Summary of Chapter One
The story is told in three parts, something like a three-act play, following the life of Okonkwo, the warrior. Part One shows life in an Igbo village in Nigeria, West Africa, at the end of the nineteenth century just before the white man appears. Okonkwo, the main character, is a man of distinction in the nine villages of Umoufia. He had thrown Amalinze the Cat, the famous wrestler, when he was only 18, thus bringing honor to his village and fame to himself. That was twenty years ago, and since then, his fame has grown until he is considered one of the great men of Umoufia. Okonkwo’s driving ambition has both its positive and negative sides. He is an angry, rash, and big man who wants to overcome the shame of his lazy father, Unoka, who has been dead for ten years but still affects his son.
Unoka was the opposite of Okonkwo—thin, lazy, poor, unambitious, in debt. He was a good flute player and enjoyed drinking and celebrations but not supporting his family. His character is summed up in the proverb told of him: “Whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime” (Ch. 1, p. 4).
Unoka’s jovial nature is unappreciated by his son. Unoka had a childlike love of finding kites, and singing and dancing with the egwugwu, the masked impersonators of ancestral spirits. Yet people laughed at him for being poor and never paying back his debts. He hates war and is a coward.
When Okoye, Unoka’s neighbor visits, Unoka offers him a kola nut, alligator pepper, and white chalk, as is the tradition. They engage in the usual amenities of hospitality and speaking in proverbs before Okoye finally gets to the point and asks for the 200 cowries that Unoka owes him. Unoka laughs and shows him the wall of his hut with chalk marks on it for all the money he owes people. He answers in a proverb: “the sun shines on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them” (Ch. 1, p. 8). Unoka declares he will pay his larger debts first, before Okoye’s. Okoye understands he will get nothing.
Unoka is a man who died without taking any titles or honors in his tribe. His son Okonkwo is deeply shamed by this, and his whole motivation is to overcome this terrible reputation. Okonkwo before the age of 40 is rich, famous, with three wives and two titles. He is a fierce warrior in intertribal wars. He has two barns full of yams.
Commentary on Chapter One
In a few strokes, we get a picture of tribal life and customs. The main character, Okonkwo, is sketched out for us, as well as his father. The father’s background is necessary because overcoming his father’s reputation is his driving force in life.
White missionaries arrive later in the story, allowing the contrast of traditional tribal life to the disruption of outside forces. Igbo life is one of strong tradition, and the ways of the nine villages of Umoufia have served the people well for centuries. The narrator tells the action from the Igbo point of view.
Proverbs, containing wit, wisdom, and the worldview of the Igbo in a few concise words, are used liberally throughout the book to explain what cannot be explained in any other way. In a pithy saying, a character or tradition may be summed up. These proverbs are traded back and forth in conversation, the stock for song, poetry, and judgments. In the proverb characterizing Unoka, for instance, is expressed the folly of saving up for the future when one should enjoy what is at hand.
Traditions are the most important part of the narrative, without which the actions would not make sense. A Westerner, looking only at what the Igbo do, would find them “primitive” as the English do, later on in the story. Yet we are offered a vision of their life within their own context. The importance of bringing and receiving gifts, the treatment of guests, the marriage customs, family life, all these are given from an Igbo view, without Western commentary.
When Unoka offers the kola nut to his guest, Okoye answers in a proverb, “he who brings kola brings life” ( Ch. 1, p. 6). They argue over who has the honor to break the kola nut first. All these are subtle points in tribal relations. The kola nut contains caffeine and is used in ceremonies and visits. The kola is bitter but rejuvenating and euphoric in nature, an aphrodisiac, and also relieves hunger pangs, which may be why Okoye, the well-fed rich man, may have let the poor Unoka have the honor. He is also buttering him up, hoping to get back the money Unoka owes him.
One of the most important things Achebe establishes in his narrative is the skillful and delicate way the Igbo maintain balance within the tribe, and between the people and the gods. It is an elaborate, elegant, yet simple system, and each person knows his or her place. In the West, Okoye might have taken Unoka to court to get his money, but the shame attached to being a debtor seems to be enough for this tribe. Okoye lets it go.