Proverb Symbolism for the Clan
In the novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe introduces the ideas of maturity/reputation, respect, and communication as Umuofian cultural values. The success of its citizens when it comes to their social standing is dependent on their abilities to be able to display all three of these traits. The biggest example, Okonkwo, portrays how he exemplified the proverbs and of how they functioned as stepping stones in his achievement as a powerful leader with many titles in the clan. Through maturity, you learn respect, through respect you learn the value of communication and its substantial role in the society. Being that social standing is earned instead of inherited, the need to display these traits becomes increasingly evident.
Accomplishments of strength and power are essential in order to display maturity for the hierarchical structure of the Umuofian society. An example of this is when the men are referring to Okonkwo, they use the proverb “If a child washes his hands he can eat with kings” (5). This proverb relates to Okonkwo in a way that is undeniable, the stigma of his father’s unruly life is not something that the members of the Umuofia clan will hold against him. Instead, he is treated by the manifestations of his ability to be hardworking and have the maturity to rise to greatness even against the odds. His drive is what leads villagers to think that he deserves a spot in one of the highest positions in this society. The displays of hyper-masculine accomplishments (i.e.: winning a wrestling match) correlates in the Umuofia society to a man being mature enough to eat with elders. This somewhat easy rise to the top of the social standings is one of the reasons as to why Okonkwo’s downfall and decline in reputation was so rapid. The minute he wasn’t able to display maturity and rationality and he was questioned and disregarded for his inability to give respect.
Respect is another factor that plays a vital role in the social standing of the Umuofian society. As of such when Okonkwo is addressing Nwakibie, he states that “a man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness” (16). Okonkwo has gone to Nwakibie to ask for yam-seeds in order to be able to gain a livelihood and change the fortune he had been left from his father. His actions and the proverb used express how citizens were aware that their social standings are aided by their ability to give respect to others. When Okonkwo goes to Nwakibie, he is not simply asking for a favor- instead he is acknowledging Nwakibie’s success and is asking him to entrust him with the same yams that brought him fruitfulness. Okonkwo, whose life begins as the son of a debtor, understands that in order for him to be able to create his own achievements, he must be able to give respect and learn from the other men of great power. His use of the proverb when meeting with Nwakibie displays how valued respect and communication are when attempting to climb the social ranks of the Umuofia clan.
Communication is expected in Umuofian society where social standing plays a large role in their way of life. In chapter one Unoka addresses Okoye, saying “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (4). Okoye appears in Unoka’s hut asking for the cowries he owes him, but as the situation differs Unoka begins to explain to Okoye why he cannot pay him the money he owes. Unoka creates symbolism by using a wall to represent his debts to men. Unoka addresses Okoye saying that he will pay the biggest debt first before he begins to repay the smaller ones. In using the proverb, he expresses how the palm-oil with which words are eaten symbolizes that what you communicate to others should be something dignified, which can only be done through the inclusion of proverbs. Being able to pile up more debts should seem to reveal Unoka’s lack of a social standing, but by contrary he is able to communicate to others that he is able to pay off those debts. It is his ability in the art of conversation that allows for others to continue to loan to Unoka, regardless of the outcome. This trait, however, is something that Okonkwo is unable to master, and as of such, his climb to the top of the social ladder is hindered. This ability signifies that those who know how to communicate rise up in their social standing much more easily than those that lack this talent.
Chinua Achebe impressively portrays the values of the Umuofian society in the portrayal of Okonkwo. His success and lack thereof when climbing the societal ladder is aided (and hindered) by his ability to be mature, respectful, and communicative. In doing so, the journey becomes not only a study of his character but of the values of the tribe. The novel investigates how these traits influenced not only the personalities of the characters but also influenced the way they’re perceived by others.
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