University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor(s): Scott Boehnen, Kevin O'Brien
United In Tyranny: Things Fall Apart and "Shooting An Elephant."
United In Tyranny: Things Fall Apart and "Shooting An Elephant."
While the stories Things Fall Apart and "Shooting an Elephant" portray contrasting settings, contrasting protagonists, and even contrasting language, they both dramatize a character's failed attempt to gain freedom. Whether through peer pressure or expectations in their societies, both characters are pressured into doing things they wouldn't have otherwise. Okonkwo is afraid of failing in his own eyes and in the eyes of his clansmen. In "Shooting an Elephant", George Orwell says, "When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys" (Orwell 276). Similarly in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo embodies this statement; by representing a tyrant in his own family and clan, he destroys his own freedom through his commitment to the patriarchy.
Inside his compound, Okonkwo acts much like a tyrant. He doesn't let his wives or children challenge or question him, he is unnecessarily violent, and never expresses love nor sympathy towards his family. It is so extreme that he even ignored an important part of his religion to beat his wife. Achebe describes, "…he beat her very heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the week of peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him… But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating someone halfway through, not even for fear of a goddess" (Achebe 29-30). His anger issues and irrationality are so big that he ignored one of the most important religious events in his religion, in which the entire rest of the year would not give enough food to feed the tribe. Perhaps even more severe, though, was an attempt to kill his wife. Achebe writes, "…the wife who had just been beaten murmured something about guns that never shot. Unfortunately for her, Okonkwo heard it and rad madly into his room for the loaded gun, ran out again and aimed at her as she clambered over the dwarf wall of the barn. He pressed the trigger… and jumped into the barn, and there lay the woman…" (Achebe 38-39). After having just beat his wife for something very minor, it only takes a small remark for Okonkwo to run for his gun and shoot it at one of his wives. Had he managed to hit her, it is doubtful that he would show any remorse for the damage or potential death he would have caused.
Okonkwo also takes the role of a tyrant in his clan. He is a powerful man with a high status, and he gained all of that through his own personal efforts. These personal efforts were violent- he gained almost all his fame from wrestling. Because he gained his status from something violent, he feels the need to be continuously violent to uphold himself. He is well regarded and will do anything to preserve his status as a violent tyrant. Achebe writes, "'The greatest obstacle in Umuofia,' Okonkwo thought bitterly, 'is that coward, Egonwanne. His sweet tongue can change fire into cold ash. When he speaks he moves our men to impotence… 'Tomorrow, he will tell them that our fathers never fought a "war of blame." If they listen to him I shall leave them…'" (Achebe 200). Okonkwo is so committed to his role in the patriarchy as a strong and violent ruler that it makes him look down on others unlike himself. His feelings are so strong that he would be willing to leave his clansmen to fight a war all on his own that he would undoubtedly lose. Not only does he want to, but he also feels the need to because the way he gained his prestigious position was through acts of violence. In his eyes, the only way to keep a position gained through violence is with more violence. Perhaps the most extreme example comes when Okonkwo escorts Ikemefuna to be killed. Achebe describes, "As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow… He heard Ikemefuna cry, 'My father, they have killed me!' as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak" (Achebe 61). Okonkwo is so afraid of losing his stance in his clan that he goes so far as to kill someone who had called him father for the past three years.
Okonkwo destroys his own freedom through his commitment to the patriarchy and his own powerful position. Because Okonkwo gained his powerful position through acts of violence, he feels the need to continue his acts of violence in order to retain his power. Achebe gives us another why Okonkwo acts the way he does:
Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children.
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.
His actions of all severities stem from his fear of being weak. He uses his violent attitude and actions as a cover to hide his own personal weakness and insecurities. More than anything else, he fears being like the man he loathed, and subject to the same viewpoints and ridicule. As such, he commits acts of violence he believes are in line with success and manliness. This creates another similarity between Okonkwo and the narrator of "Shooting an Elephant": they both fear ridicule. Orwell describes, "A white man mustn't be frightened in front of 'natives'… if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill… some of them would laugh. That would never do" (Orwell 277). Okonkwo fears being disdained and seen as incompetent like his father. The narrator from the other story fears the judgement and ridicule of the large crowd behind him. Okonkwo feels pressured to be so violent because he fears being thought weak by the other members of his community, while the narrator fears the judgement of the Burmese.
Okonkwo and the narrator of "Shooting an Elephant" both lose their freedom through assuming powerful positions in their societies. By assuming these superior positions, certain behaviors are expected of them as leaders; as such they feel they must be violent when they don't necessarily want to. In Okonkwo's case, he loses freedom by creating an expectation of himself to be powerful and violent. In the narrator's case, he feels that he is expected to kill the elephant because his gun is already out. These two characters are both violent: one towards an animal, and the other towards other people who he holds power over. Paradoxically, this commitment to the patriarchy on Okonkwo's side destroys his male lineage, which is the future patriarchy of his family. Because he was so violent to his children, they converted to Christianity and were distanced from him.