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Fate and Free Will
And that was how he came to look after the doomed lad who was sacrificed to the village of Umuofia by their neighbors to avoid war and bloodshed. The ill-fated lad was called Ikemefuna. (1.16)
From the very beginning, Ikemefuna’s name is associated with doom. This blatant foreshadowing prepares readers for something dreadful to happen to Ikemefuna. It also shows that Ikemefuna isn’t in control of his own destiny.
Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars. And so although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. 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. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders. (1.16)
Because of his own hard work and dedication, Okonkwo’s future looks bright. It seems that he is indeed able to influence his own destiny with his sheer will.
The elders, or ndichie, met to hear a report of Okonkwo’s mission. At the end they decided, as everybody knew they would, that the girl should go to Ogbuefi Udo to replace his murdered wife. As for the boy, he belonged to the clan as a whole, and there was no hurry to decide his fate. (2.11)
Since “everybody knew” what would happen after the Umuofia woman’s murder, justice seems inevitable – or at least predictable. The fates of the two Mbaino children are decided for them – without their consultation or consent – simply because one of their tribesman committed a crime. The two youths are given no choice in their destinies.
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. When a man was afflicted with swelling in the stomach and the limbs he was not allowed to die in the house. He was carried to the Evil Forest and left there to die. There was the story of a very stubborn man who staggered back to his house and had to be carried again to the forest and tied to a tree. The sickness was an abomination to the earth, and so the victim could not be buried in her bowels. He died and rotted away above the earth, and was not given the first of the second burial. Such was Unoka’s fate. (3.8)
Unoka seems to be fated for doom. He is lazy, and therefore unsuccessful not because that’s the way he’s chosen to live his life, but because he was born with a bad chi. His life is shameful and his death offers no redemption or even an easy way out. He dies in shame.
The year that Okonkwo took eight hundred seed-yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time; it was either too early or too late. It seemed as if the world had gone mad. The first rains were late, and, when they came, lasted only a brief moment. The blazing sun returned, more fierce than it had ever been known, and scorched all the green that had appeared with the rains. The earth burned like hot coals and roasted all the yams that had been sown. Like all good farmers, Okonkwo had began to sow with the first rains. He had sown four hundred seeds when the rains dried up and the heat returned. He watched the sky all day for signs of rain clouds and lay awake all night. In the morning he went back to his farm and saw the withering tendrils. He had tried to protect them from the smoldering earth by making rings of thick sisal leaves around them. But by the end of the day the sisal rings were burned dry and gray. He changed them every day, and prayed that the rain might fall in the night. But the drought continued for eight market weeks and the yams were killed…
Okonkwo planted what was left of his seed-yams when the rains finally returned. He had one consolation. The yams he had sown before the drought were his own, the harvest of the previous. He still had the eight hundred from Nwakibie and the four hundred from his father’s friend. So he would make a fresh start.
But the year had gone mad. Rain fell as it had never fallen before. For days and nights together it poured down in violent torrents, and washed away the yam heaps. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere. Then the rain became less violent. But it went from day to day without a pause. The spell of sunshine which always came in the middle of the wet season did not appear. The yams put on luxuriant green leaves, but every farmer knew that without sunshine the tubers would not grow.
That year the harvest was sad, like a funeral, and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself. (3.29-33)
Fate seems to have disaster in store for the Umuofia people, especially Okonkwo, that year. However, by force of his will, Okonkwo is able to overcome this insanely bad luck and even prosper in the coming years.
Okonkwo returned when he felt the medicine had cooked long enough…
“Bring me a low stool for Ezinma,” he said, “and a thick mat.”
He took down the pot from the fire and placed it in front of the stool. He then roused Ezinma and placed her on the stool, astride of the steaming pot. The thick mat was thrown over both. Ezinma struggled to escape from the choking and overpowering steam, but she was held down. She started to cry.
When the mat was at last removed she was drenched in perspiration. Ekwefi mopped her with a piece of cloth and she lay down on a dry mat and was soon asleep. (9.76-79)
Okonkwo puts in a supreme effort of skill and will to bring Ezinma, his beloved daughter, back from the edge of death. Though she is an ogbanje child, destined to repeat rapid cycle of death and rebirth, Okonkwo is able to save Ezinma from her illness.
