The Symbolism of a Hurricane Lamp in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease

Published: 2021-06-17 10:02:08
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A hurricane lamp, sometimes known as a kerosene lantern, is named such, for “‘Hurricane’ is the name for a tall cylindrical or barrel-shaped glass dome placed around a candlestick to protect the flame from drafts”. It is a symbol of protection and stability for the candle, shielding it from outside sources. Chinua Achebe utilizes the power of this symbol within his novel, No Longer at Ease (1960), placing it in direct parallelity to his protagonist, Obi Okonkwo. In his case, the “glass” protection that he has is that of his home country. In a hurricane lamp, the flame must either stay stable, burn brighter, or be put out. As any life journey, Obi’s fate changes multiple times, and the metamorphosis of the hurricane lamp follows that same pattern. The lamp plays one other role in this novel, and that is the signifier of family, the power of possession playing a large role in the success of the lamp as a symbol.
At the start of his journey, as the hurricane lamp symbolizes, Obi’s flame is put out. His mother’s friend, Mary — a die-hard Christian — learns of Obi’s fate, and she preaches to others, telling “the life history of her friend’s son who was about to go to the place where learning finally came to an end,” (Achebe, 10), which is both a promising and sad prospect. Just before this speech, she had blown out her hurricane lamp, “to save kerosene” (Achebe, 10), alluding to the reader that Obi was no longer protected by his people. The hurricane lamp is then not mentioned until Obi finally returns to his country, and sees a man with one: “…the night-soilman passed swinging his broom and hurricane lamp and trailing clouds of putrefaction” (Achebe, 18). The mention of putrefaction, in this sense, in the same story space as the lamp, hints that Obi has become tainted by leaving, and that his sense of duty and family have started to decay. After this moment, the meaning of the lamp changes, becoming a symbol of family, and Obi’s life within it, as the story shapes itself in that way as well. Obi returns home, sees his father’s hurricane lamp, and mentions that his father never let anyone else touch it (Achebe, 64). This shows the control that Obi’s father believes he has over his son’s life, and the lack of control that Obi actually has in his own life — because, though he values his mother’s opinion more than his father’s, their opinions on him and how he should live his life are one in the same. This illusion that Obi has about his mother being someone different from what he thought continues into the next scene, where the hurricane lamp is centered between all of his family members, acting almost as Chekhov’s gun, in a way — a symbol of something to come, which the audience is aware of in their peripherals. Of his mother, Obi thinks, “She was a very devout woman, but Obi used to wonder whether, left to herself, she would not have preferred telling her children the folk stories that her mother had told her” (Achebe, 65). Obi continues to put his mother on this pedestal above his father, and keeps a fantasy going that she would agree with anything he wanted in order to make him happy, when, in reality, his family, community, and country are in agreement — Obi should live the way he was brought up, and reject the changes that he learned from his travels abroad.
Obi’s whole identity ultimately lies with his family by the end of the novel. The hurricane lamp symbol does not reappear until the next time he sees them. When Obi visits his family to tell them about his plans to marry Clara, they already know that she is an Osu, and they disapprove. When Obi’s father sits him down to talk, he refers to his hurricane lamp that is sitting between them, saying that, “‘I don’t think there is any kerosene in this lamp’” (Achebe, 149). He very pointedly goes to fill the lamp, displaying Obi’s “flame” as within his control, though Obi will not give in to this idea at first. He thinks he wins over his father in the matter, but, really, his father was just giving Obi the chance to speak with his mother and hear that she was of the same opinion. The last time that the lamp appears is directly after Obi’s conversation with his mother, where she had told him that if he marries Clara — an Osu — she would kill herself (Achebe, 154). Obi’s father brings his hurricane lamp into Obi’s room afterward, and “…he turned the wick down, until the flame was practically swallowed up in the lamp’s belly,” just as Obi’s prospective future had been swallowed up by the decisions and beliefs of his family. Obi was not in control of his life, but his family knew what was best for him. Therefore, he makes the decision not to marry Clara, and, though he does not have a happy ending or a wife, he still has a family, along with their love and protection.
The symbol of the hurricane lamp within Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease is a symbol for Obi’s story, and the control — or lack thereof — that he has over his life. Through the different states that the lamp goes through throughout the story, we see the journey that Obi takes in his acceptance that he is a product of the community and country in which he grew up — not the product of going abroad or even getting a higher education. Obi was forced to return to his roots and sacrifice his desires for family, and, through the hurricane lamp symbol, we see that, by the end, he completely sacrifices his desires for the sake of his community and family ties.

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