Dead Man S Path
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Michael Obi’s ambition is fulfilled when, at age twenty-six, he is appointed to whip into shape an unprogressive secondary school. Energetic, young, and idealistic as he is, Obi hopes to clean up the educational mission field and speed up its Christianizing mission. Already outspoken in his denigration of “the narrow views” and ways of “superannuated people in the teaching field,” he expects to make a good job of this grand opportunity and show people how a school should be run. He plans to institute modern methods and demand high standards of teaching, while his wife, Nancy —who looks forward to being the admired wife of the headmaster—plants her “dream gardens” of beautiful hibiscus and allamanda hedges. With Nancy doing her gardening part, they will together lift Ndume School from its backward ways to a place of European-inspired beauty in which school regulations will replace the Ndume village community’s traditional beliefs.
So Obi dreams and plans until one evening when he discovers a village woman cutting across the school gardens on a footpath that links the village shrine with the cemetery. Scandalized by her blatant trespassing, Obi orders the sacred ancestral footpath fenced off with barbed wire, much to the consternation of the villagers. The local priest then tries to remind Obi of the path’s historical and spiritual significance as the sacred link between the villagers, their dead ancestors, and the yet unborn. Obi flippantly derides the priest’s explanation as the very kind of superstition that the school is intended to eradicate because “dead men do not require footpaths.” Two days later the hedge surrounding the school, its flower beds, and one of its buildings lie trampled and in ruins— the result of the villagers’ attempt to propitiate the ancestors whom Obi’s fence has insulted. After his supervisor issues a report on this incident, Obi is dismissed.
Written early during Chinua Achebe’s undergraduate days at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan and published in The University Herald in 1953, “Dead Men’s Path” is one of his earliest published short stories. Later collected in Girls at War, and Other Stories (1972), the story contains the germ of what became the major theme of his first three novels: the collision of Christianity and African traditional culture. He most closely explores the theme of culture collision and the tension and estrangement of mission-trained converts from traditional community life in his novels Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), and Arrow of God (1964). Layered in irony, the essence of “Dead Men’s Path” is expressed in the last part of the priest’s admonition to Obi: “What I always say is: let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch.”
Although Obi is fully aware of the cultural code of deference to age and status, he persists in his arrogance because of his newly acquired power and ignores the culture-specific code of existence—the world of dualities that permits two very different things to stand side by side. To the priest of Ani, the footpath represents continuity; it is the village’s lifeline: “Our dead relatives depart by it and our ancestors visit us by it. But most importantly, it is the path of children coming in to be born.” To Obi, however, it merely epitomizes what he regards as the backwardness that he has sworn to eradicate through his “modern methods” program. The priest’s argument is simple: Two cultures can coexist, their differences notwithstanding, because there are no absolutes in the village’s…
Dead Men’s Path Analysis:
In prose that is at once leisurely and stately, Achebe blends the credulity of a folktale with an impartiality that is achieved more by allusion and implication rather than by explicit explanation. He uses irony and paradox to portray the contradictions arising from the moral dilemma faced by mission-trained converts whose estrangement from community life delineates the tragic conflict between the binary worldview of Christianity and the simple live-and-let-live duality of Igbo traditional worldview. The forces of the story lie in its condensed brevity and the suggestiveness illustrated by the old priest’s pithy style.
Unlike Obi’s openly derisive mockery of the villagers’ traditional beliefs, the priest’s decorous but unceremonious style of confrontation and conflict resolution does not question the validity of the Christian religion that Obi represents. Choice of style notwithstanding, it is clear from the exchange between both men that neither side is supported or privileged. However, the symbolic force of the priest’s habit of emphatically tapping his stout walking-stick on the floor each time that he makes a fresh point is all too suggestive of the power of the unspoken to which Obi’s misguided zeal blinds him.
Rather than explain the showdown between the priest and the young headmaster, Achebe cleverly uses dialogue to contrast Obi’s warped mental attitude with the old priest’s poise and his economy of words. The patience and wisdom of age are pitted against the restless energy and glib-tongued arrogance of unseasoned youth. Through deliberate impudence and mockery Obi seeks to unbalance the equilibrium of the village that the old priest’s wisdom and poise embody. As though the barbed wire fence is not insult enough, Obi’s arrogance pushes him beyond cultural bounds when he orders the priest to construct a path that will skirt the school premises, as if he is taking on the village ancestors personally. Obi seals his own doom when he glibly says, “I don’t suppose the ancestors will find the little detour too burdensome.” The priest’s portentous reply, “I have no more words to say,” sets the stage for the final irony of the story: the tragic fall of the new headmaster.