In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, the character Okonkwo struggles with differing notions of masculinity just as his country is struggling to adapt to colonial influence. At first glance, Okonkwo appears something like a tragic hero, striving towards an ideal but failing due to his inability to overcome his insecurity about his masculinity, and ultimately dying in a symbolic fight against colonial invaders. However, to treat Okonkwo as a tragic hero, somehow embodying the struggles of his time, is to ignore the textual evidence revealing that actually, Okonkwo is unable to adapt to anywhere, including his own clan. Rather than functioning as a metaphorical demonstration of the larger historical conflict between tradition and change instigated by the colonizers, Okonkwo's story is one of a single individual wholly unaware of social world around him. By examining Okonkwo's treatment of his neighbors, it becomes clear that just as he is wholly unable to integrate himself into any social organization, let alone one transformed by colonization. Thus, his resistance is not noble, but rather the logical endpoint for a particularly cruel person who finally realizes that his friends and family never liked him as much he thought they did. In this way, the historical importance of the novel is paradoxically highlighted by the main character's complete obliviousness to that history, as he is used and then discarded by a clan that only ever warily accepted him in the first place.
The first inclination as to Okonkwo's utter disregard for the society in which he finds himself comes when the narrator relates how an old man "was struck, as most people were, by Okonkwo's brusqueness in dealing with less successful men" (Achebe 19). This is noted immediately before a recounting of Okonkwo's various achievements and overcoming of obstacles, subtly pointing out that though Okonkwo officially may have been held in high standing, the consensus of the clan was far less awe-inspired. The narrator remarks that "only a week ago a man had contradicted [Okonkwo] at a kindred meeting which they held to discuss the next ancestral feast. Without looking at the man Okonkwo had said: 'This meeting is for men.' The man who had contradicted him had no titles. That was why he had called him a woman" (Achebe 19). To see how petty Okonkwo's behavior is, and why the subsequent recounting of Okonkwo's achievements can be read as subtly demonstrating the clan's dislike of Okonkwo, one must look later on in the story, when the clan is preparing for the Feast of the New Yam.
As mentioned earlier, Okonkwo's brusqueness is demonstrated by his remarks to a man "at a kindred meeting which they held to discuss the next ancestral feast" (Achebe 19). Sometime later, however, the narrator reveals that "somehow Okonkwo could never become as enthusiastic over feasts as most people. He was a good eater and he could drink one or two fairly big gourds of palm-wine. But he was always uncomfortable sitting around for days waiting for a feast or getting over it" (Achebe 27). Thus, the previous story regarding the feast-planning meeting is cast in a new light, as Okonkwo's "this meeting is for men" is revealed wholly as a momentarily relevant insult. That is, Okonkwo is unlikely to give any special reverence to the meetings for planning feasts, as he himself is not a fan of them, and in fact "would be very much happier working on his farm" (Achebe 27). Therefore, instead of insulting the man because he had no titles, Okonkwo used the fact that he had no titles as a way of insulting him, because in Okonkwo's ideal masculinity, he must respond to any challenge with derision or violence. Therefore, the lines stating that "the man who had contradicted him had no titles. That was why he had called him a woman" can be read as intentionally blunt even though it contradicts the rest of text as a means of drawing attention to them, pointing out the inaccuracy of the statement. Though a subtle detail, it serves to show that Okonkwo actually has little regard for the titles and position he holds within the clan; he only seeks to live up to his own ideal, and he has simply happened to receive benefits within the clan because his ideal and the clan's needs coincide most of the time. (The problem, of course, is that Okonkwo only realizes how reliant he is on the social structure of the clan for his easy life once it has been disintegrated in favor of colonial institutions). With this in mind, it is possible to read the subsequent section with a better understanding of the somewhat oppositional relationship between Okonkwo and the rest of his clan.
Immediately following the story of Okonkwo's insult during the feast-planning meeting, the narrator recounts Okonkwo's various achievements, qualifying each one in what reads as an attempt to refute possible incriminations directed towards Okonkwo. Following a metaphor presented by the oldest man in the clan, the narrator states "but it was not really true that Okonkwo's palm-kernels had been cracked for him by a benevolent spirit. He had cracked them himself" (Achebe 19). That the narrator bothers to make this point is almost comical, because even bearing in mind any beliefs regarding spirits, benevolent or otherwise, the old man's reference to the supernatural is clearly metaphorical, as it serves to instruct Okonkwo to be humble, because so much is out of any individual's hands.
What follows are a series of brief statements, interrelated but also capable of standing on their own as interjections, like someone clearly caught in dishonesty trying to come up with rapidly cascading excuses. In doing so, the narrator insinuates bad things about Okonkwo without having to actually state them explicitly. "Anyone who knew his grim struggle against poverty and misfortune could not say he had been lucky. If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo." The next sentence explains why Okonkwo "deserves" his success, because "at an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck" (Achebe 19). Actually, both success in wrestling and the subsequent fame both rely on a good deal of luck, but the narrator gets around admitting this by pretending to claim that this luck nonetheless stems from Okonkwo's all around greatness. According to the narrator, "at the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people had a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly, so his chi agreed." Each of these explanations can read as ways for the narrator to imply that Okonkwo succeeded through sheer brute force, and that the members of the clan are wary of him because of it.
Thus, when the narrator remarks "and not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands," the work of Okonkwo's hands is not necessarily being judged in a positive light. It is reasonable to presume, then, that when "Okonkwo had been chosen by the nine villages to carry a message of war to their enemies unless they agreed to give up a young man and a virgin to atone for the murder of Udo's wife," he was chosen for his expendability more than anything (Achebe 19-20). A cursory reading might suggest that Okonkwo had been chosen for this task because of his masculinity or physical prowess, but this misses a key detail of the text, because it was due to "the deep fear that their enemies had for Umuofia," not a fear of Okonkwo, "that they treated Okonkwo like a king and brought him a virgin who was given to Udo as wife, and the lad Ikemefuna" who would eventually precipitate Okonkwo's downfall. Once again, Okonkwo is given societal reward not because of his inherent value, skill, or prowess, but because his wholly unique, expendable, and off-putting persona happen to suit the needs of the larger clan. The clan "judged [Okonkwo] by the work of his hands" and found him expendable in case their enemies proved less fearful than imagined.
Although this cannot be fully substantiated without a deeper ethnographic analysis, because the text does not include details regarding the traditional bartering cost in terms of people for the atonement of the death of an enemy's wife, one may even entertain the possibility that the request for a young man in addition to a virgin was included as a means of increasing the likelihood that Umuofia's enemies would simply kill Okonkwo, especially since the elders "seemed to forget all about [Ikemefuna] as soon as they had taken the decision" to place him in Okonkwo's household. Even barring this possibility, the relationship between Okonkwo and his clan is revealed to be far more confrontational, tactical, and uncomfortable than initially supposed. In turn, this helps to explain the climax of the novel;…