To Okonkwo, folktales – especially those featuring animals – are a symbol of femininity. To him, the stories seem to show a childish love for escapism and provide few useful values or morals. Mothers and daughters in the novel have a tendency to share folktales, but they are also one of Okonkwo’s son Nwoye’s favorite forms of entertainment. Because Nwoye prefers folktales over bloody war stories, Okonkwo fears that his son is too effeminate.
Yams are a crop grown exclusively by men. Growing yams is labor intensive, and the size of a man’s fields and harvest say much about his work ethic. Yams are grown to gain wealth and also to feed one’s family. They are a symbol of masculinity and ability as a provider.
The narrator and characters often compare Okonkwo to fire, he even has the nickname around town as the “Roaring Flame.” For Okonkwo, fire is a symbol of boundless potency, life, and masculinity. However on realizing his complete disappointment in his son Nwoye, Okonkwo has the realization that “Living fire begets cold, impotent ash.” Like fire, Okonkwo sees his own progeny as impotent.
As you might guess, ash is seen as impotent, cold, and lifeless. Okonkwo links ash to emasculation. Not only does Okonkwo compare his own son, Nwoye, to ash, but the court messengers are also called “Ashy-Buttocks” – a comment about the color of their shorts but also about their masculinity.
The Mother of the Spirits
The Mother of the Spirits is seen as the mother of the egwugwu and therefore a deity worshipped by the Umuofia. In many ways, she is the personification of the Umuofia clan. The point at which one of the Christian converts, Enoch, commits the terrible crime of unmasking one of the egwugwu is a climactic moment for the Umuofia. Unmasking an egwugwu is equivalent to murdering a god. It is a point at which the Umuofia way of life has been deeply disrespected and the damage done is irreparable. The night after the unmasking, the Mother of the Spirits loudly mourns the death of her son. The narrator draws a comparison between the Mother of the Spirits and the clan: “It seemed as if the very soul of the clan wept for the great evil that was coming – its own death.” It’s also important that the Mother of the Spirits takes no action but weeping and mourning – she doesn’t avenge the death of her son, and neither will the Umuofia people avenge the crimes the white men commit against them.
The egwugwu are a symbol of the culture and independence of the Umuofia. The egwugwu are seen as ancestral gods, though in actuality they are masked Umuofia elders. The egwugwu serve as respected judges in the community, listening to complaints and prescribing punishments and deciding conflicts. Just as the egwugwu are superstitiously thought to be the spirits of the Umuofia ancestors, for the sake of the novel, they are symbolically the spirit of the clan. When the egwugwu loose power in the community and are replaced by a white court, the clan’s culture and independence is lost.