What are some imagery and symbols used in "Marriage is a Private Affair" by Chinua Achebe?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Marriage is a Private Affair," Achebe's most effective use of imagery and symbols helps to illuminate Okeke's state of mind.

When his son marries against his will and sends a wedding picture to Okeke, the father's reaction is an intense one.  Okeke sends a terse response to his son with visceral imagery:  "...But on further thought I decided just to cut off your wife and send it back to you because I have nothing to do with her. How I wish that I had nothing to do with you either."   Achebe's use of violent imagery communicates Okeke's state of mind. It shows the intensity to which the father clings to tradition.  The symbol of the mutilated picture underscores how Okeke embraces tradition above all.  The imagery conveyed through Okeke's deliberate words, "cut off your wife," also shows a dark intensity behind Okeke's adherence to tradition.

Achebe's use of symbols and imagery to communicate Okeke's internal motivations are also seen at the end of the story.  He uses weather to bring out another layer to Okeke's emotional intensity:

Very soon it began to rain, the first rain in the year. It came down in large sharp drops and was accompanied by the lightning and thunder which mark a change of season. Okeke was trying hard not to think of his two grandsons. But he knew he was now fighting a losing battle. He tried to hum a favorite hymn but the pattering of large raindrops on the roof broke up the tune. His mind immediately returned to the children. How could he shut his door against them? By a curious mental process he imagined them standing, sad and forsaken, under the harsh angry weather—shut out from his house. 

The symbol of rain is used to communicate Okeke's feelings of loss.  The rain shows the regret he has about keeping his grandchildren distant.  It also shows how Okeke is fearful of his own mortality.  Rain's symbolism communicates uncertainty and fear, elements that indicate a very stark change from the defiance Okeke once showed.  Okeke knows he will not live forever and might have to live with the consequences of his foolish actions. Okeke's clinging to tradition is now gone.  In its place is insecurity and doubt, enhanced through the imagery of rain.

The imagery of the large raindrops communicates the urgency of these feelings.  It is almost as if Okeke feels that he is unable to escape from the folly of his stubbornness.  The correspondence of the rain pelting the rooftop with lightning and thunder adds to the emotional timbre.   This "harsh angry weather" goes very far in communicating Okeke's emotional state at the end of the story.