Both Chinua Achebe and Alice Walkerpresent their men in ‘Things Fall Apart’ and ‘The Colour Purple’ as initiallytaking on stereotypical, masculine roles by showing dominance in their societiesand exerting control over their women. Arguably, this is due to the external culturethat these male characters are situated in, both the African tribal way of lifeand the early 1900’s South American culture conditioning them into being thedominant figures they are, suggesting at heart the men might not be asnaturally masculine as would first appear.
Despite this there is evidence tosuggest masculinity runs internally into the character’s natures. Okonkwo’shatred of his ‘lazy’ father fuels his manliness, and Albert’s flippant use ofviolence demonstrates this. However, throughout both novels Achebe and Walkeralso present their characters as taking on more feminine traits, showing areversal of their masculine roles, and ultimately by the end of both novels,men have almost completely subverted the masculinity that was previously soprominent. Initially, both authors present menas dominating over women and using violence to keep them in their place, depictingtraditional masculine traits. The protagonist of ‘Things Fall Apart’, Okonkwo, oneof the ‘greatest men’ in his society of Umuofia is a fierce warrior who doesnot hesitate to ‘use his fists’ in the ‘fiercest’ of fights. This hands-onviolence that Okonkwo demonstrates in his fighting matches is mirrored in the waythat he treats his wives, frequently beating them ‘very heavily’ when they makesimple mistakes in order to exert his masculine dominance.
This oppressivenature that Okonkwo holds over women is symbolised by Achebe who uses themetaphor of a ‘storm,’ a heavy and threatening force which then ‘bursts,’releasing his ‘supressed anger’ onto his wives. The parallel between Okonkwo’sfierceness in battle and his fierceness towards women is explored further asthe reader learns Okonkwo ‘trembled with the desire to conquer and subdue. Itwas like the desire for women.’ The verb ‘trembled’ emphasises Okonkwo’s pureneed to exert his manliness over women, something that would have beenprevalent throughout many warriors in Ibo society as the more wives you had,the more titles, signs of masculinity. Violence towards women is also verycommon throughout ‘The Colour Purple,’ the protagonist and narrative voiceCelie being subjected to a torrent of beatings and rape during her early life.
Set in the early 1900’s, men at the time were clearly still the dominant sex,they would exert control over their families whilst the women would remainobedient to them, which is clearly the case with Celie and her father Alphonso.On the first page of her novel, Walker gives the distressing imagery ofAlphonso ‘pushing his thing inside’ Celie and then proceeding to ‘choke’ her,setting up the theme of masculine domination for the rest of the novel.Alphonso tells Celie she’s ‘gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t,’ the command’gonna’ used to show how he is exerting his masculine control over her. Albert,Celie’s husband also regularly gives her a ‘good sound beating.’ When asked whyhis justification is ’cause she my wife.
‘ This matter of fact statementillustrates how men in the novel think it’s acceptable to use violence tocontrol women because they are men, and the possessive determiner ‘my’emphasises dominance. Men in both novels also oppress women in order to asserttheir masculinity in other ways. When a woman is married to a man with statusin Ibo society, she wears ‘the anklet of her husband’s titles.’ These ankletswould have been extremely heavy made with materials like metal, an example of aman physically weighing down his wife with his masculine status. Walker, as aself-proclaimed ‘womanist’ similarly portrays oppression through the Olinkatribe, the men in which see women as inferior – ‘they don’t even look at womenwhen women are speaking.’ Men have so much control over women in the tribe thatthey even have ‘life or death power’ over their wives, an ultimate show ofmasculine power and dominance.
Thus, both Achebe and Walker present their malecharacters as exerting masculine dominance over women in order to keep themunder their control, by using violence and oppression. The characters Okonkwo and Albertshow that in fact, this masculinity runs into their personalities and nature.Ato Quayson points out that several critics have remarked ‘Okonkwo’s downfallis mainly due to a neurotic concern with manliness.’ It could be argued’concern with manliness’ derives largely from his childhood, and his need tonot turn out like his ‘failure’ of a father. Unoka ‘loved the good fellowship,”loved the first kites,’ ‘loved it all.
