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.
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.