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Things Fall Apart | Symbols

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Achebe uses symbolism throughout the book to strengthen its central themes and ideas.

Fire

Fire represents Okonkwo's rage and combustible nature. Okonkwo's nickname, "Roaring Flame," refers to these defining traits.

Okonkwo's rage is never far from the surface. The narrator mentions that "whenever he could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists."

As Okonkwo reflects on the loss of Nwoye in Chapter 24, he acknowledges that even the most powerful fire produces cold, useless ash. In this statement Okonkwo refers to himself as a fire—both strong and fierce—while he sees Nwoye as ash—weak and lazy. At the end of the novel, Okonkwo succumbs to his rage and kills the court messenger, leading to his own downfall.

Yams

Yams are grown by Igbo men and symbolize masculinity, wealth, and respect. Okonkwo begins to increase his stature in the clan after he borrows and plants yam seeds in Chapter 3.

Growing yams is thought of as a man's job because it is challenging. This is noted in Chapter 4: "Yam, the king of crops, was a very exacting king." A clansman who succeeds at growing yams proves his masculinity and earns the respect of those around him.

Locusts

The locusts represent the arrival of the white man and missionaries. In Chapter 15, the Oracle states directly that the white men are locusts.

In Chapter 7, actual locusts arrive in the village, appearing as a cloud blocking the sunlight. Throngs of them descend, and "the whole country [becomes] the brown-earth color of the vast, hungry swarm." Okonkwo and the others view the locusts as a delicacy and munch on them happily. This appearance—and enjoyment by the clansmen—of the real insects strengthens the symbolism used in Chapter 15.

In Chapter 15, one white missionary comes to the area. Told by the Oracle that the white man will spread destruction, the people kill the man. He is soon followed by many more foreigners, until their presence is felt in all the villages. Like locusts, they bring benefits—education and medicine—yet they also devour the clan's traditions and culture.

Questions for Symbols

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