In Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, women of the Igbo tribe are terribly mistreated, and viewed as weak and receive little or no respect outside of their role as a mother. Tradition dictates their role in life. These women are courageous and obedient. These women are nurturers above all and they are anything but weak.
In the novel Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo has several wives. He orders them around like dogs. They are never to question what they are instructed to do; they are expected to be obedient. We clearly see this early in the story, when Okonkwo brings Ikemefuna into his home.
Okonkwo tells his senior wife that Ikemefuna belongs to the tribe and that she is expected to look after him. She in turn asks him if he will be staying with them for a long period of time. This sends Okonkwo into a fury. He snaps at her in a very degrading manner, “Do what you are told woman. When did you become one of the ndichie (meaning elders) of Umuofia?”(pg.12)
Clearly, she receives no respect. Later in the story, we see this woman try to comfort Ikemefuna. She “mothers” him as if he is one of her own children. She tries to put him at ease and can almost instinctively feel how much he misses his own mother. In keeping with the Igbo view of female nature, the tribe allows wife-beating.
Okonkwo beats his youngest wife one-day because she was visiting with a friend and did not get home in time to prepare a meal for him. Another one of his wives tries to cover for her when she is questioned as to whether or not the youngest wife has fed the children before she left. Certainly, she does this in an effort to protect the youngest wife, knowing full well what she faced.
Okonkwo does not let them down, he beats his youngest wife severely until he is satisfied. Even in spite of pleas from his other wives reminding him that it is forbidden to beat your wife during the Week of Peace. Okonkwo will face consequences, not for beating another human being, but only because of his timing.
He beats his second wife when she refers to him as one of those “guns that never shot”. When a severe case of wife-beating comes before the egwugwu, he finds in favor of the wife, but at the end of the trial, a man wonders “why such a trifle should come before the egwugwu”(pg.83). The husband considers his wife as property. He either wants his wife back or his bride’s price.
The omniscient narrator acknowledges a near-invisibility of women in Things Fall Apart. Describing a communal ceremony, he confesses, “It was clear from the way the crowd stood that the ceremony was for men. There were many women, but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders”(pg.77). They are not invited to stay when men are engaged in any discussion; they are not included in the council of war; they do not form part of the masquerades representing the judiciary and ancestral spirits.
Okonkwo views women to be weak and foolish. He has different expectations for men and women. This can be seen clearly by the way that he raises his children. He tries his best to train Nwoye to be strong and brave while he feels sorry that Ezinma is a girl. Okonkwo knows that “Ezinma has the right spirit”, but he does not try to make her be brave or strong. He favors her the most out of all of his children, yet “if Ezinma had been a boy [he] would have been happier”(pg.69). This kind of contradiction comes up in the novel repeatedly.
Those practical, daily life examples of how Okonkwo views women play an important role in showing Okonkwo’s real drive for his behaviors. From those examples, we can see that Okonkwo hates any women’s characteristics because they remind him of his father. He is afraid of becoming like his father. He hates the fact that his father is so unsuccessful; therefore, he does not want to be like his father.
The underlying theme for those examples is not to show that Okonkwo does not respect women at all. In fact, they are used to show that Okonkwo does respect women for their ability if he does not fear becoming like his father. Unoka is considered agbala, an untitled man or a woman. Yam, of smaller size and lesser value than other yams, is regarded as female.
Osugo has taken to title; and so, in a gathering of his peers, Okonkwo unkindly tells him, “This meeting is for men”(pg.22). Guilt-ridden after murdering Ikemefuna, his surrogate son, Okonkwo sternly reprimands himself not to “become like a shivering old woman”(pg.56) – this he considers the worst insult. Such extreme accents on manliness, sex-role stereotyping, gender discriminations, and violence create an imbalance, resulting in the denigration of the female principle.
Achebe shows that the Igbo nonetheless assigns important roles to women. For instance, Chielo, the priestess of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves, who in ordinary life is a widow with two kids and Ekwefi’s friend. Clothed in the mystic mantle of the divinity she serves, Chielo transforms from the ordinary; she can reprimand Okonkwo and even scream curses at him: “Beware of exchanging words with Agbala.
Does a man speak when a God speaks? Beware!”(pg.89) Yet if Okonkwo is powerless before a goddess’s priestess, he can, at least, control his own women. Women, also, painted the houses of the egwugwu. Furthermore, the first wife of a man in the Igbo society is paid some respect. This deference is illustrated by the palm wine ceremony at Nwakibie’s obi. Anasi, Nwakibie’s first wife, had not yet arrived and “the others (other wives) could not drink before her”(pg.16).
The importance of a woman’s role appears when Okonkwo is exiled to his motherland. His uncle, Uchendu, noticing Okonkwo’s distress, eloquently explains how Okonkwo should view his exile: “A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there are sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. And that is why we say that Mother is Supreme”(pg.116). The only glory and satisfaction these women enjoyed were being a mother.
They receive respect and love from their children. They are strong for their children. Women are viewed to be very gentle and caring. They are expected to take care of their children to the best of their ability. Women are trusted totally by their children. This honorable presentation of women is used by Achebe to identify women’s role in the Igbo society. This presentation is necessary to show that women indeed play an important role in society.