In Things Fall Apart, how does Achebe characterize fate and free will?  

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dashing-danny-dillinger | College Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe deeply probes the fine philosophical line between fate and free will. Indeed, from Okonkwo’s perspective, certain elements of his life seem predetermined by his gods; however, Achebe subtly subverts this claim by providing rational explanations for the occurrences in Okonkwo’s tragic life. For example, when Okonkwo participates in the warriors’ salute during the widely respected Ezeudu’s funeral, Okonkwo inadvertently kills a fellow clansmen:

“Guns fired the last salute and the cannon rent the sky. And then from the center of the delirious fury came a cry of agony and shouts of horror. It was as if a spell had been cast.... Okonkwo's gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy's heart” (124).

Interestingly, Okonkwo views this tragic event as a predetermined act calculated by his gods. Readers can see this with Achebe's subtle reference to a "spell" being cast. However, Achebe provides a rational explanation for this event. Simply put, Okonkwo is not very good with guns, and his gun is an old, rusty relic that never should have been used in the first place:

“He had an old rusty gun made by a clever blacksmith who had come to live in Umuofia long ago. But although Okonkwo was a great man whose prowess was universally acknowledged, he was not a hunter. In fact he had not killed a rat with his gun. And so when he called Ikemefuna to fetch his gun, the wife who had just been beaten murmured something about guns that never shot” (38).

Thus, this moment is not exemplary of Okonkwo’s tragic fate, but rather Okonkwo made a conscious decision to participate in handling a faulty gun. He is ultimately in charge of his destiny, and demonstrates his free will throughout the novel. The rest of his clansmen acknowledge this independent streak that Okonkwo demonstrates, and mock him for being too self-assured in his decisions:

“And so people said he had no respect for the gods of the clan. His enemies said his good fortune had gone to his head. They called him the little bird nza who so far forgot himself after a heavy meal that he challenged his chi” (31).

Okonkwo determines the course of his life; it is not fate that renders him a tragic figure, but his own agency instead.

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