The characters of Oedipus and Okonkwo, distanced by thousand of years in myth and literature, are strikingly similar. First and foremost, they are doomed heroes, as the greatness they achieve in their lands cannot save them from disaster, and each suffers immense loss. They are united by kingship, as well, for Okonkwo’s stature in his village is as elevated as that of Oedipus in Thebes. Both men are driven to their tragic ends by forces within and outside of their control. In the final analysis, however, only Oedipus reveals true greatness because only he can fully confront and accept what his life has been.
Play and Novel
Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, is on a level with that of Sophocles’ ancient drama, Oedipus Rex, because it explores the complex and often painful circumstance of a single life’s impact as being determined by both character and destiny. Neither work presents a scenario wherein only fate, or external powers, shapes the life of the hero; each man moves and acts in a way very much dictated by his nature. As they are kings and great leaders, it is inevitable that both must be forceful, commanding men, the kind not easily accepting of life as it is.
Nonetheless, as active as Okonkwo and Oedipus are on their epic journeys, both men also seem to be pawns of fate. With each, the circumstances of birth play a huge role, as events occurring from outside their lives and domains also set them on specific, and disastrous, courses. Had either Sophocles or Achebe written stories of either only chance guiding the action or of men being solely responsible for their own destruction, it is doubtful they would have gained the reputations as art that they have. The brilliance of each tale lies in the dilemma within it; how much can a man determine his own fate? Moreover, and more cryptically: does destiny actually exist, and can it ever be averted? Achebe’s modern tale ultimately serves to reinforce the great theme of Sophocles, which is that man carries his destiny within himself, in the final analysis.
This being the case, Okonkwo is more evidently responsible for the disasters that come to him and his people. Divine forces conspired against Oedipus, yet he finally accepts the brutal truth of his life and of his role within it. Okonkwo, on the other hand, is doomed by his blindness and his dedication to what he perceives is greatness. He bears greater responsibility for his doom because he is, simply, less of a real man than Oedipus.
The Kings as Men
If a reasonable comparison is to be made between Oedipus and Okonkwo, it is necessary, at least temporarily, to remove them from the worlds they inhabit. It may be that destiny, or at least powerful and external forces, push them in certain directions they would not otherwise take. Nonetheless, if they are heroes of any kind, they must stand up to a measure of what they are without these influences.
As noted, both men share characteristics common in those who make a mark on the world. Most obviously, there is a core of confidence in each, or something like it. That this quality may not be true confidence is evidenced by the very exaggerations of it each displays; that is to say, men who are genuinely comfortable in their abilities do not need to either broadcast those talents or cling to them so desperately. Unfortunately, both Oedipus and Okonkwo reveal this flaw.
Oedipus, as presented by Sophocles, may have disturbing issues arising from the facts of his existence with which he gradually, and horribly, becomes acquainted, but he is not lacking in a sense of bravado. Faced with the need to save his people from the plague consuming Thebes, he is not shy in asserting his capabilities: “I, I it was, the stranger to the tale/ I, Oedipus, that did make dumb the Sphinx/ By skilled conjecture…” (Sophocles 31). He is aware that there is greatness in him; his life to this point has certainly reinforced it, as a kingship and a queen have been freely offered to him because of his exceptional cleverness and courage.
Okonkwo is equally sure of himself. More precisely, he holds to an idea of himself that enables him to fulfill his role as leader. Strength is what has made his name in his village. Sheer power has provided him with great rewards, and he is not about to drop his guard or his armor for an instant. As a man, then, he lives in a way more perilous than Oedipus does; Oedipus has confidence that may be at least partly bluster, or false, but Okonkwo’s entire being is based upon one facet of it. Below his power is a kind of terror, born from a tortured childhood: “But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and of capricious gods…It was the fear of himself….” (Achebe 38). It seems as though it pains Achebe to reveal this sad, fundamental flaw at the heart of his hero.