Things Fall Apart

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Fire Symbol Icon
Okonkwo and his fellow clansmen liken him to a “Roaring Flame”—aggressive, powerful, and strong-willed. For Okonkwo, these are all positive, masculine traits, and he laments the fact that his son Nwoye doesn't possess the same fiery spirit. However, Okonkwo has a revelation in Chapter 17, as he gazes into the fire after his son joins the Christians: “Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.” He realizes that his aggression could foster the opposite in Nwoye, but he never makes the connection that fire eventually exhausts its source as well. All of Okonkwo's impatience and aggression eventually lead to his own destruction after a spectacular final flare of anger when he murders the white messenger.

Fire Quotes in Things Fall Apart

The Things Fall Apart quotes below all refer to the symbol of Fire. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Tradition vs. Change Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Anchor Books edition of Things Fall Apart published in 1994.
Chapter 13 Quotes

As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezeudu's quarter stormed Okonkwo's compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts again Okonkwo. His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them. They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman.

Related Characters: Okonkwo, Obierika
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 124-125
Explanation and Analysis:

After Okonkwo and his family depart Umuofia, this group of men destroy his household. Their actions are described as neither malicious nor particularly voluntary, but rather as the necessary result of fate.

This language stresses how the citizens of Umuofia often do not identify their acts as individual choices motivated by emotions, but rather as the result of a divine system of justice. Describing them simply as “a large crowd of men” and repeatedly as “They” reiterates this dehumanizing bit—except for Obierika, who stands for a source of independent and questioning thought on the culture’s traditions. That these men “were merely [the earth goddess’] messengers” corroborates how characters often play two roles: individual actors in society, and supernatural agents organized by a higher power.

As a result, they can retain an emotional distance from the act, continuing to hold “no hatred” for Okonkwo. The trivializing language—“merely cleansing”—only serves to reiterate how inconsequential the action seems. Although previous passages have valued the role of individual agency in Umuofia society, this one reverts power back to fate, as a social organizer that enacts justice without personal implication.

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Chapter 16 Quotes

He told them that the true God lived on high and that all men when they died went before Him for judgment. Evil men and all the heathen who in their blindness bowed to wood and stone were thrown into a fire that burned like palm-oil. But good men who worshipped the true God lived forever in His happy kingdom.

Related Characters: Mr. Brown
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

When Obierika visits Okonkwo, he witnesses the arrival of missionaries in Umuofia. He focuses, here, on the tenants of the Christian religion that have been evangelized in Igbo society.

This description of Christianity shows how cultural and religious norms will be interpreted differently as they manifest in different societies. For instance, consider how Obierika uses the proverb “burned like palm-oil” to translate the Christian concept of Hell into symbolism that functions in Igbo society. Similarly, the tenets of Christianity are rephrased so that they juxtapose directly with Igbo beliefs. That “God lived on high” contrasts directly with the Igbo Earth goddess who lives among the Umuofia people, and the Christian divine justice system similarly conflicts with the way law is meted out in Umuofia.

Instead of a set of oracles and society members who enact the will of the gods, Christianity holds only a single divine judgement that separates evil from good. Here we can see the glimmers of the ideological conflicts between the two: Christian missionaries will assert a single divine authority that directly opposes the social and polytheistic model embraced by Umuofia. Furthermore, by defamiliarizing these components of Christian doctrine, Achebe gives us a sense of how both missionaries and indigenous cultures would have perceived each other: as confusing and heretical.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.

Related Characters: Okonkwo (speaker), Nwoye
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

Okonkwo thinks of this phrase as he reflects on the way Nwoye has converted to Christianity. Its image encapsulates how Okonkwo’s potent, ardent personality could give rise to a son deemed extremely weak.

This line marks a turning point in the text because it is the first instance of Okonkwo using metaphorical language—indeed, he seems to have invented his own proverb—indicating a source of genuine linguistic creativity. One might thus interpret this line as an indication that Okonkwo has embraced the softer, "feminine" characteristics associated with storytelling and language—yet the phrase itself implies just the opposite. Rather, it reinstates the hierarchy between Okonkwo’s masculine personality as “living fire” versus the weak, feminine Nwoye, who is “cold, impotent ash.” Though Okonkwo may have finally engaged in the game of imagistic language valued throughout the text, the way he does so only reaffirms his harsh and divisive views on the world.

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Fire Symbol Timeline in Things Fall Apart

The timeline below shows where the symbol Fire appears in Things Fall Apart. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 5
Language Theme Icon
...calls and asks Ezinma to bring her live coals, which Ezinma stokes into a live flame. The drums begin beating to signal the wrestling match, and as Ekwefi prepares the meal,... (full context)
Chapter 13
Tradition vs. Change Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
As the day breaks, a crowd of men from Ezeudu's quarter set fire to Okonkwo's houses, killing his animals and destroying his barn. They do this simply out... (full context)
Chapter 17
Tradition vs. Change Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Masculinity Theme Icon
...he could have borne a weak son like Nwoye. Then, as he gazes into the fire, he realizes that “living fire begets cold, impotent ash.” (full context)