It is in Okonkwo’s nature to act rashly, and his slaying of the messenger constitutes an instinctive act of self-preservation. Not to act would be to reject his values and traditional way of life. He cannot allow himself or, by extension, his clan to be viewed as cowardly. There is certainly an element of self-destructiveness in this act, a kind of martyrdom that Okonkwo willingly embraces because the alternative is to submit to a world, law, and new order with which he finds himself inexorably at odds.
Unoka’s words regarding the bitterness of failing alone come to have real significance in Okonkwo’s life. In fact, they can be seen as a fatalistic foreshadowing of the bitter losses that befall Okonkwo despite his efforts to distance himself from his father’s model of indolence and irresponsibility. He values his personal success and status over the survival of the community and, having risen to the top of the clan’s economic and political heap alone, he fails alone. Okonkwo’s lack of concern for the fate of his community is manifested when, before the clan-wide meeting, he doesn’t bother to exchange greetings with anyone. He is not interested in the fate of anyone other than himself. Despite his great success and prestige, he dies in ignominy like his titleless, penniless father. This solitude persists even after his life ends, as the supposed taking over of his body by evil spirits renders his clan unable to handle his burial.
One way of understanding Okonkwo’s suicide is as the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding his fear of failure. He is so afraid of ending up precisely the way he does end up that he brings about his own end in the worst manner imaginable. No one forces his hand when he slays the messenger; rather, the act constitutes a desperate attempt to reassert his manhood. The great tragedy of the situation is that Okonkwo ignores far more effective but less masculine ways to resist the colonialists. Ultimately, Okonkwo’s sacrifice seems futile and empty.
The novel’s ending is dark and ironic. The District Commissioner is a pompous little man who thinks that he understands indigenous African cultures. Achebe uses the commissioner, who seems a character straight out of Heart of Darkness, to demonstrate the inaccuracy of accounts of Africa such as Joseph Conrad’s. The commissioner’s misinterpretations and the degree to which they are based upon his own shortcomings are evident. He comments, for example, on the villagers’ “love of superfluous words,” attempting to ridicule their beautiful and expressive language. His rumination that Okonkwo’s story could make for a good paragraph illustrates his shallowness. Whereas Achebe has written an entire book about Okonkwo, he suggests that a European account of Okonkwo would likely portray him as a grunting, cultureless savage who inexplicably and senselessly kills a messenger. Achebe also highlights one of the reasons that early ethnographic reports were often offensively inaccurate: when Obierika asks the commissioner to help him with Okonkwo’s body, the narrator tells us that “the resolute administrator in [the commissioner] gave way to the student of primitive customs.” The same people who control the natives relay the accepted accounts of colonized cultures—in a manner, of course, that best suits the colonizer’s interest.
Achebe’s novel seeks at least in part to provide an answer to such inaccurate stereotypes. Okonkwo is by no means perfect. One can argue that his tragedy is of his own making. One can also argue that his chi is to blame. But as a societal tragedy, Things Fall Apart obviously places no blame on the Igbo people for the colonialism to which they were subjected. At the same time, the traditional customs of the villagers are not glorified—they are often questioned or criticized. Achebe’s re-creation of the complexity of Okonkwo’s and Umuofia’s situations lends a fairness to his writing. At the same time, his critique of colonialism and of colonial literary representations comes across loud and clear.