Things Fall Apart

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Fate vs. Free Will Theme Analysis

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Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon

From the start, Okonkwo's will seems to drive his ascent in Umuofia society. He rises from being the son of a debtor to being one of the leaders of the clan, thanks to his hard work and aggression. He becomes known for his wrestling prowess, and we are told that this cannot be attributed to luck: “At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed.”

However, once things start turning sour for Okonkwo, he begins to blame his fate. This begins with Ikemefuna's death. Ikemefuna, along with the infant twins of the novel, represent the most straightforward victims—they aren't given a chance to act, but are instead acted upon violently. (“The ill-fated lad was called Ikemefuna.”) Okonkwo blames the Oracle for his part in murdering Ikemefuna, though it could be argued—and is argued by the clan's oldest member, Ezeudu, and by Okonkwo's neighbor Obierika—that he had a choice in whether to take part or not. Later, when Okonkwo's gun splinters and he accidentally kills one of Ezeudu's sons, Okonkwo faces exile. Although his crops do well in the neighboring clan and he is allowed to return in seven years, Okonkwo is completely discouraged by the experience, and we find a reversal of the earlier quote: “A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true—that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.”

Fate vs. Free Will ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate vs. Free Will appears in each chapter of Things Fall Apart. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fate vs. Free Will Quotes in Things Fall Apart

Below you will find the important quotes in Things Fall Apart related to the theme of Fate vs. Free Will.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.

Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator reflects on Okonkwo’s rapid ascent in Ibo society. He stresses how personal prowess may grant someone a position above that normally permitted by his age.

This statement addresses a pre-conceived idea a reader might have about the Igbo society: that a constant hierarchy is maintained between elders and youth. Although that hierarchy is “respected,” the fact that “achievement was revered” grants personal acts a relatively higher status—and the following proverb reasserts how differences in position may be transcended if certain rules are heeded. Thus Igbo culture is shown to be dynamic and merit-oriented, a society in which mobility is permitted and encouraged based on personal achievement.

One should also note, however, that the proverb itself is said by “elders,” which seems to reinstate their relative power. That is to say, although their age is only respected and not revered—they are the ones selecting the exact proverbs and cultural norms that would allow someone like Okonkwo to gain power.

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Chapter 2 Quotes

And in fairness to Umuofia it should be recorded that it never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by its Oracle – the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. And there were indeed occasions when the Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle they would surely have been beaten, because their dreaded agadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame.

Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

As the people of Umuofia make their demands on Mbaino, the narrator observes how the decision of going to war is made. He explains that it rests on the resolution of the Oracles, and that their affirmation is necessary for a successful campaign.

These lines point to the complex and mediated system in Umuofia for deciding whether to engage in violence. The town does not act immediately, but rather must consult a spiritual authority—in addition to calling together the members of the town to offer their opinions. After establishing this process, the narrator is careful to offer examples of its efficacy—the moments when war was “forbidden.” And finally, he observes the reason for their listening: they would lose the war, for it would be a “flight of blame” and thus one not based on honor or divine-sanctioned need. The term “agadi-nwayi” here means literally “old woman,” but it symbolizes the “medicine” or magic power of each clan.

This final note on losing unsanctioned battles is an important clarification. It shows the Oracles not simply to be bureaucratic steps intended to slow down decision-making, but rather to be invested with actual prophetic and spiritual power. In this way, the narrator shows Umuofia to hold a compelling justification and decision-making process for their battles—and he also foreshadows the shock the characters will feel when the Oracles are incapable of predicting the actions of the white men.

Chapter 3 Quotes

Unoka was an ill-fated man. He had a bad chi or personal god, and evil fortune followed him to the grave, or rather to his death, for he had no grave. He died of the swelling which was an abomination to the earth goddess.

Related Characters: Unoka
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator continues to recount Unoka’s backstory and his effect on Okonkwo’s development. He observes that Unoka’s failures were the result of a bad fate and personal god—both of which became visualizable in his death.

