The Battle to Perfectionism Ultimately Leads to a Tragic Disaster in the Book Things Fall Apart
In the novel “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, Okonkwo strives for perfection but ultimately that could never happen. Okonkwo is in fear of ending up like his father, who he perceives as a failure. So he sets unrealistic standards for himself and his oldest son, and takes constructive criticism extremely defensively. Unoka, Okonkwo’s father is the antithesis of what Okonkwo perceives as a successful honorable man. Unoka is described as being lazy, a coward and a music lover, following values in Igbo cultures that are considered unmanly. A childhood friends teases Okonkwo that his father is an ‘agbala’, an insulting term that means a woman or a man without title in the community. The shame and bitterness of growing up poor drives Okonkwo to strive for success. He is driven by fear of failure and weakness associated with his father. While his father was a cowardly, lazy debt ridden farmer, Okonkwo becomes a brave warrior, with a big farm, three wives and many children. His high drive for success makes him set high standards for himself, his family and everyone else in the community. Setting unrealistic principles for oneself is a main characteristic in a perfectionist. Okonkwo sets exceptionally high standards for himself so he does not become his father. His obsession with perfectionism leads to his disastrous end in the novel.
An individual is termed as a perfectionist when he/she aims to be perfect in all his/her roles in life. “The Perfectionist has the desire to be not excellent, but perfect. Her standards are extremely high, and failure to meet those standards cause great stress. Many believe that they will be valued only if they are perfect.” (Edelstein 41). The desire to be perfect is so intense in a perfectionist that the person sets standards so high for himself/herself that it overwhelms him/her, and when he/she fails to attain those standards, it leads to extreme despair. Okonkwo also displays traits which point his inclination towards perfectionism. He aims to create a position for himself in his society, which would be in contrast to his father’s image as an individual who failed to live up to the expectations of the members of his clan. He feared that he would be termed as a failed person as his father. “But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness…Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not eternal but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should he found to resemble his father.” (Achebe 4). So Okonkwo pursues perfection and strives to achieve the standards set by him. “Okonkwo forges himself into harsh and hardworking man of honor, a role that gains him prestige in the village but proves a fatal weakness in situations demanding more gentleness and subtlety.” (Wisner 169).
Okonkwo even attempts to modify his society according to the image harbored in his mind. He wanted his society to be perfect. “In his mind, he molds the existing society until it matches his image of an Igbo society; with keen selectivity, he includes in that image those aspects that he considers paramount and ignores the rest.” (Scheub 97). He also expects his family members to behave in a manner which matches his standards of perfection. “Wives and children, even adult children, are expected to fall in line with his commands. Okonkwo acts this way in part to compensate for his own father’s perceived weakness.” (Elliott 249). While interacting with his oldest son, Okonkwo makes it clear that he wanted his son to be a perfect individual like him. Okonkwo was so firm in his determination to attain perfection in his life that he portrayed himself as a strong man to the members of his clan even in situations when he experienced weakness within himself. “Driven by an obsession for excellence, Okonkwo early in his journey determines to shun anything that suggests he is weak.” (Emenyonu pg. 74). He always avoided displaying his emotions which could bring forth his weakness. “Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.” (Achebe 20). His desire to be perfect leads to his alienation from his society, as it brings him in conflict with the white people. The white people were influencing the members of Okonkwo’s clan, as they intended to spread Christianity among the people following the Igbo culture. Okonkwo was unhappy about the corrupting influences of the white people on his society. “The white man is very clever….We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (Achebe 124). The image of a perfect society that was held in his mind has fallen apart. So he revolts against the white people by killing one of their messengers during a meeting. But the members of his clan fail to support him and let the other messengers to flee.
Disappointed at his failure to save his society from the white people, Okonkwo ends his life. “In a final act of despair, Okonkwo commits suicide by hanging himself from a tree behind his house. Even in death, he was still rejecting what his father, Unoka, stood for.” (Akwani). Unoka believed that one should overcome despair but Okonkwo yields in his despair and kills himself. Instead of leading a life which was less perfect than his expectations, he chooses to commit suicide. He refuses to lead his life under the white people’s system. “Okonkwo’s subsequent suicide, then, is possibly a statement of his complete belief in his own political system and his utter rejection of the white man’s system.” (Okolo 56). Being a perfectionist, he is extremely disappointed and broken when he realizes that he had failed to achieve the standards set by him. Unable to bear his failure at attaining perfection in his life, he ends his life and frees himself from the shame and guilt of the failure. Okonkwo’s compulsive aim to be perfect leads to his suicide. “Okonkwo’s way of shutting everything else out of his view, aware of himself, is an indication that his ambition has become a blinding passion of a pathetic kind. The stage is set in the very mind of the character for a tragic career.” (Whittaker 81). Okonkwo’s suicide is similar to the reaction of perfectionists when they fail to achieve the aim of perfection in their lives. When people who strive to be perfect fail to attain the standards set by them, they choose death over life, as they think that their life is not matching their expectations. As a perfectionist is obsessed with his/her ambition of realizing his dream of becoming a perfect individual, he/she is unable to cope up with the failure to attain that dream. They react negatively to this failure and resort to cowardly act such as suicide.
Okonkwo viewed his father as a failure and strove hard to prove himself that he is different from his father. He desired to be a successful and perfect individual. But when he fails to achieve the levels of perfection set by him, he kills himself. Okonkwo is a perfectionist whose obsession with perfectionism brings a tragic end to his life. Setting impracticable standards for himself leads Okonkwo into a situation where he is forced to face failure. Okonkwo, like a perfectionist, chooses death over acceptance of his failure.
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