Things Fall Apart

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Masculinity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Tradition vs. Change Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Masculinity Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Things Fall Apart, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Masculinity Theme Icon

Okonkwo dedicates himself to being as masculine as possible, and through his rise to become a powerful man of his tribe and subsequent fall both within the tribe and in the eyes of his son Nwoye, the novel explores the idea of masculinity. Okonkwo believes in traditional gender roles, and it pains him that his son Nwoye is not more aggressive like he is. As a result, it's revealing that he expresses the wish that his daughter Ezinma were a boy—from this we know how fond he is of her. Additionally, in a meeting towards the very beginning of the book, Okonkwo insults a man without title by calling him a woman, demonstrating how much masculinity is valued when ranking those in Umuofia society. Ultimately, though, Okonkwo's adherence to masculinity and aggression leads to his fall in society—he becomes brittle and unable to bend with the changes taking place in his clan. In keeping with this principle of masculinity, Okonkwo forces himself to kill his own surrogate son, murder the white man against his better judgment, and hang himself before a punishment can be imposed by others. Okonkwo's aggression makes him weak in the end—it leaves him with no room to maneuver against the more subtle ways of the white man.

Nwoye struggles with this idea of masculinity, as he wants to please his father by being aggressive and traditional, but ultimately, he's repelled by the violence in Umuofia rituals and joins the Christians. Nwoye's departure can also be linked to this idea from Okonkwo's uncle, Uchendu, after the family is exiled from Umuofia: “'It's true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut.'” Likewise, after being beaten by his father, Nwoye leaves to seek solace in the more feminine and seemingly gentle Christian religion.

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Masculinity Quotes in Things Fall Apart

Below you will find the important quotes in Things Fall Apart related to the theme of Masculinity.
Chapter 2 Quotes

…[Okonkwo] was not afraid of war. He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia's latest war he was the first to bring home a human head.

Related Characters: Okonkwo, Unoka
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Okonkwo wonders about the nature of the town meeting, guessing, perhaps, that it will bring news of a war. These thoughts cause him to reflect on his recent successes, and to offer a brazen confidence in future battles.

This passage reiterates how Okonkwo is both brave and violent; his strength is impressive but also takes rash and aggressive forms. He first defines himself in terms of “action” and “war,” indicating that these are the primary components of his identity. Next, he contrasts these features with those of his father, reiterating the way Okonkwo chooses assertive behaviors as a way to distance himself from his father’s weakness. The reference to a “human head” both serves as an example of this military strength and adds a further piece of information about Umuofia society: warfare includes the taking of prizes and trophies to demonstrate one's military prowess.

Yet we should note that Okonkwo does not pause to consider other reasons a meeting would have been called—instead he immediately jumps to a violent conclusion. Although Okonkwo is indeed correct that the call signals conflict with another clan, his tendency to jump to aggressive conclusions foreshadows how his defaulting to violence will bring his downfall.


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Even as a little boy he had resented his father's failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

Related Characters: Okonkwo, Unoka
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrator describes the harsh way Okonkwo organizes his family, he makes repeated reference to the character’s childhood. He claims that Okonkwo’s actions today result from wishing to distance himself from a father he perceived as weak.

Okonkwo’s great aversion to weakness can, here, be pinpointed to a single memory, and indeed a similar word: agbala. Once more, the narrator stresses the importance of language within Umuofia society, for the label “agbala” to designate a feminine and untitled man is sufficient to structure Okonkwo’s entire relationship to his father and to his own identity. That one word defines the “one passion” that controls Okonkwo, indicating that his personality is singularly driven—and thus corroborating the way he is remarkably strong but unable to deviate from this harsh singular viewpoint. He can see no need for “gentleness” or “idleness” in any setting whatsoever.

This passage implies that Okonkwo’s strict personality is neither an inherent quality he was born with nor a reflection of Umuofia society, but rather a reaction to his father. It also gives a complicated image of gentleness in Umuofia society, and the narratorial distance from Okonkwo’s perspective implies that his may not be the only pertinent viewpoint. Indeed, the text implies that Okonkwo’s single-mindedness may have left him blind to the way that gentleness may indeed be an effective element of his household. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

Okonkwo did as the priest said. He also took with him a pot of palm-wine. Inwardly, he was repentant. But he was not the man to go about telling his neighbors that he was in error. And so people said he had no respect for the gods of the clan.

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

After Okonkwo beats his wife during the Week of Peace, he repents before the priest of Ani. Yet his pride prevents him from showing this repentance publicly, which earns him a level of social admonishment.

This moment demonstrates the importance in Umuofia society of external performance: although Okonkwo is repentant “inwardly,” his response is deemed unacceptable because it does include a corresponding act for “his neighbors.” Thus religion is presented as a both private and public act—and remorse becomes something that must be externalized for the entire society.

We see here, too, a notable shift in the society’s image of Okonkwo. Whereas before he has been presented in generally complimentary terms, here we have a clear instance where his personality has left him out of step with social norms: first, his insistence on aggression and rigidity prevents him from observing the Week of Peace, for he is unable to recalibrate his actions based on the circumstance. And second, his wish to remain ever-strong in front of his neighbors similarly causes them to misinterpret him as having “no respect for the gods of the clan.” Thus Okonkwo’s personal prowess may make him the epitome of certain Umuofia masculine values, but it also brings him into conflict with other spiritual and social norms.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories that his mother used to tell…

Related Characters: Nwoye
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Nwoye has begun to take on more masculine tasks in Okonkwo’s household, he still retains a preference for the more stereotypically “feminine” pursuits.

