Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe
Tools of Characterization
Social Status or Societal Position
In Igbo culture, a man’s social status is based on merit rather than inheritance. A man can gain respect by his bravery in war, his athletic skill as a wrestler, and the productivity of his yam fields (which is directly tied to hard work). Thus, if a man has a “title” – or two or three titles – then he has earned an increased societal position. The narrator keeps the reader up to speed on which male characters in the book have titles. Okonkwo has two titles, so that proves he is both extremely hard working and physically capable. Okonkwo’s father, on the other hand, never earned any titles – this shows that he was both lazy and generally incompetent.
Masculine and Feminine
Through Okonkwo’s eyes everyone he encounters is characterized as either masculine or feminine. When Okonkwo sees a character as masculine, we know that character probably has a fiery personality and is likely aggressive. "Feminine" characters are emotional, compassionate, peace-loving, and often lazy. Characterization as masculine or feminine doesn’t fall predictably along gender lines. For example, Okonkwo considers Ezinma to be masculine because she has an outspoken, fiery nature. However, Okonkwo see his son Nwoye as feminine because the young man is sensitive and compassionate. Characters aren’t also necessarily only masculine or only feminine. A good example is Obierika, who doesn’t shy away from duty and warfare, but has a strong sense of compassion. Generally, the characters with a balanced dose of masculine and feminine characteristics are the most successful and happy with themselves.
How characters treat their family members reveals much about their character. For example, Okonkwo often takes his irrational anger out on his wives, beating them. That’s just not cool. He’s also perpetually criticizing his son, Nwoye. On the other hand, Okonkwo supported his own mother and sisters when he was a young man, although it wasn’t even his duty. Okonkwo’s relations in Mbanta, and specifically Uchendu, are painted in a positive light because they welcome Okonkwo with open arms when he is exiled from Umuofia. Uchendu and his sons go so far as to help Okonkwo build a new compound and donate yams to him simply because he is a member of their family.