Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


The concept of chi is discussed at various points throughout the novel and is important to our understanding of Okonkwo as a tragic hero. The chi is an individual’s personal god, whose merit is determined by the individual’s good fortune or lack thereof. Along the lines of this interpretation, one can explain Okonkwo’s tragic fate as the result of a problematic chi—a thought that occurs to Okonkwo at several points in the novel. For the clan believes, as the narrator tells us in Chapter 14, a “man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi.

But there is another understanding of chi that conflicts with this definition. In Chapter 4, the narrator relates, according to an Igbo proverb, that “when a man says yes his chi says yes also.” According to this understanding, individuals will their own destinies. Thus, depending upon our interpretation of chi, Okonkwo seems either more or less responsible for his own tragic death. Okonkwo himself shifts between these poles: when things are going well for him, he perceives himself as master and maker of his own destiny; when things go badly, however, he automatically disavows responsibility and asks why he should be so ill-fated.

Oral Storytelling

Acts of storytelling appear again and again throughout Things Fall Apart as a means of establishing the cultural values of the Igbo and the Europeans, as well as highlighting the power struggle between them. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this storytelling motif, however, is its oral nature. Traditions of oral storytelling have extensive histories in many cultures around the world and often involve origin stories or narratives about past generations. When expressed aloud, these tales take on a personal quality which works to establish a sense of shared identity and humanity among listeners. The fact that characters like Okonkwo and Obierika remember songs and stories of their childhood, such as the “silly” mosquito story in Chapter 9, speaks to effectiveness of oral storytelling in terms of establishing a collective cultural consciousness. In addition to the unique power that oral traditions can have over listeners, they also offer the storyteller more control over the narrative as they can adapt each iteration. Ikemefuna, for example, finds a source of agency among his new family members by recounting his own versions of stock folk tales to Nwoye. The degree of flexibility inherent in oral storytelling allows these tales to find a new life within each generation. 

Of course, Achebe’s use of this motif not only works to establish the rich history of Igbo culture for readers but to redefine the power dynamic between the Igbo and the missionaries. Just as Achebe challenged the West’s literary representations of colonial Africa by writing Things Fall Apart, the prominence of oral storytelling among both groups in the novel’s world pushes back against misconceptions regarding the legitimacy of one tradition over another. The image of Mr. Brown and Akunna “talking through an interpreter about religion” and “[learning] more about their different beliefs” emphasizes that, as they stand individually, Igbo folk tales and Christian verses or hymns serve similar functions in their respective cultures. While the European perspective ultimately overpowers Igbo narratives through the Commissioner’s written word, the presence of oral storytelling throughout highlights a historically underestimated source of agency.

Animal Imagery

In their descriptions, categorizations, and explanations of human behavior and wisdom, the Igbo often use animal anecdotes to naturalize their rituals and beliefs. The presence of animals in their folklore reflects the environment in which they live—not yet “modernized” by European influence. Though the colonizers, for the most part, view the Igbo’s understanding of the world as rudimentary, the Igbo perceive these animal stories, such as the account of how the tortoise’s shell came to be bumpy, as logical explanations of natural phenomena. Another important animal image is the figure of the sacred python. Enoch’s alleged killing and eating of the python symbolizes the transition to a new form of spirituality and a new religious order. Enoch’s disrespect of the python clashes with the Igbo’s reverence for it, epitomizing the incompatibility of colonialist and indigenous values.

Read more about the utilization of animals in storytelling in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.