Symbols in Things Fall Apart

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  • 0:02 What Is a Symbol?
  • 0:46 Fire
  • 2:21 Yams
  • 3:21 Locusts
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Breazeale
Symbols are used often in literature, whether in novels, short stories, or poems. There are many symbols throughout Chinua Achebe's famed postcolonial work 'Things Fall Apart,' and in this lesson you'll learn about a few of the major ones.

What Is a Symbol?

If all novels explained every concept in detail, you probably wouldn't be much of a reader. Nobody wants to read hundred page discussions of religion - much easier to use a symbol to explain a point! A symbol is a person, place, or thing used to represent a larger, more abstract concept. Like how a peace sign - something easily drawn, something very concrete - symbolizes the more abstract, difficult to discuss, concept of peace.

In this lesson, you'll be examining three of the most easily recognized symbols of Chinua Achebe's famous novel Things Fall Apart: fire, yams, and locusts. You'll also learn a bit about why Achebe used these symbols.


In 'Things Fall Apart', the main character, Okonkwo, is often described in terms of fire and flames - his nickname is even 'Roaring Flame' - so, to him, fire symbolizes potential, masculinity, and life.

Okonkwo is a lot like a fire, really. He only ever allows himself to show one emotion: anger. He believes this is the masculine, manly way to communicate, and any other type of emotion makes you effeminate. Okonkwo rages at people a great deal, whether he's threatening and nearly shooting his second wife, yelling at his children, or fighting. And what does a fire do? It rages.

But fire has another side. Sure, fire is incredibly powerful, but it's also very destructive. It can destroy lives just as Okonkwo does as he struggles to show his masculinity. Okonkwo kills his own adopted son, as well as the son of a village elder. These are examples of physical destruction wrought by Okonkwo, but he also brings about emotional destruction, as well.

Okonkwo suppresses any affection he feels for his family members, which destroys his relationship with his son and allows him to, again, kill his adopted son. Okonkwo even realizes that fire results only in ash - though he sees his son as ash, a complete disappointment, you might have realized that the real destruction results in the ash of his relationships, as well as his own life. Okonkwo's burning rage and desire to be masculine results in the ash of his familial relationships and the ash of his own life as he commits suicide at the end of the novel.


Yams are symbols of masculinity, wealth, and strength in this novel. Yams are like sweet potatoes, and, in Okonkwo's world, they're an important crop grown exclusively by men. The more yams a man has, the wealthier and more respected he is. In short, a man's worth is judged by the worth of his yams.

Okonkwo can't begin his journey into manhood until he, as a teen, obtains a starter pack of seed yams from a wealthy benefactor. Also, Okonkwo's father leaves him no inheritance and no land on which to plant yams, which demonstrates his lack of strength, both as a provider and as a man, to Okonkwo and the community.

Okonkwo grows wealthy and well-respected through his excellent yam yields. Planting and growing yams is hard work, and not everyone succeeds at it. Only those who have great work ethic manage to excel, which is why Okonkwo becomes so well-respected. For him, growing yams means he's a man and provider, and a good one at that.

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