Both African tribal way of life and the

Both Chinua Achebe and Alice Walker
present their men in ‘Things Fall Apart’ and ‘The Colour Purple’ as initially
taking on stereotypical, masculine roles by showing dominance in their societies
and exerting control over their women. Arguably, this is due to the external culture
that these male characters are situated in, both the African tribal way of life
and the early 1900’s South American culture conditioning them into being the
dominant figures they are, suggesting at heart the men might not be as
naturally masculine as would first appear. Despite this there is evidence to
suggest masculinity runs internally into the character’s natures. Okonkwo’s
hatred of his ‘lazy’ father fuels his manliness, and Albert’s flippant use of
violence demonstrates this. However, throughout both novels Achebe and Walker
also present their characters as taking on more feminine traits, showing a
reversal of their masculine roles, and ultimately by the end of both novels,
men have almost completely subverted the masculinity that was previously so
prominent.

 

Initially, both authors present men
as dominating over women and using violence to keep them in their place, depicting
traditional masculine traits. The protagonist of ‘Things Fall Apart’, Okonkwo, one
of the ‘greatest men’ in his society of Umuofia is a fierce warrior who does
not hesitate to ‘use his fists’ in the ‘fiercest’ of fights. This hands-on
violence that Okonkwo demonstrates in his fighting matches is mirrored in the way
that he treats his wives, frequently beating them ‘very heavily’ when they make
simple mistakes in order to exert his masculine dominance. This oppressive
nature that Okonkwo holds over women is symbolised by Achebe who uses the
metaphor of a ‘storm,’ a heavy and threatening force which then ‘bursts,’
releasing his ‘supressed anger’ onto his wives. The parallel between Okonkwo’s
fierceness in battle and his fierceness towards women is explored further as
the reader learns Okonkwo ‘trembled with the desire to conquer and subdue. It
was like the desire for women.’ The verb ‘trembled’ emphasises Okonkwo’s pure
need to exert his manliness over women, something that would have been
prevalent throughout many warriors in Ibo society as the more wives you had,
the more titles, signs of masculinity. Violence towards women is also very
common throughout ‘The Colour Purple,’ the protagonist and narrative voice
Celie 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 remain
obedient 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 of
Alphonso ‘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 why
his justification is ’cause she my wife.’ This matter of fact statement
illustrates how men in the novel think it’s acceptable to use violence to
control women because they are men, and the possessive determiner ‘my’
emphasises dominance. Men in both novels also oppress women in order to assert
their masculinity in other ways. When a woman is married to a man with status
in Ibo society, she wears ‘the anklet of her husband’s titles.’ These anklets
would have been extremely heavy made with materials like metal, an example of a
man physically weighing down his wife with his masculine status. Walker, as a
self-proclaimed ‘womanist’ similarly portrays oppression through the Olinka
tribe, the men in which see women as inferior – ‘they don’t even look at women
when women are speaking.’ Men have so much control over women in the tribe that
they even have ‘life or death power’ over their wives, an ultimate show of
masculine power and dominance. Thus, both Achebe and Walker present their male
characters as exerting masculine dominance over women in order to keep them
under their control, by using violence and oppression.

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The characters Okonkwo and Albert
show that in fact, this masculinity runs into their personalities and nature.
Ato Quayson points out that several critics have remarked ‘Okonkwo’s downfall
is mainly due to a neurotic concern with manliness.’ It could be argued
‘concern with manliness’ derives largely from his childhood, and his need to
not 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 Unoka
is 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 society
would have been seen as a womanly trait. This contrasts to Okonkwo, who is a
fierce 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 as
to why masculinity is embedded deep into Okonkwo’s personality. Okonkwo’s
neurotic concern with manliness (as pointed out by Quayson) runs so deep into
his nature in fact, it could be seen as his hamartia, and as in most novels
within the tragedy genre, it largely contributes to his downfall and the
peripeteia of the novel in which ‘things fall apart.’ Celie’s husband Albert
also has excessive masculinity in his nature, showed by the way he inflicts
fear on Celie. Walker uses the identifier ‘Mr _’ when Celie is referring to
Albert because she is intimidated by him, and taking away his last name is a
way of removing some of his power. Celie refers to other males such as Harpo by
their real name because they don’t have as much control over her, whereas
Albert consistently dominates her. Although at the time it would not have been
unusual for a man to hit his wife, Albert is ‘a bully,’ who regularly beats
Celie ‘like he beats the children.’ Treating Celie like a child makes her feel
inferior and is a way for Albert to assert his control over her. Black women
were oppressed in two ways during this time period – first by white people and then
by their black husbands who would take out their feelings of subordination on
their wives to assert their manliness. Therefore, Celie has to ‘make herself
wood’ in attempt to not feel intimidated by him, the metaphor demonstrating how
Celie has to harden herself against his masculinity. However, her remark:
‘trees fear man’ proves no matter how hard she tries, she still fears Albert’s
dominance and masculinity that runs through him. It must be noted however that
as ‘The Colour Purple’ progresses, Albert’s dominance seems to diminish
gradually, whereas Okonkwo’s is prominent until the last few chapters of
Achebe’s novel. Therefore, although masculinity is a quality which is embedded
into both of the characters, it is far more significant within Okonkwo – Albert
learns to balance his masculinity with femininity.

