Summary of Chapter Two
Okonkwo is retired on his bamboo bed when he hears the ogene or gong of the town crier. Every man is asked to gather at the market place in the morning. Okonkwo wonders what is wrong, for he hears tragedy in the crier’s voice. In the frightening night, he lies awake trying to figure out what is the matter. Every village of the nine villages had been thus warned. It was probably war with a neighboring clan, he thinks, which Okonkwo does not mind, for he had been the first to bring home a human head in the last war.
At the market place, ten thousand men assemble and Ogbuefi Ezeugo, the orator, announces the murder of a daughter of Umuofia by the village of Mbaino. She was the wife of Ogbuefi Udo, and had been killed when she went to market. A message is sent to Mbaino to choose war or to send compensation: a young man and a virgin.
Okonkwo is sent as emissary. Since he is respected and Umuofia is feared by its neighbors, powerful in war and magic, Mbaino sends the compensation. The virgin goes to the man who lost his wife, and the young man is given to Okonkwo. For three years the boy Ikemefuna lived with Okonkwo’s family like a son, though he is in reality, a hostage.
Okonkwo rules his household with a heavy hand, though he is not at heart, cruel. He is afraid of being thought weak like his father, who was afraid of war. His wives and children are afraid of his temper. Okonkwo’s fear of failure is deeper even than his fear of the gods or the forest or nature. Agbala, a name his father was called, is a name that means both a woman and a man who has taken no title like his father.
Okonkwo, afraid of failure, works himself unmercifully on the farms and everyone else too. He worries that his eldest son, Nwoye, will be lazy, so he nags and beats him. But Okonkwo’s wealth is reflected in his walled compound where he has a hut, each wife has her hut, the barn, the stacks of yam, the shed for the goats and house for hens, and a medicine house for worshipping the personal god and ancestral spirits. Nwoye’s mother takes in the hostage, Ikemefuna, into her hut, and the boys become like brothers.
Commentary on Chapter Two
Darkness is a frightening time for the Igbo. Children are told not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. A snake is not called by its name at night; it is called a string. Oddly enough, this sort of thing frightens Okonkwo as war does not. He is proud of being able to drink his palm-wine at a funeral from a human head.
Umoufia is powerful in magic and war, yet just. It does not go to war needlessly, and only on the advice of the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. Sometimes the Oracle forbids war. The tribe does not disobey the Oracle for fear of defeat, for their war power comes mostly from their strong tribal magic. The medicine magic is called “agadi-nwayi” or old woman with one leg medicine, with its shrine in the center of Umuofia. This medicine never allows a war of blame, but the current threat would be a just war, so the people of Mbaino do what they can to avoid it.
The portrait of Okonkwo is built carefully for he bears a double burden as a character. He represents a study of the tribe, as well as a study of his own character. As a person, he is out of balance with the laws of his tribe, as will become more and more apparent. He is rash and driven by fear. The fear is that he will be like his father. He overcompensates, bringing misery to his family, and eventually the tribe.
Summary of Chapter Three
This chapter introduces us to the Oracle, named Agbala. Agbala is a god served by a priestess who speaks for it. It is consulted for problems in the tribe. Once, Okonkwo’s father Unoka consulted the Oracle for why his harvest was always miserable. He claims to have done the correct sacrifices to the gods. The priestess replied that he had done no wrong to god or ancestors but the harvest also depends on the strength of the arm. She thus confirms that Unoka is lazy, and this is why Okonkwo had a difficult beginning for he had not inherited a barn of yams from his father, a title, or a young wife. Further, his father was ill-fated and died in shame by getting a disease that was an abomination to the earth. He could not be buried but had to be left outside the village to die and rot in the Evil Forest.
Once there was a wealthy man in Okonkwo’s village called Nwakibie, for whom Okonkwo worked as a young man to get his first seed yams. He went to the wealthy man and ceremonially asked for help to get started in life, as though the successful man were his father, calling him “our father.” The wine and kola were passed around, and there was talk and gossip and finally Okonkwo asked for help. Nwakibie did not usually give yams to young men but such is his trust in Okonkwo that he gave him twice what he asked for. Thus, Okonkwo embarked on share-cropping to build up his own fortune. He could only keep a third of the harvest, and he had to support his mother and sister at the time, and his father, who was still alive.
The year Okonkwo got the eight hundred seed-yams was a difficult year. Heat and rain came at the wrong time. Many a farmer was ruined, and many of Okonkwo’s yams destroyed. The memory of that year almost broke his heart, but he did not falter, and after that, he knew he could survive anything. His father’s shameful life and death forever haunted him.
Commentary on Chapter Three
Okonkwo’s enterprising nature in getting his start in life despite his father’s ill-fated legacy is illustrated here. Even more importantly, we see how tribal justice works. No one is bound to help the young man of a lazy father, but Okonkwo’s sincere desire to excel excites the admiration of the richest and most successful man in town, who has all but the highest title. By appealing to him as a father in a ceremonial and public way among the elders, he asks the tribe to redress the wrong done him by his own father. These delicate negotiations are done with the usual flurry of proverbs, and the one spoken by Okonkwo that wins the day is: “Let the kite perch, and let the eagle perch, too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break” (Ch. 3, p. 19).
Okonkwo thus announces his intention to be a great man too. There is room at the top. “The man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness” (Ch. 3, p. 19).
It is clear from this chapter that it is not only hard work that leads to success but harmony with gods, ancestral spirits and personal chi. The tribal god, Agbala, has a shrine in the middle of the villages, and the Oracle is consulted for difficult questions. When a worshipper goes to the Oracle, he or she must crawl on the belly into a dark hole and into a large dark cave where nothing is visible, a sort of reverse birth process. No one sees Agbala but the priestess who speaks with its voice. No one goes against the Oracle, and this is important in the action to come.
Each person also has a personal god, or chi, who rules his or her fate. Unoka is deemed to have an evil chi, because of all the bad luck and dishonor that follow him.