Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.


Achebe depicts the locusts that descend upon the village in highly allegorical terms that prefigure the arrival of the white settlers, who will feast on and exploit the resources of the Igbo. The fact that the Igbo eat these locusts highlights how innocuous they take them to be. Similarly, those who convert to Christianity fail to realize the damage that the culture of the colonizer does to the culture of the colonized. The language that Achebe uses to describe the locusts indicates their symbolic status. The repetition of words like “settled” and “every” emphasizes the suddenly ubiquitous presence of these insects and hints at the way in which the arrival of the white settlers takes the Igbo off guard. Furthermore, the locusts are so heavy they break the tree branches, which symbolizes the fracturing of Igbo traditions and culture under the onslaught of colonialism and white settlement. Perhaps the most explicit clue that the locusts symbolize the colonists is Obierika’s comment in Chapter 15: “the Oracle . . . said that other white men were on their way. They were locusts. . . .”


Okonkwo is associated with burning, fire, and flame throughout the novel, alluding to his intense and dangerous anger—the only emotion that he allows himself to display. Yet the problem with fire, as Okonkwo acknowledges in Chapters 17 and 24, is that it destroys everything it consumes. Okonkwo is both physically destructive—he kills Ikemefuna and Ogbuefi Ezeudu’s son—and emotionally destructive—he suppresses his fondness for Ikemefuna and Ezinma in favor of a colder, more masculine aura. Just as fire feeds on itself until all that is left is a pile of ash, Okonkwo eventually succumbs to his intense rage, allowing it to rule his actions until it destroys him.


Yams serve as an important symbol in both Igbo culture and in the novel’s fictional narrative, representing status, success, and masculinity. Given that yams are native to Africa, their centrality to daily life in Igboland is unsurprising. The New Yam Festival, the planting of seed-yams, and the yam harvest are all key measurements of passing time, and the starchy vegetable plays a role in worship and other clan ceremonies. For Okonkwo, the number of yams he can grow indicates his status in the village and his strength as a provider for his family. Yams act both as a currency, allowing men to exchange goods and pay for their brides, and as a visual symbol of prosperity. Especially for Okonkwo, these outward appearances of strength are key as he refuses to show any signs of weakness or struggle. His protectiveness over his crop speaks to his desire to maintain a reputation of success, contrary to the reputation of his father who left his family hungry. Yams also emphasize the centrality of men and the male perspective in the day-to-day operations of the village. Referred to as “the king of crops,” the cultural significance of yams, whose growth and harvest occur under the village men’s direction, invites the men themselves to be at the center of Umuofia’s world. This male social dominance offers yet another reason for Okonkwo’s aggressive behavior and preoccupation with his yams, for he sees both as a pathway to becoming and staying the village’s central figure.