This essay analyzes the gender roles in Things Fall Apart; I wrote it sophomore year for my English II Honors class.
22 May 2017
One of the most harmful social structures that is present in almost every society, past and present, is the structure of gender roles. Gender roles provide a rigid template for what a man should be and what a woman should be, what they should do, say, and feel. Traditionally, across the globe, women’s gender roles present themselves in the form of women being required to be docile, weak, and obeying, serving under their husbands and obeying the commands of men no matter what. Men, on the other hand, must be strong, commanding, dominating and controlling, especially of their wives and of the women around them. This structure of gender roles has not only infiltrated the minds of every man and woman who have been members of any kind of society, but have also come to be relied on. Men and women alike rely on gender roles in order to know how to act, what to wear, what to say, how to be; gender roles are relied on to establish identity. It is when these gender roles are seemingly violated or disobeyed that confusion as to identity comes into play. When gender roles are dependent on for the creation of self, and those gender roles are invalidated, so is that identity. Gender roles are present in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; gender roles are seen in this book as being strictly adhered to and respected, as expected. However, the few times when they are not followed, when gender roles are violated, the identity of characters reliant on this traditional social structure are thrown into turmoil. When Okonkwo’s rigid, hyper-masculine sense of identity is undermined by women in his life, he reacts in anger towards them because Okonkwo’s sense of self is reliant on the subordination of others to him in a way that adheres to standards of gender roles.
When Okonkwo’s wife does not obey the gender standard of obeying without question that Okonkwo is familiar with, he lashes out physically due to the fact that his identity, his self-concept, is being disrupted. In the article, “What Is Self-Concept and How Does It Form?” the idea of self-concept is elaborated upon, “Self-concept is the image that we have of ourselves...This image...is particularly influenced by our interactions with important people in our lives” (Cherry). Okonkwo’s self-concept is limited to the strict adherence of traditional gender roles observed by men and women, in which men are dominating and women subordinate. This self-concept is significantly impacted by those who are closest to him, his wives. When Okonkwo’s wives act in a way that does not adhere to gender standards, they are negatively influencing Okonkwo’s self-concept; when they disobey him, he loses the image that he has of himself and his identity is thrown into turmoil. Okonkwo asserts that his banana tree is dead after seeing a few leaves being cut, when it is not dead, “As a matter of fact the tree was very much alive. Okonkwo’s second wife had merely cut a few leaves off it to wrap some food, and she said so...Okonkwo gave her a sound beating” (38). After seeing that his tree is missing several leaves, Okonkwo beats Ekwefi, his wife, who trimmed the plant. Okonkwo initially holds that his tree is dead, but is proved wrong by Ekwefi, who expresses to him that it is alive and that she just took a few leaves; it is the fact that Okonkwo is proved wrong that leads to the beating. Okonkwo, whose identity revolves around being strong, hyper-masculine, and authoritative, feels his authority is undermined by his wife, who proves to him that he is, in fact, wrong, and that only a few leaves are missing; it is this sense of authority that Okonkwo’s identity is dependent on, is made up of. When Okonkwo feels that his authority as a dominating, commanding man and husband is being damaged, he reacts in anger due to the violation of gender roles in which the man correct and controlling, the woman serving under him, weak and obeying. When Okonkwo is undermined by Ekwefi, it throws his narrow and inflexible sense of self into turmoil, as Ekwefi is disobeying the fundamental structure of gender roles that make up who Okonkwo is, leading him to react chaotically.
Okonkwo becomes violent with his youngest wife when she does not attend to her traditional duties as a woman because of the violation of the social role that Okonkwo’s identity is reliant on. Kendra Cherry expresses the origin of self-image, of identity, “Each individual’s self-image is probably a mix of different aspects including your...social roles” (Cherry). Okonkwo’s identity is dependent on his social role. Okonkwo’s identity, his self-image, is reliant on the sustainment of his social role as a strong man, hyper-masculine and traditional in every aspect, with his wives obeying under him. His social role, and therefore his identity, encompasses the traditional binary gender role system in which women serve to perform domestic duties and to please their husbands and men command and control their wives. Therefore, when Okonkwo returns home one day, his self-image, who he sees himself as, is left in confusion, in tumult, “Okonkwo was provoked to justifiable anger by his youngest wife, who went to plait her hair at her friend’s house and did not return early enough to cook the afternoon meal...And when she returned he beat her very heavily” (29). Okonkwo’s wife violates not only her domestic duties, but also her responsibility to please Okonkwo. To Okonkwo, women exist in two dimensions, to serve men and to attend to matters of the home. In Okonkwo’s mind, his wives exist only to carry out these duties. This is the gender structure that Okonkwo has relied on in order to define himself, in order to cultivate his identity, his self-image. By not attending to Okonkwo and by neglecting her domestic duties, Okonkwo’s wife destroys the social order, the social role, that Okonkwo relies so heavily on. The destruction of this social role results in Okonkwo’s outburst of anger and violence towards his wife, as Okonkwo finds it difficult to handle any sort of violation of the traditional social structures that are based on adherence to certain expectations of men and women. Okonkwo’s identity is left in disorder because the fundamental aspect that makes up who he is has been undermined, has been disobeyed. Okonkwo’s anger in beating his wife is a result of this disruption in his identity.
The sustainment of gender roles ultimately serves a purpose- to organize society in a way that prevents chaos. By providing a timeless guideline for the manners in which men and women should behave, gender roles allow a uniform template of identity for every man and woman in the world. This template describes the way men should act towards their wives, and the way that women should respond to their husbands. This allows a certain order to be present in societies in which gender roles are active. Men follow the guidelines prescribed by the male gender role, to be strong, authoritative and controlling, and women act in turn, submissive, subordinate, and weak. By following their roles in society, a balance is maintained, an order dependent entirely on arbitrary attributes assigned to men and women. It is when this standard of gender expectation is removed that one accustomed to gender roles might find their identity in turmoil, just as Okonkwo did. When all one knows of their self-concept, of their identity, is undermined, a level of chaos descends upon them and upon their societies.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Anchor, 1994.
Cherry, Kendra. “What Is Self-Concept and How Does it Form?” Very Well, 13 Aug. 2016, https://www.verywell.com/what-is-self-concept-2795865
Here you will find specifically academic pieces, such as essays I have completed for school that are related to the pursuit of justice.