 

It could be argued, however, these traditional
masculine traits are predominantly caused by the culture the men live in –
society conditioning and pressuring them to dominate. This view would suggest
at heart; the men might not be as masculine as they seem. By looking at the
Southern American society after the slavery was abolished, it can be noted that
although black men were no longer slaves, they still grew crops on land that
was owned by white people, and so were still being subjected to awful treatment
such as Celie’s real father’s store being ‘burned down’ by ‘white merchants.’
This treatment caused the men to project their feelings of oppression onto
women, explaining why they are often treated like slaves. When Albert asks for
Netties hand in marriage, Alphonso ‘won’t let her go,’ treating her like his
possession as a slave would be to their white master. Additionally, Celie is
frequently treated like a sex slave; Albert ‘just do his business, get off, go
to sleep.’ This methodical listing shows how Albert is just performing a
perfunctory task, his ‘business’ being thought of as a manly right. Okonkwo’s
manliness also derives from the culture he is surrounded by. Clare Connors
comments that ‘Achebe’s protagonist is situated in relation to the place and
the culture in which he lives,’ and this is true as we can see the Ibo clan
favouring violence and courage – two key aspects of Okonkwo’s personality. Even
Achebe 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 be
masculine. When Okonkwo beats his wife because she ‘did not return early enough
to cook the afternoon meal’ it is with ‘justifiable anger’ because he was
‘provoked’ – due to the gender roles in Ibo culture dictating a woman should
care for her husband. Similarly, when Okonkwo threatens Nwoye with the promise
of breaking his jaw; it is because Nwoye ‘split another yam’ the wrong size. ‘Yam
stood for manliness’ in Ibo culture and they are used as a symbol for
masculinity throughout the novel by Achebe. Therefore, it can be argued it was
the pressure of cutting the perfect yams for the ‘Feast of the New Yam’ that
drove Okonkwo to act as he did. Clare Connors also remarks ‘the personal and
the social are bound up with one another’ something we see through the
‘masculine stories’ Okonkwo tells to his children. In Ibo society, traditional
men’s stories were called Akuko-ala. They were tales of the past of their
society, containing ‘violence and bloodshed.’ Achebe uses the violent imagery
of Okonkwo obtaining his ‘first human head,’ to demonstrate how the violent
past 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 patriarchal
community ‘do not believe girls should be educated’ as she can only ‘become
something’ to ‘her husband.’ This is a form of masculine control over the
women, as is the ‘bloody cutting’ that is enforced onto young girls. The
practise of female circumcision is ‘bloody and painful’ and is often used in
African culture to deprive a girl of her sexuality so that she cannot have any
sexual power over men. Like the practises in the Ibo society, however, it can be
argued all of these shows of masculinity and practises no matter how extreme,
derive from the society that the males are surrounded by. This would suggest
the men are not as naturally masculine as they would appear, it is just
conditioned by their culture.

 

