The central theme of Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe is the clash between traditional African society and the innovations brought by British missionaries. However, this opposition is not the only one in the book since the whole story is built on contrasts that allow the reader to understand the protagonist’s image better. One of the foil characters in the novel is Okonkwo’s 15-year-old ward, Ikemefuna. This character significantly influences the reader’s perception of the protagonist’s personality, helping to highlight both the positive and negative traits of Okonkwo as a father.
Okonkwo’s Attitude Towards His Children
The protagonist is not inclined to show emotions except aggression and cruelty towards his children. However, the difference in Okonkwo’s attitude toward his son Nwoye and Ikemefuna remains obvious. The protagonist uses cruel methods of education for both boys. For example, when Ikemefuna refused to eat, Okonkovo ”came into the hut with a big stick in his hand and stood over him while he swallowed his yams, trembling” (Chinua, 1959). At the same time, except for the murder of Ikemefuna, there are no scenes in the novel in which Okonkwo beats the boy, while the protagonist regularly uses physical force against his son.
Moreover, thanks to Ikemefuna, the protagonist interacts with his son. He invites both boys to his ‘obi’ for dinner, but the takes only Ikemefuna to the meetings of the clan leaders. Moreover, Ikemefuna’s death affected Okonkwo much more than Nwoye’s betrayal. The aggravating factor was that the protagonist personally killed the boy, whom he considered his son. However, before that, knowing what fate awaits Ikemefuna, Okonkwo shows his paternal feelings by protecting the boy and “told him that he was to be taken home the next day” (Chinua, 1959). At the same time, he did not even explain to Nwoye why his friend was killed.
The Contrast in Protagonist and Ikemefuna’s Relationship with Nwoye
Another juxtaposition is embodied in the portrayal of Okonkwo and Ikemefuna’s attitude toward Nwoye, as both characters act as fathers to the boy. Nevertheless, in contrast to the protagonist, portrayed as an authoritarian father, Ikemefuna plays the role of an understanding father who “seemed to know everything” (Chinua, 1959). The protagonist does not deny that Ikemefuna taught Nwoye most of the things he knows how to do in the household. However, even realizing that Ikemefuna’s soft and gentle approach to Nwoye’s upbringing yields results, Okonkwo does not change his attitude towards his son.
At first glance, both characters seem static, and in the three years that Ikemefuna lived with Okonkwo’s family, he did not change. The character was initially described as “a very lively boy who gradually became popular in Okonkwo’s household” (Chinua, 1959). He retained these traits until the novel’s last appearance, and even going to his death remained a naive child. On the other hand, for Okonkwo, who from the very beginning seems to be a very static character, incapable of development, the death of Ikemefuna becomes the catalyst for subsequent changes.
Thus, minor male characters in the novel, including Ikemefuna, have traits opposite to the protagonist’s personality. Due to this, Okonkwo’s masculinity is perceived by the reader as brutal and cruel. However, at the same time, this foil character helps highlight the positive traits of the protagonist. Moreover, due to the secondary characters, the dynamics and development of the protagonist are depicted.
Chinua, A. (1959). Things fall apart. [eBook edition]. Anchor Books.