A major feature of the novel Things Fall Apart is the juxtaposition of two extremes. Okonkwo and his father Unoka are diametrically opposed, and so they are pitched against each other, with Okonkwo becoming more and more aggressive, unyielding, and masculine to balance out the lazy and laid back personality with his father. Another contrast is free will and divine intervention. The author examines the compatibility of the two throughout the plot. Early in the book, when Unoka goes to the oracle to ask why his fields are not growing, she tells him, “You have offended neither the gods nor your fathers. And when a man is at peace with his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm.” (14) There is irony in the importance of ancestors in the Umuofian culture; Okonkwo resents his father, yet, according to the oracle’s words, making peace with the ancestors is important in order to prevent any sort of divine punishment. Okonkwo’s freedom from the gods is compromised by the deeply personal views he has about the world and his father.
Another subtle example of the fate and free will dichotomy happens in the beginning of Chapter 6. The wrestling match takes place next to a silk-cotton tree, under which, “On ordinary days, women who desired children came to sit under its shade”; in other words, they are utilizing its supernatural power to alter their fate. But on wrestling days, which are some of the most holy days, men have the chance to craft a destiny for themselves.
Another example of the effects of destiny as opposed to free will is Ikemefuna’s death. Because it is ordered by the oracle, Okonkwo does not contest it. But it is his own choice to go along with the party and it is his own hand that kills him.
An interesting instance of this idea pertains to Ezinma. She is considered to be an ogbanje, a child that dies and returns to its mother’s womb only to die again. It can, however, decide to stay, or, alternatively, to leave its mother alone. This proves that free will applies even to supernatural beings, who can make the decision to overcome their nature and choose a life in which they can continue to make their own decision. The idea of free will of the supernatural is quite an interesting one. Can an omnipotent god, for example, have free will? On the surface, the answer seems obvious: yes. He can do anything he wants, without any sorts of limitations. This must be the ultimate embodiment of free will. But it becomes more complicated.
How do we define free will? If it is the act of making a choice, how do we define choice? Supposedly, every choice creates a new possibility. If we do take that as a truth, is an omnipotent being capable of making a choice? Everything is possible to him, which means that nothing he does creates any new options. His decisions are not choices but rather an extension of his defining quality: omnipotence. It seems that the only choice such a being could make is to give up his omnipotence. Can he do that? If not, is he really omnipotent at all?
Umuofian culture certainly reveres the powerful and the supernatural. People are expected to obey the oracle, appease the gods with offerings and prayers, and observe religious occasions such as the week of peace. Despite this, it is clear that free will is given more weight. Gods can influence people’s luck and success, but the ultimate power over a person’s life is his own god—his chi. The holiest occasions are the ones in which people sculpt their own destiny; the most revered people are the ones who overcome the circumstances they are placed in; the decisions people make are the true measure of their character. In a funny paradox, it is the gods’ will that people create their own destiny.