Classical Tragedy or Modern Tragedy?



A strain of criticism developed around the relations between Things Fall Apart and Aristotelian or Greek tragedy. While investigating the novel’s structure, plot, and characters, critics began debating whether Okonkwo can be called a classical tragic hero. In Greek tragedy, the tragic hero is a noble character who tries to achieve some much-desired goal but encounters obstacles. He often possesses some kind of tragic flaw, and his downfall is usually brought about through some combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods.

One of the earliest articles on this theme is Abiola Irele’s “The Tragic Conflict in the Novels of Chinua Achebe” (1967), in which Irele asserts, “Things Fall Apart turns out to present the whole tragic drama of a society vividly and concretely enacted in the tragic destiny of a representative individual” . This idea grew popular during the 1970s and 1980s and has endured as a typical way of defining Okonkwo’s character–even the back cover of the 1994 Anchor edition of the novel claims that it “is often compared to the great Greek tragedies.”

David Cook, in African Literature: A Critical View, which contains an important early formalist study of Things Fall Apart, provides a close reading of Okonkwo, claiming, “If Things Fall Apart is to be regarded as epic, then Okonkwo is essentially heroic. Both propositions are tenable” . He closely examines Okonkwo’s actions, and, although Cook believes Okonkwo is similar, he concludes: “Okonkwo is unlike the prototype epic heroes of Homer and Virgil in one very important respect which has to do with circumstances rather than character. He is not a founding figure in the fabled history of his people, but the very reverse”.

Harold Bloom does not consider the novel a traditional Greek tragedy, but he does compare Okonkwo to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, concluding in his introduction to his Modern Critical Interpretations volume on Things Fall Apart, “If Coriolanus is a tragedy, then so is Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo, like the Roman hero, is essentially a solitary, and at heart a perpetual child. His tragedy stands apart from the condition of his people, even though it is generated by their pragmatic refusal of heroic death” .

See: Amy Sickels


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