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The African Characters of Okonkwo and Mister Johnson, Essay Example

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Essay

Though both stories, Things Fall Apart as well as Mister Johnson, have a similar setting, similar themes, and illustrate similar ideas, each piece of work has very distinguishing marks that make them individual. In many ways the main characters of both pieces of work, Okonkwo as well as Mister Johnson, are similar–they are both tragic figures in their hard work with regards to social and racial injustices, however the main differences lie in the way they handle the conflicts; Okonkwo through violence and impulsiveness, compared to Mister Johnson’s almost ignorance of it–often including himself with the British people he himself served.

It is very hard to say which character is more tragic, Okonkwo or Mister Johnson. Okonkwo grew up revolting against his seemingly lazy father, named Unoka. Although Okonkwo’s father was seemingly a wise man, very versed in conversation, cultute, and music, this did not seem to matter to Okonkwo. He looked at the violent world around him, and saw overall power and dominance with regards to how much of a proverbial man he was as the most important aspect of his life. Though this did allow him to achieve some goals, it was also a tragic flaw that Okonkwo constantly dealt with throughout the story.

Mister Johnson, on the other hand, was perceived and explained as a happy, content, man who was in the employ of the British government. It is a stark juxtaposition between the ways Mister Johnson views his British employer compared to the way Okonkwo thought. In addition to being content in his station, he actually frequently refers to himself as one of the British himself. This is his tragic flaw, in comparison to Okonkwo’s angry ways. Instead, Mister Johnson was unable to even tell he was a subordinate, or that he was being taken advantage of. This makes Mister Johnson’s tragic flaw simple ignorance. Placing a very content and happy African man, albeit ignorant of his station in life, in the employ of the British government further illustrated the theme of British economic dominance in the area, as well as social dominance–something much more difficult to achieve.

Looking very closely at Okonkwo as a character gives much insight into his overall behavior as a character. He is an elder gentlemen living in Nigeria in the late 1930’s–both the height of World War II, as well as the precursors to the Cold War, which had a tremendous influence on the African continent as a whole; dealing with colonialism in order to spread, as well as prevent the spread, of the Communist regime the Soviet Union was emerging as. As a result, Western countries tightened their grip on the African nations that were already colonized, as well as took anything else not previously settled. Nigeria was one of the oldest colonies Britain held in Africa, and was more than used to British rule. It is easy to see how a somewhat elderly man, who had never known anything besides British role, would so easily identify and assimilate into what he thought was British culture.

While the entire plot revolves around the building of an underfunded road, and it is indeed Mister Johnson himself who suggests fixing the books to make everything appear solvent–he is also naturally the only scapegoat when the plan backfires. It is his demeanor, probably a product of his environment, which explains his reluctance to argue when faced with the exposure, and the subsequent blame taken, for the fixing of the books.

Looking at the context of Things Fall Apart, this plot directly addressed the injustices of the British government in their initial takeover of Nigeria. Okonkwo, as a young man, was naturally appalled by the horrible injustices he sees every day, and compares them to the pacifist views of his Father, whom Okonkwo sees as weak. His Father was an important tribal leader, and died with many debts left unpaid.

Although Okonkwo is a very strong character in his wills, his ideals, and his overall masculinity, it is this “strength” that eventually results in his downfall. His temper, as well as his reluctance to show any weakness, leads to his family being exiled for a period of seven years for his role in the killing of another member of the tribe.

In addition, Okonkwo’s actions had a direct impact on his own suicide. Missionaries had been deployed to the region to attempt to convert the native people. After being appalled at the treatment he and his other tribesmen were receiving, especially when one religious convert destroyed an old tribal religious tradition, the church was burnt down by Okonkwo and other tribal warriors. When these leaders were called to a meeting for a seemingly peaceful resolution, the African men were imprisoned.

It is during their imprisonment that Okonkwo grows particularly bitter. Himself and his fellow tribesmen were subject to horrible conditions, including beatings, insults and even starvation. When their British captors finally led the tribesmen free, Okonkwo, assuming that his tribe will come to his aid, promptly murders a British leader with a machete. Everyone is allowed to escape besides Okonkwo, whose own tribe had now turned against him. Feeling betrayed, alone, and without prospects, Okonkwo hangs himself–a violent end to a tragic and violent life.

The author takes careful time outlining the cultural implications of the story as a whole. The cultural differences between the colonial British government and the native African tribes have important places in this story. Because the time period in which this story is set is fifty years earlier, Okonkwo is a perfect example of the original reaction to British colonialism in Africa, and embodies the freedom fighters that were so brutally crushed by the government. When his tribesmen turn their backs on him, it is very reflective of the situation much of Africa felt as they were in–trapped, and only fighting to futility. They literally gave up due to British military might, as well as brutality.

Fifty years later when Mister Johnson takes place in the same country of Nigeria, the concepts discussed can truly be applied to cultural, political, and socio-economic perspectives. The character of Mister Johnson himself would have been a part of the generation that was subject to the horrors associated with colonialism in Africa, and therefore would have grown up with the notion that he had no choice but to be accept his status as subordinate. His conflicted identities are a very important theme in the story.

As previously stated, the title character dresses, speaks, acts, and even considers himself by all accounts one of the Englishmen he worked for. In the story, he chastised the other African children for not transitioning, and assimilating, into English culture. Mister Johnson was tragic in that when the people he so truly believed accepted him as one of their own betrayed him. It is even more tragic that Mister Johnson was still willing to help and accept Rudbeck–even though Rudbeck never apologized, or even admitted that it was he that fixed the books himself. It is as if Mister Johnson accepted his fate as the scapegoat simply because of his racial complexion. This sways the audience toward the idea that Mister Johnson was perhaps not as naive as he seemed.

His sympathy and acceptance of Rudbeck is the exact opposite of the way Okonkwo would have acted—certainly murder would have ensued. However, it is these positive emotions displayed by Mister Johnson that point to the fact that he was not ignorant of his station, but instead had accepted and embraced his situation from the beginning. This is stark contrast to the character of Okonkwo, who would not conform to the rules of oppressive foreign leadership.

The differences in the way they handled assimilation into British culture are definitely a reflection of nothing more than the time periods. Okonkwo would not allow relatively new foreign invaders to take control, while this was already an ingrained, established norm for Mister Johnson. This is the way the colonization of Africa was conducted for all the years following—submission by nothing more than imperialistic precedence, as well as ingrained fear. These two characters clearly illustrate this point.

 

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