Whereas earlier descriptions of Unoka blame personality flaws for his failure, this passage attributes responsibility far more to destiny: in particular, “ill-fated” and “evil fortune” position blame on an external sources. Yet, the idea of “bad chi or personal god” is more ambiguous: the phrase implies that Unoka was born into his state, but it also equates that state directly with his personality, for the god is “personal.” That is to say, Unoka cannot blame his actions on external and universal gods, but rather experiences ill will due to one more intimately tied with his identity. The passage thus leaves a level of ambiguity on where to position personal accountability within Umuofia society. Although much value is attributed to holding an excellent work ethic, here that ethic itself seems to come from destiny.

The role of destiny is highlighted by the importance placed on Unoka’s cause of death. That he “died of the swelling” is naturally not a result of personal inadequacy, but rather an external curse. Yet it is also “an abomination to the earth goddess,” as if Unoka himself had been in cahoots with the “personal god.” Due to his cause of death, Unoka has to be buried in the Evil Forest instead of in a grave, which only verifies how separate he is from Umuofia society. Thus although the passage seems to absolve him of some guilt, it also reinstates the harsh social reaction—which extends even into his death.

Chapter 4 Quotes

But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed.

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator offers this proverb to help contextualize why Okonkwo has been so successful. He confirms the importance of fate, but also notes that Okonkwo’s personality has itself shaped fate.

These lines clarify the perceived role of destiny in Umuofia society. For while “chi” might seem to prescribe one’s experiences, here it is revealed to be in a more dynamic relationship with the characters’ identities. They can influence it by saying yes—that is to say by working hard, exhibiting motivation, and demanding personal success. Furthermore, the text reiterates why Okonkwo’s prowess is met with acclaim by the society—because it reveals both a good chi and a personality that has said “yes very strongly.” Thus the text seeks to, if not resolve, as least mediate between accounts of fate and of personal success, by stressing how the two intertwine in one’s chi.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Ezinma took the dish in one hand and the empty water bowl in the other and went back to her mother's hut. “She should have been a boy,” Okonkwo said to himself again. His mind went back to Ikemefuna and he shivered.

Related Characters: Okonkwo, Ikemefuna, Ezinma
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Enzima gives Okonkwo a dish of plantains to break his fast, and she assertively commands him to finish them. Their exchange makes Okonkwo ruminate on her masculine qualities.

This passage further clarifies the gender roles in Umuofia society. Once more, the text divorces the sex of a character from the type of action he or she performs. It is possible for Enzima, for instance, to take on stereotypical masculine characteristics by being assertive with Okonkwo. This behavior earns her respect, for Okonkwo both follows the command and then praises her for making it. Yet when Okonkwo adds that “she should have been a boy,” the tone of the text changes: the masculine behaviors may be desirable, but they only make Okonkwo wish that they were housed in a male body as well. Thus even as the narrative breaks down some of the gender binaries at play, it also reaffirms them. Ultimately, at least for Okonkwo, the gender of actions and the sex of the character should conform to each other.

Chapter 13 Quotes

It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years…

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator describes the social impact and symbolic significance of how Okonkwo accidentally kills Ezeudu’s son, and clarifies the necessary punishment in terms of the gendered nature of the act.

As before, Okonkwo performs an act that is “a crime against the earth goddess,” only here the punishment is far harsher than personal repentance. The distanced language of the phrase “a man who committed it” highlights how the punishment is not tied specifically to Okonkwo’s identity, but is rather an application of a universal law to his specific case. Next, the narrator delineates between male and female crimes: Since Okonkwo killed Ezeudu’s son by accident, his act is deemed “female,” but the murder is also presumably “male” due to its violent nature.

That Okonkwo has committed an act representative of both genders is quite revealing: if before, his character had been fully and overly identified with masculine acts, instead here we see the influx of the very thing he most fears: femininity. Yet the female crime is not the result of weakness, but rather the way that Okonkwo’s obsession with violence and strength has caused him to act rashly. Beyond reasserting the way every act is coded based on gender in Umuofia society, this passage indicates that Okonkwo is far from immune to female qualities.

Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer.

Related Characters: Obierika (speaker)
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Umuofia mob destroys Okonkwo’s compound, Obierika questions their actions. He wonders whether their society should really punish accidental behavior.

