'Things Fall Apart' Characters

The most prominent members of the Umuofia clan in Chinua Achebe's classic novel

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel about a village in Nigeria called Umuofia, features a variety of characters in the world of tribal central Africa. Through them, Achebe creates a vivid group portrait of this time and place—an image that stands in direct contrast to the limited, insulting, and racist representation created by the Europeans at the novel’s conclusion. It is because of the characters as much as the story itself that Achebe’s work has remained relevant more than half a century after its original release.

Okonkwo

Okonkwo is the novel’s protagonist. He is a wrestler and fighter of great renown throughout the area, having come to prominence by defeating Amalzine the Cat in a wrestling match. He is very much a man of action rather than words, and is, therefore, much more at ease when he has something to do than when he has to sit around and ruminate. These traits stem from the fact that his father, Unoka, was more given to chatting and storytelling than to physical labor and often ran up great debts. As such, he leaves Okonkwo with pretty much nothing when he dies, requiring his son to lean on the generosity of the community to start his farm. This leaves an indelible mark on Okonkwo, who makes it his goal in life to become a man of status and many titles in the village.

Okonkwo believes very strongly in a traditional sense of masculinity, which also developed in contrast to his father, whose debts and death from bloating are seen as feminine. For example, when nobody rises up with him against the Europeans, he thinks that the village has gone soft. Additionally, he strikes down Ikemefuna so as not to appear weak before the other men of the village, even though he and the boy had developed a close relationship and Ogbuefi Ezeudu had specifically told him not to. This attitude manifests itself in Okonkwo’s treatment of his family members as well. He often worries that his son, Nwoye, is shiftless and not masculine enough, and feels that he has been cursed with a weak son when Nwoye converts to Christianity. In fact, he often feels proud of Ikemefuna more than he does of his own son, and even more so of his daughter Ezinma, who is very strong and often stands up to her father. Furthermore, when angry, Okonkwo is known to physically abuse those in his family, exerting control and dominance over them through his powerful stature.

Okonkwo’ decision to kill himself is thus a complicated mixture of both doubling-down on these principles and forgoing them entirely. He decides to take his own life due to both an inability to adjust to the changes in his village and as a way to full-heartedly reject those changes, as they do not align with his values. In so doing, however, he violates one of his community’s most sacrosanct tenets, tarnishing his reputation and making him appear weak—and therefore feminine. In death, Okonkwo reveals the complexities of self-definition created by the arrival of the Europeans in Africa, and, more broadly, of anybody going through a period of change and upheaval in their life and community.

Unoka

Unoka is Okonkwo’s father, but he and his son differ in pretty much every way. He is not physically powerful and is much more given to storytelling and conversation than he is to labor and action. Additionally, even though he is very generous and hosts many feasts, he is always accumulating debts, and therefore leaves Okonkwo with no land or seeds when he dies (making matters worse, he dies of bloat from starvation, which is seen as an affront to the Earth). Okonkwo is very embarrassed by his father and tries to differentiate himself from him in all capacities.

Ekwefi

Ekwefi is Okonkwo’s second wife and the mother of Ezinma. She first falls in love with Okonkwo upon seeing him win a wrestling match, but she marries another man in a different village because Okonkwo is too poor. Later, though, she runs away to Okonkwo. She struggles to produce a child, as her first nine pregnancies result in either miscarriages, stillborns, or children who die in their infancy. This leads her to feel some resentment towards Okonkwo’s two other wives who had children easily, and she is, therefore, highly protective of Ezinma. Like the other wives, Okonkwo subjects her to physical abuse, though unlike the others she sometimes stands up to him. Ekwefi is the only wife who has the power to knock on his door in the middle of the night.

Ezinma

Ezinma is Okonkwo’s most beloved daughter. She is the only of Ekwefi’s ten pregnancies to survive beyond infancy, and, as such, her few instances of illness cause a big commotion. Most notably, she is beautiful (she is known as the “Crystal Beauty”) and is different to other women in Umuofia because she often challenges her father and exerts greater than usual control over her life and future marriage. All of this earns her father’s respect, who wishes that she had been born a son instead of a daughter.

Nwoye

Nwoye is Okonkwo’s actual son, but the two have a very tense relationship, as he differs greatly from his father. Nwoye does not adhere to his father’s views of masculinity and is instead much more drawn to his mother’s stories. Additionally, he feels a much greater connection to the people and world around him, rather than simply bludgeoning through it like Okonkwo. These differences lead his father to worry about him, that he is not masculine enough and will wind up like Unoka. When Nwoye converts to Christianity and takes the name Isaac, Okonkwo views this as a complete betrayal and feels that the son he has been given is a curse upon him.

Ikemefuna

Ikemefuna is a boy from a nearby village who is taken to Umuofia and put in Okonkwo’s care as recompense for his father having killed a Umuofian woman. He is deeply homesick at first, but eventually begins to develop a relationship with his new caretakers. He is more industrious than Nwoye, which garners him Okonkwo’s respect. Ultimately, the village decides to kill him, and it is Okonkwo who delivers the fatal blow—even though he had been told not to—so as not to seem weak.

Obierika and Ogbuefi Ezeudu

Obierika is Okonkwo’s closest friend, who helps him during his exile, and Ogbuefi is one of the village elders, who tells Okonkwo not to participate in Ikemefuna’s execution. It is at Ogbuefi’s funeral that Okonkwo’s gun misfires, killing Ogbuefi’s son, resulting in his exile.