Representations of Masculinity in Things Fall Apart and Wide Sargasso Sea
While jotting down some notes in preparation for my essay, I caught myself faltering at the sentence ‘Okonkwo is the epitome of manliness’. Was my intention not to write about masculinity in Things Fall Apart and Wide Sargasso Sea ? Unable to overcome the confusion over the terms ‘manliness’ and ‘masculinity’ without expert help, I swiftly consulted the Oxford English Dictionary in hope of assistance. Interestingly, though, the entries for these terms read practically identically. One reads ‘having the qualities or physical features that are admired or expected in a man’, the other ‘having the qualities or appearance typical of men’. But what exactly is typical of men, and does everyone expect the same of them? Both of the above definitions are normative, asserting what men ought to be. But, ‘what is normative about a norm hardly anyone meets?’ What this question implies is very unambiguous, namely, that masculinity, just as femininity and gender in general, are social constructions. Neither of these categories ‘exist organically’, they are ‘a way of structuring social practice’, fabricated by humans. And just as humans are different from one person to the next, so are their cultures and their social conceptions of masculinity. In other words, there are multiple masculinities. ‘‘Masculinity’ is not a coherent object about which a generalising science can be produced.’ Moreover, it is important to notice at this point, that the different concepts of masculinity are always tightly interweaved with other social constructs and the respective expectations thereof, such as race, gender, class, age, religion, and so forth. Hence, in order to have a look at representations of masculinity in the above mentioned novels, a close reading of the texts will be necessary. While doing so, I shall try to analyse the ways in which Okonkwo and Mr Rochester live their masculinity, how they try to assert it and the constraints they encounter while trying to do so.
From the very first pages of Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is characterised as a hard-working, courageous, aggressive man. ‘He [has] a slight stammer and whenever he [is] angry and [can] not get his words out quickly enough, he [will] use his fists.’ He has over time become ‘well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rest[s] on solid personal achievements.’ Not only is he known for his qualities as a wrestler, he has also ‘taken two titles and [has] shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars.’ Moreover, he has become a wealthy farmer, who has just married his third wife. As for his appearance, ‘he is tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose [give] him a very severe look.’ In other words, not only does he look manly with his tall, muscular built, it seems like he lives the values that are perceived as manly by Ibo society. ‘Military virtues such as aggression, strength, courage and endurance have repeatedly been defined as the natural and inherent qualities of manhood.’ And his eminence as a warrior is exactly one of the ways in which Okonkwo asserts his manhood. Throughout the novel, readers are reminded of his bravery. It is him who finally throws Amalinze the Cat, a wrestler unbeaten for seven years. He is also the first one to bring home a human head won in a fight in an inter-tribal war. Furthermore, he is, at the end of the novel, not afraid to take on ‘the white man’ singularly, if the clan fails to go to battle with him. Bravery for him is a quality so undeniably and inextricably linked to masculinity and the condition of manhood that ‘he mourn[s] for the warlike men of Umuofia, who ha[ve] so unaccountably become soft like women’ during the time of his exile. It becomes clear in this quotation that Okonkwo affirms his manhood, not only by exercising activities which in his eyes are manly, but also by hierarchically placing himself above women. Ibo society, very much like Western society in pre-feminist times, organises its social practice through gendered binaries. Thus, courage, bravery, aggression, activity, are all deemed to be ‘masculine’ features, whereas, in direct opposition, weakness, gentleness, passivity, and submissiveness are regarded as ‘feminine’ attributes. By definition then, ‘no masculinity arises except in a system of gender relations.’ ‘Agbala’, for instance, is not only a term for a woman, but also the term for a man who is said to be weak and has not taken any titles within his clan.