‘ This repetition of ‘love’ shows Unokais more of a feminine character, aided by the fact that Unoka is portrayed as’a coward,’ who cannot ‘bear the sight of blood,’ which in the Ibo societywould have been seen as a womanly trait. This contrasts to Okonkwo, who is afierce warrior and only enjoys masculine hobbies such as wrestling. Therefore,it can be seen Achebe uses Unoka as a foil for Okonkwo, and an explanation asto why masculinity is embedded deep into Okonkwo’s personality. Okonkwo’sneurotic concern with manliness (as pointed out by Quayson) runs so deep intohis nature in fact, it could be seen as his hamartia, and as in most novelswithin the tragedy genre, it largely contributes to his downfall and theperipeteia of the novel in which ‘things fall apart.’ Celie’s husband Albertalso has excessive masculinity in his nature, showed by the way he inflictsfear on Celie. Walker uses the identifier ‘Mr _’ when Celie is referring toAlbert because she is intimidated by him, and taking away his last name is away of removing some of his power.
Celie refers to other males such as Harpo bytheir real name because they don’t have as much control over her, whereasAlbert consistently dominates her. Although at the time it would not have beenunusual for a man to hit his wife, Albert is ‘a bully,’ who regularly beatsCelie ‘like he beats the children.’ Treating Celie like a child makes her feelinferior and is a way for Albert to assert his control over her. Black womenwere oppressed in two ways during this time period – first by white people and thenby their black husbands who would take out their feelings of subordination ontheir wives to assert their manliness. Therefore, Celie has to ‘make herselfwood’ in attempt to not feel intimidated by him, the metaphor demonstrating howCelie has to harden herself against his masculinity.
However, her remark:’trees fear man’ proves no matter how hard she tries, she still fears Albert’sdominance and masculinity that runs through him. It must be noted however thatas ‘The Colour Purple’ progresses, Albert’s dominance seems to diminishgradually, whereas Okonkwo’s is prominent until the last few chapters ofAchebe’s novel. Therefore, although masculinity is a quality which is embeddedinto both of the characters, it is far more significant within Okonkwo – Albertlearns to balance his masculinity with femininity. It could be argued, however, these traditionalmasculine traits are predominantly caused by the culture the men live in –society conditioning and pressuring them to dominate. This view would suggestat heart; the men might not be as masculine as they seem.
By looking at theSouthern American society after the slavery was abolished, it can be noted thatalthough black men were no longer slaves, they still grew crops on land thatwas owned by white people, and so were still being subjected to awful treatmentsuch as Celie’s real father’s store being ‘burned down’ by ‘white merchants.’This treatment caused the men to project their feelings of oppression ontowomen, explaining why they are often treated like slaves. When Albert asks forNetties hand in marriage, Alphonso ‘won’t let her go,’ treating her like hispossession as a slave would be to their white master. Additionally, Celie isfrequently treated like a sex slave; Albert ‘just do his business, get off, goto sleep.’ This methodical listing shows how Albert is just performing aperfunctory task, his ‘business’ being thought of as a manly right.
Okonkwo’smanliness also derives from the culture he is surrounded by. Clare Connorscomments that ‘Achebe’s protagonist is situated in relation to the place andthe culture in which he lives,’ and this is true as we can see the Ibo clanfavouring violence and courage – two key aspects of Okonkwo’s personality. EvenAchebe remarks that ‘perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man.’The fear he inspires is only drawn from his society pressuring him to bemasculine.
When Okonkwo beats his wife because she ‘did not return early enoughto cook the afternoon meal’ it is with ‘justifiable anger’ because he was’provoked’ – due to the gender roles in Ibo culture dictating a woman shouldcare for her husband. Similarly, when Okonkwo threatens Nwoye with the promiseof breaking his jaw; it is because Nwoye ‘split another yam’ the wrong size. ‘Yamstood for manliness’ in Ibo culture and they are used as a symbol formasculinity throughout the novel by Achebe. Therefore, it can be argued it wasthe pressure of cutting the perfect yams for the ‘Feast of the New Yam’ thatdrove Okonkwo to act as he did. Clare Connors also remarks ‘the personal andthe social are bound up with one another’ something we see through the’masculine stories’ Okonkwo tells to his children.
