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The Use of Imagery in Refugee Mother and Child by Chinua Achebe

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Refugee Mother and Child is a poem that seems to be written to arouse
response from the reader. The pitiful image of a mother holding the
corpse of her son is not only sourcing empathy from the reader but
also helps the reader reflect on their own fortunate lives. In fact,
Chinua Achebe is a leading writer for African causes, especially for
the injustices in the world.

The first stanza seems to be written as an introduction to the
following stanza. The poet begins by allowing the reader to visualize
the –

“Picture of a mother’s tenderness

for a son she soon would have to forget.”

This immediately conveys the theme of ‘death of a child’ and also
helps set the ‘sorrowful’ mood of the poem. The short introduction
allows the reader to settle them down and focus more on the tragic
scene, thus maximizing the response from the reader.

Following the ‘theme’ and ‘mood’ set by the first stanza, the second
stanza described the living environment of the “Refugee Mother and
Child” as –

“The air was heavy with odours

of diarrhoea of unwashed children

with washed-out ribs and dried-up

bottoms struggling in laboured

steps behind blown empty bellies”

The filthy image of the environment that the mother and child lived in
is projected through negative connotation. For example, the words
‘odours’ and ‘diarrhoea’ suggests the presence of diseases and
sicknesses. This allows the reader to imagine a smelly and filthy
place crammed with ill people. The reference to illness, which seems
to be a link with the theme of ‘death’, foreshadows the tragic story
of the mother and her dead son although it has not been clearly stated
that her son is dead.

Furthermore, the grotesque image of the setting is strongly reinforced
by the mentioning of “unwashed children with washed out ribs…” Chinua
uses the children as a clear symbol of innocence and the unfortunate,
as the children has been given birth in places where vital resources
such as water and food are lacking. This will naturally allow the
reader to reflect on their own fortunate lives and raise awareness of
these unfortunate children living in famines. The words ‘laboured
steps’ also suggests child labour, linking to real cases in lesser
economically countries such as Africa, China and Algeria.

As the second stanza continues, the constant reference to death is
evident when the poet describes the –

“ghost smile between” the mother’s “teeth and in her eyes the ghost of
a mother’s pride.”

The careful choice of the technique, personification, enables the
reader to visualize the emptiness of the mother’s smile and spirit, by
comparing the nouns ‘smile’ and ‘eyes’ with ‘ghost’, which
communicates the idea of death. The word ‘ghost’ also suggests an
unpeaceful death of the child as ghost is thought to be unpeaceful
spirits of a dead person. Through this imagery the reader is supposed
to feel empathy towards the deep sorrow that the mother is
experiencing, and the suggested unpeaceful death of the child.

The death of the child is finally revealed when the poet described the
tragic scene of the mother combing “the rust coloured hair left on his
skull.” The word ‘rust’ communicated the idea of rotting and decaying
material towards the reader and also the mentioning of the death of
the child through the word ‘skull’.

The whole purpose of the poem is pulled together at the end of the
poem where the poet contrast the tragic scene of the mother combing
the hair of her dead child with “another life” where the combing
action –

“would have been a little daily act of no consequences

before” the child’s “breakfast and school.”

In the other life, as a sharp contrast, the child’s life is without
worries. The two images brought about by the mentioning of “breakfast”
suggesting that this child has food to eat at breakfast and also
“school” where the child is receiving education. In the other life, as
a sharp contrast, the child’s life is without worries. The word
“school” also strongly suggests happiness in the child’s life. The
strong contrast successfully reminded the reader to reflect on their
own fortunate lives and also be empathic to those whose lives are less

Chinua Achebe used imagery effectively throughout the poem to set a
dull and heavy mood, which helps the reader to feel emphatic to
“refugee mother and child”. Imagery is also used to allow the reader
to visualize the sorrow of the mother through the projected image of
the ghostly ‘smile’ and ‘eyes’ on the mother’s facial expressions.
This dull and somber imagery is then conclusively contrasted with the
image of another child; a child whose life is more fortunate then the
refugee child. This effective use of contrasting the two images
successfully arouses empathy in readers and also allows the reader to
reflect on their own fortunate lives.

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MLA Citation:
"The Use of Imagery in Refugee Mother and Child by Chinua Achebe." 04 Dec 2016

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