This passage corroborates the strict divide between masculine and feminine in Umuofia society: certain chores and behaviors are deemed one or the other, and various characters are categorized according to which actions they perform. It is notable that biological sex does not necessarily correlate to the gender of the tasks that one prefers: Nwoye is a boy, but his preference for “the stories that his mother used to tell” reveals a feminine tendency that Okonkwo hates.

We should not forget, however, that the labeling of storytelling as feminine occurs in a novel—and indeed in a novel that constantly prizes proverbs and the way that Umuofia citizens (men and women alike) place a high value on language. Thus the reader should be cautious not to take the supposedly feminine quality of storytelling as negative, or even inappropriate for Nwoye. Indeed, the lasting power of the novel to have encapsulated the tale of Okonkwo indicates that storytelling has a longevity that will outlast the temporary masculine exertion of force.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Ezinma took the dish in one hand and the empty water bowl in the other and went back to her mother's hut. “She should have been a boy,” Okonkwo said to himself again. His mind went back to Ikemefuna and he shivered.

Related Characters: Okonkwo, Ikemefuna, Ezinma
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Enzima gives Okonkwo a dish of plantains to break his fast, and she assertively commands him to finish them. Their exchange makes Okonkwo ruminate on her masculine qualities.

This passage further clarifies the gender roles in Umuofia society. Once more, the text divorces the sex of a character from the type of action he or she performs. It is possible for Enzima, for instance, to take on stereotypical masculine characteristics by being assertive with Okonkwo. This behavior earns her respect, for Okonkwo both follows the command and then praises her for making it. Yet when Okonkwo adds that “she should have been a boy,” the tone of the text changes: the masculine behaviors may be desirable, but they only make Okonkwo wish that they were housed in a male body as well. Thus even as the narrative breaks down some of the gender binaries at play, it also reaffirms them. Ultimately, at least for Okonkwo, the gender of actions and the sex of the character should conform to each other.

“The world is large,” said Okonkwo. “I have even heard that in some tribes a man's children belong to his wife and her family.”
“That cannot be,” said Machi. “You might as well say that the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the children.”

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

During the bride-price negotiation for Obierika’s daughter, a conversation begins on similar practices in other cultures. The characters recount a variety of customs and struggle to reconcile how other societies could behave so differently from their own.

This exchange focuses specifically on gender roles as they manifest differently across cultures. As an example of the broad range of customs, Okonkwo describes a more matriarchal one. This comparison causes Machi to respond with shock, and to compare familial ownership to sexual positions. Both characters find such dynamics unbelievable, even appalling, for they would attribute more social power to woman. Thus the passage serves first and foremost to reaffirm the highly patriarchal nature of Umuofia society: Machi is so set in his ways that he considers bedroom politics that are quite common in other places to be entirely outlandish.

More broadly, this exchange shows the simultaneous attempt and difficulty for Umuofia members to make sense of other cultures. Although the bride-price bit provokes a useful comparative reflection, it also stresses the narrowness of these characters’ perspectives. Achebe thus stresses the relative difficulty of accepting cultural practices that lie outside one’s familial experience and subtly hints at the importance of being able to negotiate with other norms.

Chapter 13 Quotes

It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years…

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator describes the social impact and symbolic significance of how Okonkwo accidentally kills Ezeudu’s son, and clarifies the necessary punishment in terms of the gendered nature of the act.

As before, Okonkwo performs an act that is “a crime against the earth goddess,” only here the punishment is far harsher than personal repentance. The distanced language of the phrase “a man who committed it” highlights how the punishment is not tied specifically to Okonkwo’s identity, but is rather an application of a universal law to his specific case. Next, the narrator delineates between male and female crimes: Since Okonkwo killed Ezeudu’s son by accident, his act is deemed “female,” but the murder is also presumably “male” due to its violent nature.

That Okonkwo has committed an act representative of both genders is quite revealing: if before, his character had been fully and overly identified with masculine acts, instead here we see the influx of the very thing he most fears: femininity. Yet the female crime is not the result of weakness, but rather the way that Okonkwo’s obsession with violence and strength has caused him to act rashly. Beyond reasserting the way every act is coded based on gender in Umuofia society, this passage indicates that Okonkwo is far from immune to female qualities.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.

Related Characters: Okonkwo (speaker), Nwoye
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

Okonkwo thinks of this phrase as he reflects on the way Nwoye has converted to Christianity. Its image encapsulates how Okonkwo’s potent, ardent personality could give rise to a son deemed extremely weak.

This line marks a turning point in the text because it is the first instance of Okonkwo using metaphorical language—indeed, he seems to have invented his own proverb—indicating a source of genuine linguistic creativity. One might thus interpret this line as an indication that Okonkwo has embraced the softer, "feminine" characteristics associated with storytelling and language—yet the phrase itself implies just the opposite. Rather, it reinstates the hierarchy between Okonkwo’s masculine personality as “living fire” versus the weak, feminine Nwoye, who is “cold, impotent ash.” Though Okonkwo may have finally engaged in the game of imagistic language valued throughout the text, the way he does so only reaffirms his harsh and divisive views on the world.