Gender Roles in Things Fall Apart

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Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart provides a profound insight into African culture before the colonial period. Although the novel was published in 1958, post-colonial period, Achebe highlights the traditions and practices of African communities before the arrival of Europeans. The novel focuses on the Igbo culture represented by the Umuofia society. The protagonist of the story, Okonkwo, is the leader of the Umuofia village, which is governed by strict cultural norms and traditions. The Umuofia people strictly adhere to their traditions and values, which designate particular roles and responsibilities for men and women. According to Anyokwu (2011), Achebe presents a patriarchal society as it fosters male dominance and female subjugation. The value and significance of men and women in the Umuofia society are strictly separated by gender, as each gender is not allowed to participate in certain crucial aspects. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, men are providers, women take care of homes and their husbands, and society rejects feminine attributes.

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Men and Women Roles

Achebe’s novel depicts a patriarchal society where men are expected to be in charge and provide for their families. Men are assumed to have the strength to protect their families in case of external threats (Tobalase, 2016). This strength is also exemplified in providing for their families through hard work in farming. Planting and harvesting yams are seen as a manly job because it requires dedication and much labor to grow successfully and mature. Yam is a cultural crop in Umuofia that signifies a man’s strength in providing for his family. The author writes, “During the planting season, Okonkwo worked daily on his farms. He was a very strong man and rarely felt fatigue” (Achebe, 1994, p.18). Okonkwo’s ability to fend for his family through his yam farms is considered a masculine strength and a demonstration of his manly attributes, which are well-regarded in Umuofia society. Any man who cannot plant and harvest yams and thus resorts to begging is considered a weak man and a failure.

Similarly, men are considered lawmakers and judges in Umuofia society. Men are viewed as the ultimate decision-makers in the village and determine the punishment given to those who defy the customs and values of the community. The only power considered above the man’s decision-making is that made by the gods and goddesses, as seen with Chielo, an oracle for the Earth God.

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Conversely, women are expected to be household keepers and dutiful members of society. Men are only expected to work labor-intensive jobs such as planting while the women make dinner at specified times. As in the case of Okonkwo, any man with multiple wives expects to receive a share of what each of them has cooked. Failure to do so results in conflicts and tension as the men feel disrespected. An illustration of this designation of gender roles is witnessed when Ojiugo, Okonkwo’s youngest wife, goes to plait her hair in the neighbor’s house and is unable to make dinner for him and her children. The author writes, “He walked back to his obi to await Ojiugo’s return. And when she returned, he beat her heavily” (Achebe, 1994, p.32). Okonkwo beats her wife because he believes she has not fulfilled her role as a woman and thus has disrespected his manliness. Women are not supposed to question their man’s decisions, including punishment such as beating (Item & Agbo, 2019).

Equally, the women in Umuofia are not supposed to inherit anything from their parents or husbands (Rahayu, 2010). Enzima, Okonkwo’s eldest daughter, is fond of her father, and they have a good connection. However, because she is not a boy, she cannot inherit anything from her father and even help him with farm duties. Okonkwo wished that Enzima was a boy because his heritage was his son, Nwoye, who did not have the attributes that Okonkwo desired.

Societal View of Gender Roles

The Umuofia village is a patriarchal society that fosters male dominance and rejects feminine attributes. The village celebrates masculinity through anger and aggressiveness, as witnessed through Okonkwo’s way of life and how he treats his family (Shiner et al., 2009). He even resents his late father, who was considered weak and feminine. His father was nicknamed agbala, referring to a woman because of his gentleness and kindness, which Okonkwo despised. The author writes, “He was a man of action, a man of war” (Achebe, 1994, p.15). Hence, Okonkwo ruled his family with an iron fist, willing to appear as a strong man to the villagers. Even when he is warned not to participate in the killing of Ikemefuna because he looks at him as a father figure, he resents it because it would make him look weak. Ultimately, he kills Ikemefuna even though he admires the masculine qualities he wishes Nwoye had acquired. In the end, in an attempt to appear strong, he kills the district commissioner’s messenger, forcing him to commit suicide because the village people were unwilling to join his revolt.

Clearly, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart illustrates strict gender roles perpetuated by strict norms that foster male dominance and female oppression. Achebe’s novel reflects the society in the 19th century, where women were expected to be obedient and submissive to their husbands as they were considered weak. Furthermore, the daily roles of each gender are categorized according to the Umuofia culture, leading to a distorted perception of their importance in society. Achebe effectively illustrates how traditional culture limited women’s roles and expression by classifying them as fragile and less valuable.

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  1. Achebe, Chinua (1994) Things Fall Apart 1st ed. Anchor Books.
  2. Anyokwu, C. (2011). Re-imagining gender in Chinua Achebe’s” Things Fall Apart.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies12(2), 16–31.
  3. Ijem, B. U., & Agbo, I. I. (2019). Language and gender representation in Chinua Achebe’s” Things Fall Apart.” English Language Teaching12(11), 55-63.
  4. Rahayu, M. (2010). Women in Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart.” Register Journal3(1), 37–50.
  5. Shiner, M., Scourfield, J., Fincham, B., & Langer, S. (2009). When things fall apart: Gender and suicide across the life-course. Social Science & Medicine69(5), 738–746.
  6. Tobalase, A. O. (2016). Masculinity and cultural conflict in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”. International Journal of English and Literature7(6), 81-87.
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