According to Psychology Today there are six reasons that people commit suicide: depression, psychosis, impulse, affection, rational determination, and accidents. While Everyday Psychology seeks to identify various characteristics of an individual that commits a violent crime as being chronically aggressive, abusive and over controlling, resentful and revenge seeking, traumatized, obsessive, paranoid, clinically irrational, or sociopathic. Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe use their respective character’s Okonkwo and Sethe to explore the complex psychological reasons behind suicide and murder, the impact of these acts on local societies, and how the methods of constructing an identity play an important role in these acts.
When Okonkwo is first introduced to the reader he is not the kind of the man that would commit suicide. In most societies suicide is seen as weak and effeminate. Okonkwo is his tribe’s definition of masculinity. He is a warrior, a diligent religious man, hardworking and unconquerable. His feat of throwing the Cat could only be compared to the very actions that founded Umofia. He rose from the ashes of his father’s disgrace and became the embodiment of success with his wives and yams. Okonkwo was not afraid of anything except becoming like his father. Okonkwo was determined to despise what his father loved and love what his father abhorred. With only the traditions of Umofia as a guideline for establishing his male identity Okonkwo faces his greatest challenge, the one that will determine his fate, and the fate of his village.
He is warned that only ill fate can come from having a hand in killing the child that calls him father yet he believes that it is his duty as a man to fulfill the will of the gods. Using this as his rationale he cuts down Ikemefuna with his machete believing that if he is weak and relenting to follow traditions the village will somehow fall apart. “Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak,” (Achebe 61.) It is this merciless act that sets up the descent of the novel. Okonkwo’s identity rests on being the opposite of his father. His father had no titles and so he was called agbala, woman. “He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood,” (Achebe 10.) Okonkwo had titles and his worth was great among his people as he was honored to be one of the few men who stood on the council of the tribe and was called on to assist in making important decisions.
A great man is also expected to give the world a great son who will continue the family legacy, Okonkwo had no great son. His greatest son was Ikemefuna and he cut him down in his pride. Nwoye was ash; he had no flame within him that could burn like his father’s. Okonkwo’s flame blazed from the fear of being worthless and weak and so it was nontransferable. Nwoye could not inherit the flaming determination of his father because he did not see the importance of it, he had never known hunger, or life without his father to protect him. He knew when he was of age his father would have plenty of yams to help him start his own farm and that he would live out his days as all the men before him had. But Nwoye’s heart asked questions that Okonkwo’s flame could not answer; it could only burn.
Okonkwo hangs himself. A sin against the earth that is so great his kinsmen cannot touch his body or bury him. They must pay strangers to remove his body from the village and he must be put into the Evil Forest like his father. Okonkwo was not psychotic, he did not want anyone to help him, and this was certainly no accident. There is not enough evidence in the novel to say the deceased was clinically depressed, as the only symptom he showed for this disease was its characteristic hopelessness. Yet the hopelessness he held was typical of depression. It stems from a learned helplessness where the patient has suffered so many traumas they no longer have a sense of control over the situation. “So we must do what our fathers would never have done…We must bale this water out now…Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war… They had broken into tumult instead of action… He wiped his machete on the sand and went away,” (Achebe205.) There is no way out now that they have captured and silenced the proudest men of the village. There is no escape now that the men of Umofia will not draw their blades and stand with him; there is no hope now that Umofia has no men.
Proving his impulsive tendencies throughout the novel it should not be surprising that this hopelessness would drive an impulse to take his life. Yet it is shocking as this man who threw the Cat seems to make a rational philosophical determination that he must kill himself. Whether it is because he refuses to die at the hands of the white men, he will be shamed by his clan for taking the life of an unarmed man, or because this is the only way he can have control over his life and his identity, are not made clear to the reader. But it is clear that a hopeless shell of a man made an impulsive yet conscious decision to take his own life.
A mother’s love is a blanket, warm and cozy, but if wrapped too tightly it can smother. Sethe never knew her own Ma’am. She was nursed by another woman and all she knew was that her mother had the bit so often that she smiled even when she did not want to smile and that she was hanged for trying to run away. Sethe seemed hurt to know that her mother had tried to run away without her. Sethe never learned where to draw the line between cozy love and smothering. After being raped, living a life of slavery, and being constantly devalued and dehumanized Sethe was met with an extremely hard decision.
