Literary Analysis Essay on A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

Published: 2021-07-16
1085 words
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University of Richmond
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Ishmael Beah used symbolism to represent the theme of oppression and freedom in his book A Long Way Gone. There are several rationales why authors use symbolism and imagery. For instance, symbolism enables an author to present their ideas by applying cultural symbols and imageries known to the target audience to represent teachable values (Pourkalhor and Esfandiari 28). For Beah, the movement of the authors experience from his original culture to the culture of the society that he was addressing presented the use of symbolism to achieve effective communication. The author notes in the preface that, his high school friends had, begun to suspect I have not told them the full story of my life (Beah vii). This paper seeks to demonstrate how Beah applied symbolism and imagery to develop the main theme of the story. From the analysis, it has been noted and shall be discussed how the author used the experience of running from the snake, and fire and smoke to symbolize oppression and the flag to represent freedom. In the first paragraph, the paper discusses the use of the encounter with the snake to symbolize oppression.

The encounter with the snake symbolizes oppression as an unapproachable, frightful, and unstoppable force. Aggressors have always used oppression to cause a commotion in the society. As a scare tactic, the use of oppression ensures that the members of the society act in a way that is fitting to their objectives. In the text, Beah uses the encounter with the snake to denote how aggressors use the strategy to demobilize the society. He writes, I accidentally stepped on the tail of a snake. It started hissing and scuttling toward me. I ran as fast as I could for a long time (Beah 72). The experience is similar to the structure of the oppression that the author and the citizens of the country witnessed. In the first sentence, the author infers that boy soldiers do not intend to enter into the war but do so accidentally (Wessells 119). Upon meeting the troops while they were hiding in the forests, the boy soldiers encountered the oppressive aggressors that forced them into becoming soldiers (Beah 38). In the second sentence, the author comments on the actions of the snake following the accidental encounter. In this, the author symbolizes the use of scare strategies that the oppressors used to intimidate the boy soldiers into action. For instance during Beahs recruitment when [they] were asked to line up for the recruitment after the rebels scared an old man with a gunshot close to the head (Beah 48). The last of the structure of oppression symbolized by the encounter is how the author ran for a long time. The author in this iteration depicts the lasting effects of an oppressive encounter. The lasting impact of the oppression is evidence by the life of the author where, long after the end of the war and rehabilitation, the author still traumatic memories. The author symbolizes that after oppressive encounter rehabilitation takes a long time (Wessells 108). The author also uses fire and smoke to symbolize the impact of oppression as described in the succeeding paragraph.

The author has used fire and smoke to symbolize the significance and impact of oppression. The author has severally written of how smoke filled the sky following an attack on a village, A few minutes later, gunshots were heard, followed by thick smoke that rose toward the sky (Beah 50), The sky looked as if it was filled with smoke, endless gray smoke that made the sun dull (54), As I was going down the hill, I heard gunshots A thick smoke started rising from the village (116). The effects of oppression are destruction. The author uses smoke, a sign of danger common to the culture of the audience, to note the devastating effects of oppression. Notably, so, the author has implied that after every attack on a village, the rebels would burn the village down. The resultant effects were a loss of property, economic value, and cultural connections to the village. The author also notes that the smoke always rises to the sky. In painting the darkness, (50) or, dullness (54), of the smoke against the brightness of the sun and the sky, the author depicts how oppression brings gloom to the oppressed population. Apart from oppression, freedom is a similarly central them, similarly symbolized by a flag.

Flags represent the presence of a governance structure and the absence of oppression. In many aspects, cultures use flags as a symbol of unity and the presence of peace within the confines of the members of a particular society. In the text, Beah uses flags to represent the hope of freedom. In the first mention of flags, is the colors of the Jersey that Alhaji wore (Beah 196). He later iterates how proud Alhaji was wearing the colors of the national flag. In this instance, the author depicts the pride and sense of belonging that comes with the freedom to wear the flag. The depiction of freedom here is the open display of the national flag and the subsequent awe that the audience had. Additionally, when the author arrives at the Embassy, the taxi driver points at the flag planted at the embassy offices where he is happy, to have escaped the possibility of becoming a soldier again (Beah 260). The symbolic representation of the flag, in this case, is the presence of freedom by following the flag.


Symbolism is used to represent a subject matter where the author seeks to communicate with an audience that would more readily understand the symbols rather than the actual events. Ishmael Beah used symbolism because the culture he was addressing were not familiar with the events of the civil war. The theme of oppression and that of freedom are symbolized in the narrative by encounters with the snake and smoke in the sky, and the theme by flags respectively. In so doing, the author has effectively communicated to the audience of the experience of being a boy soldier from the inception and role of oppression in controlling the actions of boy soldiers, to the freedom after the oppression ends.


Beah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2007.

Pourkalhor, Omid and Nastaran Esfandiari. "Culture in Language Learning: Background, Issues and Implications." Language 5.01 (2017): 23-32.

Wessells, Michael G. "Reintegration of Child Soldiers: The Role of Social Identity in the Recruitment and Reintegration of Child Soldiers." Understanding Peace and Conflict Through Social Identity Theory. Springer International Publishing, 2016. 105-120.



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