In “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, the author uses both verbal and dramatic irony to tell the reader the life of the main character Okonkwo. Achebe starts off by describing Okonkwo as a strong and controlling man who feels no pity for those around him, up to the point where his life falls apart.
At the beginning of Things Fall Apart, Achebe described Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, as “lazy and improvident and incapable of thinking about tomorrow” (4). Unlike his father, Okonkwo was known in Umuofia, as a “tall and huge” man who brought honor to his village. Okonkwo felt no pity for those around him; he was disappointed in those who were weak, including his father. He had no “patience with unsuccessful men” (4). This created Okonkwo’s personality to be somewhat arrogant; causing the characters in the novel to believe that such strong man would most likely succeed in his village and become a better man than his father.
The verbal irony first began when Okonkwo wanted everyone to be strong just like him. He detested those who didn’t work hard so he always gave that image of a frightening man because of how “strong” he supposedly was. People in the village looked up to him, making Okonkwo feel superior and believed that he had the right to boss
people around. Achebe achieved his goal to make everyone in the story believe that Okonkwo’s future was a bright one. What kept Okonkwo motivated was the “failure” his father was as a grown-up. The verbal irony works in favor of the audience and against the characters in the novel. According to How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, “irony works because the audience understands something that eludes one or more of the characters” (240). The audience knows that Okonkwo’s attitude is not going to take him anywhere, unlike the village of Umuofia, who believes that he is a great man with great standards.
The dramatic irony began when Okonkwo’s actions went a bit too far. A serial of events happened before Okonkwo’s life slowly became to fall apart. One of them was when a young boy was kept in the village, lived with Okonkwo for several years and at the end, the young boy was sentenced to death. Okonkwo took part in this murder even after many told him not to; “that boy calls you father…do not bear a hand in his death” (57). But Okonkwo felt that he needed to be there in order to get “stronger”. Following this, Okonkwo was then exiled to his mother’s land because of a murdered he committed at a funeral. Slowly, Okonkwo was becoming weaker, even if he didn’t believe it. At this point of the story, the audience believes that this is the punishment for his personality and the way he treats those around him. But “that’s irony- take our expectations and upend them, make them work against us” (How to Read…238). Achebe had a different ending for Okonkwo, one a lot different than what the audience expected.
Achebe “pays attention to expectations” (How to Read…240) and his purpose is to cause a big impact in the audience with the ending of Okonkwo. Irony is all about what the audience expects. It is up to the writer to make those expectations work against the readers. Okonkwo, after coming back from his exiled time (seven years) to Umuofia, he realized that his village was now controlled by white man. Okonkwo now didn’t have the authority he had before, even his son Nwoye left him and joined the white man. The village was not the same, nobody relied on Okonkwo anymore. And when Okonkwo wanted to gain control once again, the whole village gave him their backs. It is ironic how Okonkwo criticized his father for being lazy and a failure as an adult. But now, he was about to end worse than his father. Okonkwo committed suicide; “his body was dangling” (207) from a tree. Okonkwo went from being “one of the greatest men in Umuofia…and now he will be buried like a dog” (208). This dramatic ending caused controversies not only in the village but also in the audience.
The verbal and dramatic irony worked great in this novel. Achebe definitely played with both of the characters and readers expectations. As the characters expected Okonkwo to be a successful leader, the audience knew he would end up alone. But neither expected that he would of committed suicide. This is the purpose of the Achebe, to “keeps us readers on our toes, inviting us, compelling us, to dig through layers of possible meaning and competing signification” (How to read…244). Achebe accomplished his goal of playing with both the characters and readers mind. Irony controlled everything in this novel.