The Theme Of Birth Order In “The Fishermen”

Francis Galton recognized the importance of birth order psychology in 1874. The theory is still relevant today. According to the theory, the order in which siblings are born determines the traits of each child. According to Frank Sulloway in his book Born to Rebel: Family Dynamics, Creative Lives and Birth Order, the firstborns are more conservative and supportive of authority than their younger brothers and sisters (Freese Powell and Steelman, 208).

The book The Fishermen is written by Chigozie Obioma. The theme of birth-order influences the family dynamics within Agwu. How do Ikenna’s, Boja’s, Obembe’s, and Benjamin Agwu’s roles, expectations, and personality change when they are categorized according to age? Birth order theory is a key factor in explaining Benjamin Agwu’s personality and identity throughout Fishermen.

Ben Agwu’s quiet observation of his family is evident throughout Fishermen. His older brothers are especially the focus of Ben Agwu. He is the third-youngest child in a six-child family. Bens role as a family member changes a lot throughout the book. He is initially introduced to the reader as the youngest among the four protagonists. Ikenna, his oldest brother, is a role model and leader for all of the brothers. Boja is presented as Ikenna’s closest confidant despite being younger and considered lower in rank. Obembe, the second eldest, is treated like Ben, but he has more influence on Benjamin, because he’s older. Ben, the youngest brother, has little say in his actions and must follow the lead of his older siblings. Ikenna or Boja will often ask for Ben’s opinion as a matter of duty. His suggestions are seldom taken seriously due to his age. Ben says: “I have never seen [Ikenna and Boja] fight, but they always answered my questions in a straightforward ‘no.’ They also rarely said ‘wrong.’

It is evident that the four brothers have a “pack mentality” as they travel constantly together and follow Ikenna’s orders, who has been declared their leader by their father. “They follow you everywhere and do everything you ask them to do.” Eme Agwu praises his sons for their brotherhood by saying “It was a great thing that you followed each other”(Obioma 39). Together, the Agwu brothers fish, plan revenge, and go on general adventures. The Agwu brothers’ relationship is a clear example of how birth order influences relationships. Ikenna (prior the Abulu’s prophecy) displayed many traits of a firstborn. These included academic ability (Obioma 9) and support for authorities in place (Obioma 61-61) as well as increased responsibility (Obioma 38). Ben is the youngest Agwu child who can be independent of his parents. He relies on the older Agwu brothers to guide him. Ben makes a reference to this in Obioma 20, when he says “I relied on Obembe a lot to clarify things”. He also puts it into action when he struggles with his father’s use of the word “fishermen”.

Freese Powell Steelman examined the birth-order theory and its relation to Sulloway in their article “Rebel Without Cause or Effect” (Rebel Without Cause or Effect). The “laterborns”, as they are called, tend to think more liberally and achieve less academically than their older siblings. A study by Sulloway on over 3,800 scientist found that the laterborn were more likely to be open to radical new ideas than their elder siblings. Benjamin was no different in this regard, as he accepted his brother’s ideas with a similar (and at times blind) enthusiasm. Ben and Obembe are the perfect example of how this concept is demonstrated. Ikenna, Ben’s older brother, told Obembe and I: ‘Follow Us, and We Will Make You Fisher !’–and We Followed.

Ben and Obembe’s responses and behaviour towards their elder siblings reveal the desire of the younger brothers to please Ikenna. Ikenna is the male authority in the Agwu household when their father’s absence is felt. Boja has a lesser role. Ikenna is given some power and Boja is also given some, which results in Ben’s and Obembe’s desire to please the older brothers. Ben, the youngest, was conditioned so strongly to follow in the footsteps of their elders that it has become a major component of “id”, as Sigmund Fréud defined an individual. Ben’s desire to be accepted, validated and belong is fulfilled by his older siblings.

Ben’s world is tumultuous and turbulent as his siblings die. Ben moves from being a relying family member to having more influence after Ikenna’s death and Boja’s disappearance (which was later determined to be a case of suicide). Obembe becomes the leader of the family and Ben supports him in that role. Ben describes his loss as “the sense that an umbrella, fabric awning and I had sheltered under for years was torn off leaving me exposed”(Obioma 175). He says “I’d never lived without them… I followed their lead… I was so dependent on them that no concrete idea ever entered my head without first floating in their minds” (Obioma 270).

Ben begins to assert his authority when he challenges Obembe on his desire to kill Abulu. Eventually, he agrees to aid his brother’s murder plot. Ben is also thrust into a new role as the eldest brother when Obembe flees from the consequences that Obembe and Ben have caused by killing Abulu. It is up to him to find a balance between his youth and the responsibility of being a role model for his younger brothers and sisters, as well as representing his family. He compares to himself a fragile butterfly whose wings were removed. “I can’t fly anymore, but I can crawl,” he says (Obioma 278.) Ben only assumes leadership after separating from Obembe. Ben also takes responsibility for their vengeance and accepts the consequences.

Birth order theory can be used to draw parallels with the biblical story about Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Cain was the firstborn child of Adam and as such, he was treated with great respect. This is evident by the fact that he had the responsibility of caring for the family crops, while Abel’s role consisted of taking care of “flocks”. (Genesis 4:1-2,3) God, however, preferred Abel to Cain when it was time to offer offerings. Abel offered “fat portions” from his firstborn flock, while Cain presented “fruits of soil” (Genesis 4) The firstborn has traditionally been the recipient of God’s greatest favour. Abel’s blessings were due to him bringing God his best offering (fats taken from his firstborn child), whereas Cain only brought God “some fruits,” a far inferior offering because Cain was entitled to harvests more valued by culture. Abel receiving the Lord’s favour, and Cain wanting the honour that this brought him, led to Cain feeling embarrassment, shame, and guilt. Ben’s brothers, not Ben, experienced this parallel in Fishermen. This biblical comparison highlights the importance of birth order in sibling relationships, which can sometimes lead to tension.

All humans have the basic need to belong, be accepted, and feel safe. These instinctual desires are part of one’s id. To function in the society, they must be controlled by ego. Siblings have a special bond that can satisfy these desires, although the theory behind birth order may complicate the relationship. Benjamin Agwu’s identity and behaviour show how important birth order is to him. Ben Agwu’s behavior and evolution of identity in Fishermen can be attributed to his birth order and how he interacted with his brothers. This is evident both from his role as the youngest Agwu sibling and when he assumed little responsibility. Ben’s evolution and his roles within Fishermen are definitely attributed to the birth order of Ben and brotherly bonds.


  • zakhart

    Zak Hart is an educational blogger and professor who has been writing about education for over 10 years. He has written for various publications, including The Huffington Post and Edutopia, and has been a guest lecturer at various universities. Zak is the founder and director of the Edutopia Academy, an online education program that provides teachers with resources and lessons to help them improve their teaching skills.

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