People murder for many reasons but Sethe did not kill her child because she was chronically aggressive, abusive, controlling, vengeful, or a sociopath. “The best thing she was, was her children. Whites dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing-the part of her that was clean,” (Morrison 345.) Sethe was a traumatized rape victim obsessed with the safety of her children and paranoid of the untold horrors of their future which caused her to lose “normal” levels of rationale and kill her child while planning to kill herself and her other children as well. Sethe had no self, anything she claimed as herself became her milk and her milk was for her children therefore Sethe was for her children. “She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil , out, away, over there where no one can hurt them,” (Morrison 224.) The only good thing about her, the only “clean” thing was her children. The only thing rape and slavery hadn’t taken from her were her children and the milk she had for all.
Both of these characters suffered an intense trauma that led them to their complex decisions. In each case the catalyst for the act stemmed from colonialism. A sense of learned helplessness had infected both of their minds, as they determined that this was the only form of control they could exert over their respective situations. Okonkwo and Sethe could not see a future. They could not see a future that they could live in and be happy. They no longer had an identity. Okonkwo’s identity was his masculinity and his tribe defined masculinity in its traditions and he followed those traditions he had yams, he had tittles, he was a man. Then his masculinity was taken from him, once by exile, again by Nwoye’s betrayal, once more by his imprisonment and torture, and finally when he killed the messenger and no one fought beside him.
Sethe had been made dirty. Like most rape victims she spoke of a dirty that could not be made clean. The only clean part of her, the only good part of Sethe, was her children. “That anybody white could take your whole self, anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up,” (Morrison 345.) There was no Sethe, only milk for all. She was broken, her identity as a wife lost with the man she married who had disappeared, and there was no other Sethe besides the one she had to become for her children. “I have felt what it felt like and nobody walking or stretched out is going to make you feel it too. Not you, not none of mine, and when I tell you you mine, I also mean I’m yours. I wouldn’t draw breath without my children… My plan was to take us all to the other side,” (Morrison 281.) She felt complete because of them and when it came time to save them, to protect them, she would smother them, if she had to.
The only differences between Okonkwo and Sethe are their final acts and their gender. Okonkwo ended his life and Sethe killed her child, they each made their final acts in order to reclaim their identities. Okonkwo committed suicide an act that requires a certain kind of defeat. He did not kill his entire compound and then himself instead he killed only himself, the part of his identity he could not control. Sethe did what no mother could imagine she would do. Driven to violently attempt to murder her children and murder one, Sethe commits the crime Okonkwo is incapable of.
Neither Okonkwo nor Sethe are done justice by these paragraphs in explaining the complex decisions that go into actions such as these. Okonkwo never stopped being a man. He never stopped being Okonkwo. Yet in his desolation he could not see a future where he fit and I can do nothing but sympathize. As I think of countless soldiers who are lost in a world of reflection as they have become men of pure action. I am reminded of business men who work themselves nearly to death for their success and their heir rejects their legacy to become an artist. I see my own life in Okonkwo’s misfortune. Three of my mother’s four children are living, one graduated from high school, one got accepted and attends college. My father is like Okonkwo’s a man with no titles; I am not like my father.
I have compassion for Sethe and women like her who cannot cope with the weight of their own breasts. Breasts that have been made heavy by milk and expectations, yet I want to judge her. I want to say I could never do that to my children. It is hard enough to bear them and have some instance of life lead me to have to bury them, but to raise my hand and take them, I want to say my love isn’t thick enough, but I will leave the women with breasts as equally heavy as Sethe’s, with souls just as dirty as hers, to judge her. I do not think there was any other way for these characters. Sethe only got to have her children through the Misery. Okonkwo did not belong to that Umofia. The tribe was different now and he was not theirs any longer so he took what was left of himself and he hung it.
There are a lot of reasons to kill; Sethe and Okonkwo only had one, they were without identity. Sethe loved a loved that no one else like her could have even imagined being able to love. These characters, when faced with impossible decisions chose to make even more impossible ones. The complexities of suicide and mercy killing are vast and insurmountable when faced with decisions and situations like this it is impossible to know what a human being is capable of or all their reasons for their decision. It is with no judgment I address their characters, broken, and such accurate representations of the atrocities of colonialism and slavery.
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