Obierika is presented again as a critical eye on the functioning of Umuofia society. As opposed to the other characters, who obey traditions directly and assume they are inflexible, Obierika wonders whether the rules might not be modified to be more just. He thus embodies an important nuance in Umuofia: its ability to self-assess and potentially change. Though it would be easy to interpret the society as rigid and unchanging, Obierika is proof that the people of Umuofia can cultivate the independent thought necessary to alter its traditions.

Despite this potential for revision, however, Obierika’s thoughts are generally presented as hopeless musings rather than affirmative shifts. His rhetorical question gives him “no answer,” and while this lack of closure may signal his independence, it also reiterates his relatively passive position. Okonkwo’s punishment, nonetheless, serves as an opening for both reader and narrator to examine the state of Umuofia and to test the limits of its cultural norms.

Chapter 14 Quotes

A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true—that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.

Related Characters: Okonkwo
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

As Okonkwo begins his new life in Mbanta, he reflects on his disheartened and disenfranchised existence. Denying the active role than men have in their fate, he now considers “chi” to be an independent force ordaining one’s life.

This line turns an earlier proverb on its head: whereas before Okonkwo’s character was used as an example of someone who had said yes to his chi and therefore experienced corresponding positive effects, here he becomes the counterexample of that same saying. This passage shifts control to the power of destiny over individual agency, claiming that men and chi are not in a dynamic relationship—but rather that chi is capable of ignoring men’s affirmations.

To deny such a proverb is radical and somewhat blasphemous, in particular considering the high stakes of language and of the “elders” from which this “saying” comes. Thus Okonkwo seems to renounce not only his previous work ethic but also some key tenants of the society from which he hails. Indeed, this aligns closely with his earlier ambivalent relationship to language, in which Okonkwo often saw it as superficial or empty. Yet these lines mark a more complete renunciation of its expressive power.

Chapter 16 Quotes

He told them that the true God lived on high and that all men when they died went before Him for judgment. Evil men and all the heathen who in their blindness bowed to wood and stone were thrown into a fire that burned like palm-oil. But good men who worshipped the true God lived forever in His happy kingdom.

Related Characters: Mr. Brown
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

When Obierika visits Okonkwo, he witnesses the arrival of missionaries in Umuofia. He focuses, here, on the tenants of the Christian religion that have been evangelized in Igbo society.

This description of Christianity shows how cultural and religious norms will be interpreted differently as they manifest in different societies. For instance, consider how Obierika uses the proverb “burned like palm-oil” to translate the Christian concept of Hell into symbolism that functions in Igbo society. Similarly, the tenets of Christianity are rephrased so that they juxtapose directly with Igbo beliefs. That “God lived on high” contrasts directly with the Igbo Earth goddess who lives among the Umuofia people, and the Christian divine justice system similarly conflicts with the way law is meted out in Umuofia.

Instead of a set of oracles and society members who enact the will of the gods, Christianity holds only a single divine judgement that separates evil from good. Here we can see the glimmers of the ideological conflicts between the two: Christian missionaries will assert a single divine authority that directly opposes the social and polytheistic model embraced by Umuofia. Furthermore, by defamiliarizing these components of Christian doctrine, Achebe gives us a sense of how both missionaries and indigenous cultures would have perceived each other: as confusing and heretical.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.

Related Characters: Okonkwo (speaker), Nwoye
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

Okonkwo thinks of this phrase as he reflects on the way Nwoye has converted to Christianity. Its image encapsulates how Okonkwo’s potent, ardent personality could give rise to a son deemed extremely weak.

This line marks a turning point in the text because it is the first instance of Okonkwo using metaphorical language—indeed, he seems to have invented his own proverb—indicating a source of genuine linguistic creativity. One might thus interpret this line as an indication that Okonkwo has embraced the softer, "feminine" characteristics associated with storytelling and language—yet the phrase itself implies just the opposite. Rather, it reinstates the hierarchy between Okonkwo’s masculine personality as “living fire” versus the weak, feminine Nwoye, who is “cold, impotent ash.” Though Okonkwo may have finally engaged in the game of imagistic language valued throughout the text, the way he does so only reaffirms his harsh and divisive views on the world.