Gender Roles in Things Fall Apart

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Each society has its set of ideas regarding how men and women are supposed to act and the roles they are supposed to play. In this regard, each person is expected to act according to these specified gender roles. These roles define the personality trait of an individual, their domestic behavior, occupation, and how they present themselves. For example, in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” the traditional Igbo life is characterized by structured gender roles where men are expected to be hardworking, respectable, and in control; in contrast, women are expected to be caregivers and submissive to men.

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The Society’s Expectations of Men

In the novel, men are responsible for protecting their women and children and thus are expected to show strength to earn respect. As such, men seek to exude an aura of power to meet societal expectations. Men’s quest for strength is often driven by fear, as depicted in the scene where Okonkwo kills Ikemufuna due to the fear of being labeled weak (Ijem & Agbo, 2019). Men have developed a fear of disappointing society, which drives them in their actions and motivates them to be strong so that they are not associated with weakness. The author paints this picture by writing, “Perhaps Okonkwo was not a cruel man, but his whole life was dominated by fear of failure and weakness” (Achebe, 1994). In addition, men ought not to show emotion as showing emotion is often depicted as weakness and as something women should do.

The novel depicts men as individuals who do not seek pleasure, whereas women and children are portrayed as individuals who enjoy feasting and preparing meals. Essentially, the author highlights that Okonkwo is happier when working on his farm, showing the men’s industrious nature that contrasts with that of women. In the novel, the writer creates an ideology depicting men as diligent while women are portrayed as pleasure-seeking and lazy (Khan et al., 2018). These ideologies determine the various role patterns, creating norms characterized by inequality passed on from generation to generation.

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Further, men are expected to be respectable, according to the novel. Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, is not respected in the village as he is a beggar. Unoka holds no title, and thus no respect is accorded to him, as in this society, men are expected to be prominent and honorable (Tobalase, 2016). When a man lacks these qualities, his respect diminishes as he is often seen as incompetent. In the novel, Agbala is the name given to a woman but is also used to reference men who do not have any titles (Salami & Shoar, 2018). This event highlights that the Igbo society had specific gender roles associated with the people, each being expected to honor these roles.

The Society’s Expectations of Women

In the novel, the roles of cooking for the family and serving their husbands are given to women. Essentially, they are expected to perform this role without fail, lest they are punished by their husbands (Anyokwu, 2011). However, as highlighted, Ojiugo, the youngest wife of Okonkwo, forgets her role when she goes to get her hair plaited, letting slip to serve food to her husband and children. As a result, one of Okonkwo’s wives has to take on the role as she feeds Ojiugo’s children and serves Okonkwo on behalf of Ojiugo. Upon returning home, Ojiugo is beaten as a punishment for not carrying out the position she is supposed to play in the family, depicting the existing tension when a gender role fails to be fulfilled in this society. Further, it highlights how these roles were used to control the women as punishment was due when one failed to meet their obligations.

Women are depicted as submissive and thus are expected to submit to their husbands. As such, when women rebel against this role, they are viewed as an outcast and, therefore, not acceptable to society. For instance, Okonkwo expects his younger wife, Ojiugo, to serve him dinner and is angry when she goes to get her hair plaited instead of cooking for him and the children. In this society, women are treated as material possessions that men buy and are thus treated indifferently (Stratton, 2020). This treatment is seen when Okonkwo beats up his wife for failing to make him supper, depicting a level of ownership where he thinks it is okay to discipline her as he has paid her bridal price. As such, marriages are a form of slavery as the women are not honored but treated as material possessions that can be discarded at will.

In sum, gender roles are evident in the novel “Things Fall Apart,” highlighting a society where specific roles are given to men and women. For example, the men are responsible for protecting their families and caring for their women by ensuring food and provision for the entire family. Further, men are depicted as emotionless individuals supposed to be strong and respectable in society. Those who do not meet this expectation are viewed as failures and often labeled Agbala, a woman’s name. On the other hand, women are given the role of cooking and serving their men while also taking care of the entire family. Further, the expectation is that they ought to be submissive to their husbands, as depicted in the novel where Okonkwo’s wife fails to serve him and is beaten as a punishment for failing to perform her role.

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  1. Achebe, Chinua (1994) Things Fall Apart 1st ed. Anchor Books.
  2. Anyokwu, C. (2011). Re-imagining gender in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 12(2), 16-31.
  3. Ijem, B. U., & Agbo, I. I. (2019). Language and gender representation in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” English Language Teaching, 12(11), 55-63.
  4. Khan, M., Iqbal, M., & Shah, S. Z. A. (2018). Cultural symbols, identity and meaning formation: Symbolic interactionist analysis of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. University of Chitral Journal of Linguistics & Literature, 2(I), 1-9.
  5. Salami, A., & Shoar, B. H. (2018). Things fall apart and Chinua Achebe’s postcolonial discourse. International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature, 6.
  6. Stratton, F. (2020). Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. Routledge.
  7. Tobalase, A. O. (2016). Masculinity and cultural conflict in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. International Journal of English and Literature, 7(6), 81-87.
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