemefuna, the protagonist cannot understand why he is distraught by that death and asks himself "when did you become a shivering old woman?" (Achebe 56). Hence, the protagonist associates any weakness with being a woman and that includes showing emotions.

To him, even showing emotions is associated with weakness instead of reflecting why the death of the boy bothers his mind. As the novel comes close to the end and Okonkwo is urging the men to fight the colonial administration, he remembers with bitterness the "days when men were men" (Achebe 184). What comes out is that women are associated with weakness and failure while the men are associated with strength and success. It is in keeping with this notion that women are weak that the beating of women is allowed.

After these common beatings, women find no justice in the community or inside their homes. For just the simple excuse that she fails to prepare him a meal, he beats his second wife severely, forgetting that it is the week of peace. Okonkwo also beats up his first wife when she refers to him as a "gun that never shot" (Achebe 79). The protagonist is seen to rule his household with a heavy hand and the women have to live in almost perpetual fear because he believes that being any less stringent and fearful is associating himself with weakness, a weakness that he thinks should be a preserve for the women.

To view women as simply weak is a premature and simplistic view of this book. A closer look reveals that this book reserves some important roles for the women in the Ibo society throughout the novel. One of these important roles is that of women as the religious custodians of society. Routinely, the women perform the role of priestess. As the narrator explains, when Okonkwo was a young boy, in those days the priestess was a woman called Chika. She was greatly feared especially when full of the power of her god.

When Okonkwo is now grown, Chielo is the present priestess, the priestess of Agbala, the oracle of the caves and hills. At one time, Okonkwo pleads with Chielo to come back in the morning because Ezinma was asleep. Chielo still takes her away despite the protagonist's pleas. Nowhere in the entire novel does Okonkwo plead with anyone, female or male for whatever reason. The reader witnesses a woman threaten and take Okonkwo's favorite child and this demonstrates the religious powers of the women in this society.

In other words, while the women play second fiddle to the men around the homestead, on the religious front, the women occupy a special role that is respected and feared by even the most powerful men in the Ibo society. Even the most powerful deity in the land is Ani, the earth goddess which places her very close with the departed leaders of the clan. The earth contains both the bodies of the departed as well as the crops that society depends on. Chielo is, therefore, the ultimate judge of morality and conduct because she is able to dictate the behavior of everyone in the village, particularly during the week of peace. The ultimate power of this goddess is seen when Okonkwo is banished to her mother's clan because everyone is afraid that the earth goddess will ruin the whole clan by withholding the growth of yams, an important crop for the village.

Women are the educators in the Ibo society, a very important role considering that there are no formal schools. Most of the education process is carried out orally through storytelling. As the narrator describes, the education is characterized by low voices, occasionally broken up by singing (Achebe 96). Okonkwo is said to hear these voices as each woman touches her children through folk stories. Through the stories, the children learn about the clan and its origins, the human condition, and important myths. In time, the children are expected to master this art and teach it to their children later on.

A woman as educators of the society is a role that is especially made powerful and critical to the survival of the Ibo society because the novel states earlier on that "proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten" (Achebe 7). Hence, while on the surface they may seem to have little power in the society, this role reveals that they are charged with an important task of educating the young ones, therefore guaranteeing the continuity and identity of their society.

Throughout the novel, women are seen to be the constancy in which the society revolves around. Nowhere is this idea brought out than when Okonkwo is banished from his village to his mother's clan. While Okonkwo is being reproached for having to come to live with his mother's clan, Uchendu makes an important statement that a man belongs to the clan of his father when things are going well but in times of bitterness and sorrow, he seeks refuge in his mother.

One wonders where Okonkwo would have gone to seek refuge if he were not in a position to access his mother's clan. Initially, he is depressed by the fact that his clan can exile him as they see fit but his uncle consoles him by explaining that his mother is there for this particular role- to be his place of refuge when things are not going well. It does not matter that his mother is dead because as long as she is buried there, he can seek refuge in his mother's clan as much as he wants.

As it emerges, the women are the foundation of the society and its different clans in this African setting. They are the caretakers and nurturers of the people and even powerful men like Okonkwo know that they have a refuge. There is some comfort in knowing that the mother, dead or alive, is there for everyone to lean on as well as the support of her entire clan. Moreover, it is the women who tend to the farms during critical stages in the growth of yams. This is also a very critical role given that if they were to fail, the villages would almost certainly starve to death.

In the book "Chinua Achebe: Pure and Simple, An Oral Biography" Egejuru reveals in-depth Achebe's attraction and respect for the Ibo's folk tales. As a member of the Ibo society himself, Chinua Achebe holds significant authority on the Ibo oral traditions especially the oratory, proverbs and the folk stories (Egejuru 15). His published essay collections and children books highlight his attraction to the Ibo education system and it is no wonder that he gives this important role to the women who are better placed to pass the knowledge to the next generation given that they are the security and the continuity of the society.

In the book "Chinua Achebe: A Biography", Ohaeto Ezenwa explores the author's life and reveals that Achebe's mother would tell him many stories during his childhood and he would keep requesting for more. Hence, he recreates these storytelling sessions in this narrative and maintains that traditional role of women as educators in the Ibo society in this novel (Ohaeto 24). Achebe makes sure that he preserves this art of storytelling in the novel as it was during his childhood by making the women the custodians of it and to some extent, the entire education system. It is clear that the proverbs and folk stories not only made a huge impact on his life but also the women who told him the stories.

On the surface, women are seen to be associated with weakness especially given that the protagonist despises anyone who he thinks seems weak because it reminds him of his father. However, a keen look under the surface reveals that the women are critical contributors to the wellbeing and survival of their society. The novel allocates important roles to the women including the role of educators, the religious custodians, and the security of the future generations. Moreover, other author's highlight the significant role of the women in Achebe's life particularly his mother and his sister in his appreciation of the Ibo's folklore. Hence, the author allocates these powerful roles deliberately because women indeed played an important role in his upbringing and possibly his love of literature. Ultimately, the women emerge as the pillars on which the Ibo society rests upon though it takes a keen eye and mind to look under the patriarchal surface.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. S.L: Penguin Books, 2018. Print.

Egejuru, Phanuel A. Chinua Achebe: Pure and Simple, an Oral Biography. Lagos, Nigeria: Malthouse Press, 2001. Print.

Ezenwa Ohaeto. Chinua Achebe: A Biography. Oxford: James Currey, 1997. Print.

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Gender Analysis of Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart". (2022, Sep 11). Retrieved from

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