And it is this term precisely which also takes the analysis to the very core of Okonkwo’s need to assert his masculinity: his father Unoka. In the very first chapter of the novel, it becomes clear from where Okonkwo’s conception of manliness originates. In his eyes, ‘Unoka, the grown-up, [is] a failure,’ as he ‘ha[s] taken no title at all and he [is] heavily in debt’ when he dies. ‘And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything his father had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.’ In other words, Unoka, the ‘agbala’, with all his character traits of friendliness, improvidence, musicality, laziness, and gentleness, functions, for Okonkwo, as a negative version of masculinity, on which, by exact reversal, he is able to build his own, ‘proper’ notion of manhood. His version of manhood is based, therefore, on the fear of being considered weak. It is explicitly exemplified in the way in which he treats his son, Nwoye. Nwoye, for him, is too ‘feminine’, like his grandfather: he likes music, he adores his mother’s moral tales (which he denies, in order to please his father) and he is simply too sensitive and emotional. Okonkwo feels disgraced by his effeminate son, even more so when he joins the Christian Church:
‘You have all seen the great abomination of your brother. Now is no longer my son or your brother. I will only have a son who is a man, who will hold his head up amongst my people. If any one of you prefers to be a woman, let him follow Nwoye now while I am alive so that I can curse him. If you turn against me when I am dead I will visit you and break your neck.’
Again, there is the gendered differentiation between weakness and women, and strength and men. Masculinity is, for Okonkwo always asserted by this gendered, binary opposition. ‘Men no more than women are chained to the gender patterns they have inherited,’ and Okonkwo seems to be aware of this, as he uses this construct to almost ‘force’ his other sons into behaving manly.
 R.W. Connell, Masculinities, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), p. 70
Imperialism and Gender: Constructions of Masculinity, ed. C.E. Gittings, (West Yorkshire: Dangaroo Press, 1996), p. 4
 Connell 1995, p. 75
 Connell 1995, p. 67
 Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 3
 Achebe 2001, p. 6
 Achebe 2001, p. 3
 Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes, (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 1
 Achebe 2001, p. 133
 Connell 1995, p. 71
 Achebe 2001, p.4
 Achebe 2001, p. 6
 Achebe 2001, p. 11
 Achebe 2001, p. 126
 Connell 1995, p. 86
“Masculinity” in Things Fall Apart
An Igby Prize essay by Nidhi Singh on Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and its flawed idea of masculinity that defined the life of its hero Okonkwo
What Achebe accomplishes with Things Fall Apart is exemplary. He renders the “wild and passionate uproar” of the “savages”, as described by Marlow in Heart of Darkness, with meaning. He assimilates their rites into the realm of orderly complexity, strong tradition, a vibrant culture which gives a beautiful recognition to humanity’s relationship with nature. He tells us of the unremitting hard work invested by them in agriculture, their proud self-sufficiency, and the fascinating mix of folklore, dance and music which breathes an imaginative vigour in the everyday life and celebrations of Igbo society. Hegel’s declaration of the characteristic point of Negro life as being devoid of that realisation “in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realises his own being” seems preposterous as Achebe documents the organisation of life in a society in which “a man was judged according to his and not according to the worth of his father” — a principle only the most sophisticated societies can hold to. The other important aspect of Achebe’s documentation is that it is honest and neutral, it doesn’t glorify and it doesn’t diminish. This is the strength of his narrative which humanises the ‘dehumanised’ — he never looks away from the degeneration that festers within, he never fails to spot the weak linings that threaten to turn into fissures which would split wide open the whole structure. Achebe’s portrayal of the Igbo society is hard-hitting because it is intensely human — there are societal forces shaping the individual, there are imperfections in the hero it idolises, there is violence and injustice that is normalised and overlooked. Achebe never looks past the imperfections and never offers any deliverance. Because, these are things which are not within his bounds — Igbo society bristles with life and decomposes as any society would, which battles the invasion of colonialism while harbouring sinister limitations.
One of the major limitations of the Igbo society is its flawed idea of masculinity which defines the life of Okonkwo who, perhaps unconsciously but perpetually, exerts to align himself with the socially sanctioned concept of ‘heroism’ and ‘masculinity’. Okonkwo’s life is dominated primarily by two things: “the fear of failure and of weakness”, and his quest to establish himself as one of the greatest men of his clan. What is posited against this idea of weakness is the idea of strength that constructs itself only with the negation of sensitivity:
“To show affection was a sign of weakness — the only thing worth demonstrating was strength. He therefore treated Ikemefuna as he treated everybody else — with a heavy hand.”