Additionally, a balance of
masculinity and femininity is portrayed throughout both novels as Achebe and
Walker present some of their male characters taking on more feminine traits, so
subverting the masculine quality of control. Upon publication of her novel,
Alice Walker was subject to a tirade of criticism, as African-American males
complained she was encouraging damaging stereotypes by portraying some men as
aggressive in the household. Although this may be the case, characters such as
Harpo are not portrayed as being naturally violent. Harpo although ‘strong in
body,’ is ‘weak in mind,’ not possessing the natural dominance other male
characters have to even be ‘better at fighting his daddy back’ than a woman.  He has to be instructed by Celie to beat his
wife in attempt to ‘make Sofia mind,’ showing masculinity is not something that
comes 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 not
mentally strong like other traditional males, and Walker’s repetition of
‘boo-hoo’ shows him taking on the more feminine trait of being emotional. Nwoye
from ‘Things Fall Apart’ can be said to parallel Harpo in the way that he is
naturally more feminine. Like Harpo, Nwoye is portrayed as being emotional like
a 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 also
prefers more feminine past-times, favouring the akuko-ifo ‘stories that his
mother used to tell,’ over ‘masculine stories.’ Therefore, it is little
surprise that when the white colonisers arrive to the tribe during the scramble
for Africa, Nwoye decides to leave behind the tribe and join the Christian
missionaries instead, who are portrayed as being feminine with their ‘gay and rollicking’
hymns and sense of brotherhood. Achebe, (who was brought up amongst both the
traditionally masculine Ibo culture and also that of the Christians) is able to
present his character possessing more feminine qualities, subverting some of
those more traditional masculine ones. Achebe also gradually presents the
protagonist Okonkwo as beginning to subvert his masculinity. When banished from
the clan, Okonkwo is sent to his ‘motherland’ and this could be seen as a
chance for him to learn how to balance his intense masculinity with some
femininity. Whilst there, Achebe presents him as out of his comfort zone, ‘cast
out’ of his masculine clan ‘like a fish on to a dry, sandy beach.’ This simile
contrasts to that used to describe Okonkwo in chapter one: ‘slippery like a
fish’ showing how Okonkwo has been removed from his natural environment, and
now is going to have to adapt by relinquishing some of his masculinity. Walker
similarly portrays one of her main male characters Albert as embracing some
feminine qualities as her novel progresses. Critic Judy Simons argues that he
‘is ultimately saved from what appears to be a terminal decline when Harpo
makes him send Celie the packet of Nettie’s letters that he has been
withholding from her.’ Letters are seen to be a form of female literary
tradition, and as ‘The Colour Purple’ is an epistolary novel narrated by a
female, there is emphasis around the femininity they symbolise. Therefore, by
accepting they exist and handing them over to Celie, he embraces femininity and
‘start to improve’ as a person, avoiding the ‘terminal decline’ that Simons
points out which ultimately is excessive masculinity.

 

At the end of both novels, it is
clear the male characters Albert and Okonkwo have subverted the traditional
masculine traits and roles expected of them. At the start of ‘Things Fall
Apart,’ Okonkwo is portrayed as a larger than life character, asserting
dominance by his verbal commands – demonstrated by Achebe who uses the verbs
‘shouted’ and ‘roared’ when he speaks to convey his masculine presence. Okonkwo
is 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 into
himself in the final portion of the novel, when Achebe uses frequent references
of ‘silence’ between Okonkwo and the other men, symbolising how their
masculinity has faded away. He becomes ‘sullen and silent’ finding ‘no words to
speak’ to his fellow clansmen. In Ibo society, leading the clan would have been
a show of masculinity, but the once fierce warrior can no longer speak for
them, or even himself, showing a clear subversion of his masculinity. It can
even 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 an
act of desperation and not manliness. ‘He heard voices asking: ‘Why did he do
it?” The Ibo communities usually maintain a clan mentality, but this
uncertainty they show towards Okonkwo shows they do not think the act was one
of manly strength and courage. The character Albert from ‘The Colour Purple’
also subverts his masculinity by the end of the novel. This is illustrated by
Walker as she depicts Celie no longer being intimidated by him, whereas before
Albert would assert his masculinity by being a ‘bully’ to her, he now treats
her as a friend. He ‘really listen’ to Celie, and she even comments he ‘seem to
be the only one that understand my feeling.’ Showing understanding and emotion is
associated with femininity and they are a stark contrast to the violent
masculinity that was associated with Albert before. Dlnya Mohammed points out
that in ‘The Colour Purple,’ ‘gender roles are defined in the beginning’ but
then ‘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 out
on the porch with Celie ‘sewing and talking’ about love. Cooking and sewing
would have both been viewed as traditionally female pastimes, but as the times
move forwards towards the mid 1900’s and gender roles are not as clearly
defined, Albert adjusts to this showing a subversion of his masculinity. This
contrasts to Okonkwo who although shows subversion of masculinity, does not
move with the times. He refuses to accept Christianity growing more popular in
Africa and the decline of Ibo culture, so commits the ‘abomination’ of committing
suicide. It is his final act and is one of weakness and dejection, not
masculine strength and courage. This solidifies the argument of Okonkwo
ultimately subverting his masculinity, as does the final more feminine
impression we get of Albert in ‘The Colour Purple.’

 

    Ultimately, whilst on first appearances it
would seem the male characters in ‘The Colour Purple’ and ‘Things Fall Apart’
are presented as heavily taking on traditional masculine traits, closer
analysis of the characters shows that masculinity is actually frequently
subverted. It is clear in both novels men control and dominate over their women
by using violence and oppression in order to exert their masculinity. This
however, although is definitely embedded into some of the male character’s
personalities, is more likely to be caused by the societal pressures of the
time periods – strict gender divisions and certain events conditioning them to
exert masculinity which may not have come naturally to them otherwise.
Furthermore, both authors include characters such as Nwoye and Harpo who
completely subvert masculinity through their feminine traits. Lastly, the
novels’ progression show characters Okonkwo and Albert lose most of their masculinity
by the end