In Ibo society, traditionalmen’s stories were called Akuko-ala. They were tales of the past of theirsociety, containing ‘violence and bloodshed.’ Achebe uses the violent imageryof Okonkwo obtaining his ‘first human head,’ to demonstrate how the violentpast of the clan is being personally related on to the younger generations,teaching them that violence and domination are important masculine qualities.This passing down of cultural practises is also seen in the Olinka tribe in’The Colour Purple.’ Like the real Olinka tribe, the extreme patriarchalcommunity ‘do not believe girls should be educated’ as she can only ‘becomesomething’ to ‘her husband.
‘ This is a form of masculine control over thewomen, as is the ‘bloody cutting’ that is enforced onto young girls. Thepractise of female circumcision is ‘bloody and painful’ and is often used inAfrican culture to deprive a girl of her sexuality so that she cannot have anysexual power over men. Like the practises in the Ibo society, however, it can beargued all of these shows of masculinity and practises no matter how extreme,derive from the society that the males are surrounded by.
This would suggestthe men are not as naturally masculine as they would appear, it is justconditioned by their culture. Additionally, a balance ofmasculinity and femininity is portrayed throughout both novels as Achebe andWalker present some of their male characters taking on more feminine traits, sosubverting the masculine quality of control. Upon publication of her novel,Alice Walker was subject to a tirade of criticism, as African-American malescomplained she was encouraging damaging stereotypes by portraying some men asaggressive in the household. Although this may be the case, characters such asHarpo are not portrayed as being naturally violent. Harpo although ‘strong inbody,’ is ‘weak in mind,’ not possessing the natural dominance other malecharacters have to even be ‘better at fighting his daddy back’ than a woman. He has to be instructed by Celie to beat hiswife in attempt to ‘make Sofia mind,’ showing masculinity is not something thatcomes naturally to him. Even after Harpo does ‘beat her’ he is shown by Walker’crying like his heart gon break.’ This simile demonstrates that Harpo is notmentally strong like other traditional males, and Walker’s repetition of’boo-hoo’ shows him taking on the more feminine trait of being emotional.
Nwoyefrom ‘Things Fall Apart’ can be said to parallel Harpo in the way that he isnaturally more feminine. Like Harpo, Nwoye is portrayed as being emotional likea female, at the news his brother must leave the clan Nwoye ‘burst into tears’earning him a beating from his father for not acting like a man. He alsoprefers more feminine past-times, favouring the akuko-ifo ‘stories that hismother used to tell,’ over ‘masculine stories.’ Therefore, it is littlesurprise that when the white colonisers arrive to the tribe during the scramblefor Africa, Nwoye decides to leave behind the tribe and join the Christianmissionaries instead, who are portrayed as being feminine with their ‘gay and rollicking’hymns and sense of brotherhood. Achebe, (who was brought up amongst both thetraditionally masculine Ibo culture and also that of the Christians) is able topresent his character possessing more feminine qualities, subverting some ofthose more traditional masculine ones.
Achebe also gradually presents theprotagonist Okonkwo as beginning to subvert his masculinity. When banished fromthe clan, Okonkwo is sent to his ‘motherland’ and this could be seen as achance for him to learn how to balance his intense masculinity with somefemininity. Whilst there, Achebe presents him as out of his comfort zone, ‘castout’ of his masculine clan ‘like a fish on to a dry, sandy beach.’ This similecontrasts to that used to describe Okonkwo in chapter one: ‘slippery like afish’ showing how Okonkwo has been removed from his natural environment, andnow is going to have to adapt by relinquishing some of his masculinity. Walkersimilarly portrays one of her main male characters Albert as embracing somefeminine qualities as her novel progresses.