Such construction of strength and masculinity, thus, is in opposition with the values of love, kindness, compassion and it invalidates an environment in which these values could mature and develop. It puts a huge limitation on the individual and his self-exploration because the end of any such journey has been pre-decided. Okonkwo, as a small boy, has already settled on what he wants to and what he doesn’t want to become. There are no alternatives considered, no mutability allowed. Okonkwo, perhaps “is not a cruel man”, but what propels most of his actions is not the presence of an unapologetic cruelty, but the readiness with which he overcomes each of these emotions — the potency of his desire to “tremble and subdue” puts down his kindness and compassion. A man’s life so constituted by ruthless masculinity and a desire for success in his society, calls into question the dictatorial values of the whole society — because his manhood is the function of the latter.
Igbo society seems to believe in the ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ of people, things, and actions. The latter is considered extremely undesirable in context of the former and there is a constant attempt to distance the two. The idea of bravery and heroism emanates from an accomplishment attained by overcoming of the ‘feminine’ by the ‘masculine’, the ‘passive’ by the ‘active’, ‘demonstration of affection’ by ‘apathy’, ‘domestic folklore’ by ‘the stories of war’. This is how masculinity in Igbo society is understood and defined — in a constant opposition with femininity, by keeping maleness in a domain separate from all things apprehended as female. The only realm in which the feminine is respected, its power recognised, and its voice heard is the realm of divinity — the earth goddess of fertility, the motherland which protects its warrior son in adverse times, the prophetic priestess of Agbala. In ordinary life, the priestess of Agbala, is “a widow with two children” who puts everyone into disbelief by being someone deific and prophetic in another realm. In ordinary life and in the local space, the woman loses the voice and agency she has in the orbit of divinity. This is in stark contrast, with men functioning as ‘egwugwu’, the spirits of the ancestors. If it is suspected that Okonkwo could be one of the egwugwu behind the mask, it is never expressed because, “if they thought these things they kept them within themselves”. The contradiction in the idea of a man’s participation in the realm of divinity and his ordinariness in life isn’t questioned but the same circumstances when applied to a woman are met with incredulity.
The rigid separation of ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ in the Igbo society produces a constant duality which is never resolved and that weakens its strength from within. Storytelling has a central place in Igbo society. It is an integral part of the everyday Igbo life, of everyone’s experience of childhood and growing up. Nwoye has a great love for the stories of his mother and Ikemefuna. They tell him of the quarrel between the earth and sky, the disagreement between “a man and a mosquito”, “of the tortoise and his wily ways”. He is also introduced to Okonkwo’s stories which are “masculine stories of violence and bloodshed”. His mother’s stories are gradually discarded in favour of his father’s masculine stories because he is made to understand that it is a part of growing up, his initiation into manhood — this relegation of the feminine. But it has also been stated how “he feigned that he no longer cared for women’s stories”. This leads to a perpetual duality, a chasm in the self and its wholesome flourishing. The feminine stories more beautifully and harmoniously integrate humanity with nature. They are more in line with the communitarian values of Igbo society and the animism of its religion — a reminder of how life exists not just inside the territory of man and his associations, a gentle acceptance of the difference and discord that is inherent in such a framework. This is contradictory to the masculine stories which are based on tales of brute force and decimation. The exclusion of Nwoye from this world of stories, takes away from him the power of language and expression, the ability to articulate the “vague chill” that descends on him when he “heard the voice of an infant crying in the thick forest”. It takes away from him the power to express pain and fear, the power to identify and speak against evil and injustice. It is an ailment that plagues not just Nwoye but the whole Igbo society — it handicaps language and expression. It deforms personalities.
One of the major reasons why the Igbo society was unable to protect its culture, traditions and religion from missionaries and colonialism was its rigid conception of masculinity. Christianity assimilated everything that was considered odious, cancerous, throwaway by the Igbos — the outcast osus, women who had been the most compromising victims of patriarchy, and tortured souls like Nwoye who finally found a space which gave voice for the criticism of sinister practices. Everything that was broken, battered and overridden by the obsessive exaltation of masculinity, found a space to accumulate and build up. The Igbo society failed to recognise the cracks within. It failed to remedy its diseased state and reinvent. It never relented its grasp on individuals like Okonkwo who grew, lived and got distorted in its calcified cell.