In America when one considers traditional or ‘stereotypical’ male and female roles usually it boils down to men bringing home the funds and the women taking care of the housework and rearing children. Today however, these lines have blurred drastically due to women’s rights activists pushing for a more equal balance. But, as seen in the book Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe with the setting being in Nigeria, there are a lot of similarities between the stereotypes that still plague this community even to this day. Throughout history men have taken upon the role of dominance, whether by chance or authoritative methods, and nothing less is seen in the male and female roles of the Igbo tribes of the story.
The main character, Okonkwo, is driven by this need to be seen as manly. He strives to be the best in the land by restraining himself from affectionate or compromises which would put him in a negative light by his other tribesmen. This lack of balance leads him to be overtly aggressive and lacking in nurture which indirectly places him at the end of the story to become just as irresponsible as his carefree father Unoka.
His character seems to be self-centered and chauvinistic, which on paper appears to not be very ideal. But when one considers the stereotypical alpha male that a lot of men strive for, then he definitely fits the mold. He has multiple wives, lots of property, wealth, esteem, titles, and clout. If one took him out of the culture of Africa and implanted him in the 1950’s America, he would be the propagating role model of the society, as he was in his own.
Following Okonkwo throughout the story, we start to see the strict roles placed in society.
Besides the man being the superior being, which comes with holding title, property, etc., they expected to be served by their perceived lesser counterparts, women. Women are groomed to take care of their husbands, provide children, and maintain submissiveness. The main timeframe that they are truly honored is during uri celebration. Bonding time and celebration of the bride and mother are key in the deliverance of palm wine to the guests by the groom- to- be. Okonkwo struggles with this when he becomes fond of his daughter Ezinma over his eldest son, Nwoye. Although he bonds with his daughter more he can’t accept her fully because her gender doesn’t give him a greater status in life. His son reminds him of his ‘weak’ father Unoka, therefore he rejects him. In the U.S, at least by today’s standards, women are seen to be the most important when it comes to rearing children and being the backbone of the family unit. Some men still consider it better to have a child which continues the last name as would a female if she was married.
The first oppressive boundary in the Igbo culture household is the fact that women cooked and served food. One of Okonkwo’s wives failed to provide her part of the food ritual, and as a result she was badly beaten. This was seen by Okonkwo and the society as a whole as deeply offensive. Furthermore, she would be blamed even more for causing him to ‘sin’ by his beating her during a time of peace. He offers sacrifices to cleanse his hands of the impurity that she has caused. In most cultures today, it would inhumane to blame a woman for getting beat at the hands of her husband, and definitely for failing to cook him dinner or being late due to getting her hair done. But one has to look at the culture with an unbiased lens to understand that it is about expectation of genders. These women and men have been taught since childhood of the strict rules governing what it was to be one gender or the other. Breaking this for even a small infraction causes a larger ripple in the grand scheme of life.
Women are not able to sit on committees or boards, which left room for unfair treatment fashioned by the men in the tribes. The only time a woman figure has any leverage is if there is a ‘sin’ committed against the earth god. The representative, or mouth piece, of the god is always a woman. Since men made the laws they also enforced them. They were seen as sole providers of their household as well as protectors. This latter job is what caused the despair of Okonkwo when his fellow tribal men refused to fight to protect their land. To him this was the ultimate sin against manhood.
Being as though he had been in exile for so many years he hadn’t acclimated to the European missionarys’ lifestyle. This major culture shock went against his whole being and caused him to commit suicide. This is how deeply ingrained this culture’s ideals were to them, at least until they were ‘civilized’ by the European standards. The villagers did, however, keep some of their old customs as they refused to touch his body since he had sinned by taking his own life. This mixture of culture can be seen anytime a person is introduced into a new environment. The same has happened in the U.S. as well as other places in the world.
The most noticeable tension of gender roles issues is that of Okonkwo and his daughter Eznima. As stated earlier he has bonded the most with her and he disowns his son due to him perceiving Nwoye as a traitor to his culture. Okonkwo struggles with not showing affection to Eznima, and although he wishes to put her in the position to inherit his assets and take upon his business, he refuses to because of the gender roles in society.
If he hadn’t killed another tribesman and was able to live in the village during the time of the missionaries works, then he may have softened his mindset as the others did during the seven years he was away. This story is definitely a tragedy due to the deeply rooted belief system that caused a man to lose his worldly possessions because of an ideal of what it was to be considered a man.