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Summary: Themes of Masculinity, Stereotypes and Gender-Roles in Things Fall Apart

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At the heart of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart lie the central themes of masculinity, stereotypes, and gender-roles. Written in 1958, the book is aimed at addressing the colonial representation of Africa and the African people in English literature. It tells the story of Okonkwo and the Igbo people, the biggest ethnic community situated in present-day Nigeria. 

The book paints a vivid picture of the culture and traditions of the Igbo people and is perhaps one of the most accurate portrayals, at the time, of the African community and culture in English literature. The author uses details of Igbo lifestyle to shed light on the marginalized status of the African women by portraying the Igbo women as weak members of Igbo society who are only there to mate with the male and give birth. Upon a cursory reading, the portrayal of Igbo women incites a feeling of empathy towards their unfair treatment but a closer look at their stories reveals the author’s careful use of characterization to highlight the importance of Igbo women in their society. The stereotypical social depiction of African women is balanced against the crucial role they play in society, sparking questions about the importance of marginalized members of social groups. In this essay we will discuss the portrayal of Igbo women in the book and how Achebe positions them as the vital core of Igbo society, subverting the reader’s preconceived notions of the place of women in African society. We will also discuss how these conflicting depictions of the place of women in Igbo society is used by Achebe to convey a socio-political message and giving the reader a chance to reflect upon the distorted ideas of masculinity and social-identity. The author uses stylistic devices such as symbolism and social realism to paint a dire picture of the Igbo women as second-class members of Igbo society who are considered inherently weak and are perpetually oppressed.

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Symbolism, using symbols such as the yam crop and Igbo folktales, is used to illustrate these themes. The yam crops are of great importance to the Igbo community. They not only have a great religious significance for the Igbo but is also a symbol of masculinity. Growing a good harvest of yam requires a lot of work and good yam harvest is equated with the strength and status of Igbo men. The “delicate” Igbo women, however, are not allowed to work on the yam crop but are only allowed to weed it. Okonkwo’s father was considered a weak man or an Agbala, a word which is used to refer to a man without a title. The lack of title is considered a feminine trait as only the men were believed worthy of attaining titles. Okonkwo’s father’s inability to grow yams was met with the unhelpful advice that he needs to “go home and work like a man.” Contrary to the yam crop, Igbo folktales are used as a symbol of femininity. Folktales, usually about animals, are only told by the females of the Igbo community to children. These folktales are considered too soft and unsuitable to the character of “strong” Igbo men who are only supposed to tell stories of war which are replete with grotesque imagery and violence. This bifurcation of the storytelling role by gender into categories of delicate folktales to be told by women and stories of strength and power to be told by men also serves to illustrate the image of Igbo women as powerless members of the society. This portrayal of women as weaklings of the Igbo society is presented in stark contrast with their depiction as life-giving, vital members of the community whose wrath is to be feared. Achebe again employs a mixture of symbols and social realism to outline the critical place that Igbo women occupy in their society. The roles that Igbo women take on such as that of the priestess, the earth goddess, educators, and nurturers challenge the notion that they are weak and expendable members of the community.

 The earth goddess, Ani, is worshipped and feared by the Umuofia clan as “[she plays] a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity.” Peace Week, the week before the beginning of the yam season, takes place “to honor the great goddess of the earth without whose blessing their crops will not grow.” Yams are really important in the book as they symbolize masculinity and to see how the man relies so heavily on the earth goddess and also fears her shows the importance of the role that Igbo women play. Finally, even though women aren’t considered “strong” enough to grow the yams, they are involved in the weeding process and if the weeding is not done correctly, the harvest can be ruined. The initial portrayal of Igbo women as weak oppressed members is clearly undermined by these various depictions of them placing them as the central power-source of the community. The contradictory representations of Igbo women drives home the message that “traditional” masculinity and segregation of gender roles are primitive concepts that ought to be eliminated. 

This contradiction also forces the reader to explore the themes of social identity and complexity of the African people. The reader is made to reflect on their preconceived ideas of masculinity and the role of the women in society. The author masterfully crafts a self-contradicting narrative that compels the reader to challenge false and often toxic ideas of masculinity and also delivers a strong statement about the importance of Igbo women through this conflicted portrayal their place in Igbo society. At first, the Igbo women might appear as oppressed and weak but a shrewd examination of the themes and symbols in the book sheds more light on the actual reality where men and women occupy co-equal roles in the society and each have inherent qualities that help them become useful members of their community.  

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