All was silent. In the center of the crowd a boy lay in a pool of blood. It was the dead man’s sixteen-year-old-son, who with his brothers and half-brothers had been dancing the traditional farewell to their father. Okonkwo’s gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy’s heart…
The only course open to Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. 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… (13.16)
Okonkwo kills a boy by accident. This incident could be read as a whim of fate that has devastating consequences on Okonkwo, even though it was inadvertent. An alternative reading is that the accidental crime is Okonkwo’s payback for his poor choice to kill Ikemefuna.
[Uchendu]: “Is it right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead. Your duty is to comfort your wives and children and take them back to your fatherland after seven years. But if you allow sorrow to weigh you down and kill you, they will all die in exile.” (14.32)
Uchendu warns Okonkwo of willfully displeasing the dead. As spirits, they seem to have some power to influence fate and could, if insulted, bring about destruction on a wide, generational scale.
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. (16.9)
The missionaries depict salvation as a choice one makes between good and evil. One’s own fate hangs in his own hands.
Why, he cried in his heart, should he, Okonkwo, of all people, be cursed with such a son. He saw clearly in it the finger of his personal god or chi. For how else could he explain his great misfortune and exile and now his despicable son’s behavior? Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination. Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors? Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation. (17.25)
In a moment of despair, Okonkwo sees one possible road fate could take him down, despite all his efforts to raise Nwoye correctly. He sees, rather prophetically, the extinction of his entire family line.
“It is not our custom to fight for our gods,” said one of them. “Let us not presume to do so now. If a man kills the sacred python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and the god. We did not see it. If we put ourselves between the god and his victim we may receive blows intender for the offender. When a man blasphemes, what do we do? Do we go and stop his mouth? No. We put our fingers into our ears to stop us hearing. That is a wise action.”
“Let us not reason like cowards,” said Okonkwo. “If a man comes into my hut and defecates on the floor, what do I do? Do I shut my eyes? No! I take a stick and break his head. That is what a man does. These people are daily pouring filth over us, and Okeke says we should pretend not to see.” Okonkwo made a sound full of disgust. This was a womanly clan, he thought. Such a thing could never happen in his fatherland, Umuofia. (18.21-22)
While one clansman advises passivity, Okonkwo wants to exercise his will and force the Christians out of Umuofia. He has always been a man to act and attempt to change his stars. While other men are content to look away while Fate “defecates on the floor,” Okonkwo would rather “take a stick and break [its] head.”
He [Okonkwo] knew that he had lost his place among the nine masked spirits who administered justice in the clan. He had lost the chance to lead his warlike clan against the new religion, which, he was told, had gained ground. He had lost the years in which he might have taken the highest titles in the land. But some of these losses were not irreparable. He was determined that his return should be marked by his people. He would return with a flourish, and regain the seven wasted years. (20.2)
It seems that fate has decreed that Okonkwo would inadvertently shoot off a gun and accidentally kill someone; it has also decreed that he must spend seven years in exile while his prime years go by, wasted. But Okonkwo is determined to fight fate to the end and win back what was lost.
[Okonkwo to Obierika]: “How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has a put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (20.25)
Okonkwo suggests that the Umuofia were foolish and blind for letting the white man stay to work tricks. Now, by force of the Christians’ will and lack of their own, the Umuofia have fallen apart from the inside. It’s interesting to consider whether the Umuofia clan might have fallen apart even without the arrival of the Christians.
“The white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop.”
In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo’s machete descended twice and the man’s head lay beside his uniformed body.
The waiting backcloth jumped into tumultuous life and the meeting was stopped. Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: “Why did he do it?” (24.39-41)
When faced with his hated enemies, Okonkwo makes a split-second decision and exercises his will by killing the insolent messenger. This is fateful because it should urge the Umuofia to attack more strongly than any other gesture could. Yet the Umuofia, whether by will or being restrained by fate, do not go to war. This helps Okonkwo to make his final decision – to commit suicide.
[Okonkwo]: “Afraid? I do not care what he does to you. I despise him and those who listen to him. I shall fight alone if I choose.” (24.18)
Okonkwo proudly declares his courage to fight whoever he wants, even if he is fighting a losing battle. This harkens back to Okonkwo’s survival through the horrible year of flood and drought early in his life when he made it through only by force of his indomitable will.
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