Critic Judy Simons argues that he’is ultimately saved from what appears to be a terminal decline when Harpomakes him send Celie the packet of Nettie’s letters that he has beenwithholding from her.’ Letters are seen to be a form of female literarytradition, and as ‘The Colour Purple’ is an epistolary novel narrated by afemale, there is emphasis around the femininity they symbolise. Therefore, byaccepting they exist and handing them over to Celie, he embraces femininity and’start to improve’ as a person, avoiding the ‘terminal decline’ that Simonspoints out which ultimately is excessive masculinity. At the end of both novels, it isclear the male characters Albert and Okonkwo have subverted the traditionalmasculine traits and roles expected of them. At the start of ‘Things FallApart,’ Okonkwo is portrayed as a larger than life character, assertingdominance by his verbal commands – demonstrated by Achebe who uses the verbs’shouted’ and ‘roared’ when he speaks to convey his masculine presence. Okonkwois even said to have ‘breathed heavily’ when he sleeps so that his wives can’hear him.’ This however, is a far cry from the way he seems to shrink intohimself in the final portion of the novel, when Achebe uses frequent referencesof ‘silence’ between Okonkwo and the other men, symbolising how theirmasculinity has faded away.
He becomes ‘sullen and silent’ finding ‘no words tospeak’ to his fellow clansmen. In Ibo society, leading the clan would have beena show of masculinity, but the once fierce warrior can no longer speak forthem, or even himself, showing a clear subversion of his masculinity. It caneven be argued that in Okonkwo’s final show of war and violence – when his’matchet descended’ down onto the messenger of the white men, it was only anact of desperation and not manliness. ‘He heard voices asking: ‘Why did he doit?” The Ibo communities usually maintain a clan mentality, but thisuncertainty they show towards Okonkwo shows they do not think the act was oneof manly strength and courage. The character Albert from ‘The Colour Purple’also subverts his masculinity by the end of the novel. This is illustrated byWalker as she depicts Celie no longer being intimidated by him, whereas beforeAlbert would assert his masculinity by being a ‘bully’ to her, he now treatsher as a friend.
He ‘really listen’ to Celie, and she even comments he ‘seem tobe the only one that understand my feeling.’ Showing understanding and emotion isassociated with femininity and they are a stark contrast to the violentmasculinity that was associated with Albert before. Dlnya Mohammed points outthat in ‘The Colour Purple,’ ‘gender roles are defined in the beginning’ butthen ‘later on, the males adjust to the changing times as the roles change.’This can be seen as Albert makes ‘his own little sneaky recipes,’ and sits outon the porch with Celie ‘sewing and talking’ about love.
Cooking and sewingwould have both been viewed as traditionally female pastimes, but as the timesmove forwards towards the mid 1900’s and gender roles are not as clearlydefined, Albert adjusts to this showing a subversion of his masculinity. Thiscontrasts to Okonkwo who although shows subversion of masculinity, does notmove with the times. He refuses to accept Christianity growing more popular inAfrica and the decline of Ibo culture, so commits the ‘abomination’ of committingsuicide. It is his final act and is one of weakness and dejection, notmasculine strength and courage. This solidifies the argument of Okonkwoultimately subverting his masculinity, as does the final more feminineimpression we get of Albert in ‘The Colour Purple.’ Ultimately, whilst on first appearances itwould seem the male characters in ‘The Colour Purple’ and ‘Things Fall Apart’are presented as heavily taking on traditional masculine traits, closeranalysis of the characters shows that masculinity is actually frequentlysubverted.
It is clear in both novels men control and dominate over their womenby using violence and oppression in order to exert their masculinity. Thishowever, although is definitely embedded into some of the male character’spersonalities, is more likely to be caused by the societal pressures of thetime periods – strict gender divisions and certain events conditioning them toexert masculinity which may not have come naturally to them otherwise.Furthermore, both authors include characters such as Nwoye and Harpo whocompletely subvert masculinity through their feminine traits. Lastly, thenovels’ progression show characters Okonkwo and Albert lose most of their masculinityby the end