"Dead men's path" by Chinua Achebe

Short short stories universal (p.67-71)

“Dead men’s path” by Chinua Achebe

The author:
Chinua Achebe was born in 1930 in Ogidi, in Nigeria and belongs to black Africa’s most widely read novelists. He is a member of the Ibo people and was born into a Christian family. Nevertheless he always felt attracted to the customs of non-Christian Nigerians. As he personally made the experience of ethnic and religious discrimination in his country as well as of violence during the civil war in 1967, tolerance and the cultural problems and changes which were caused by the arrival of the Europeans in Africa belong to the most important topics of Achebe’s works. The conflict between the original African culture and the modern, western culture is also the main topic in his short story “Dead men’s path”.
"Dead men’s path” is about a young teacher, Michael Obi, who is promoted to headmaster of a school which is said to be very unprogressive. He and his wife are looking forward to this new challenge because they are given the chance to modernize the school and to realize their idea of the perfect school. His wife is even making plans about the sorts of flowers on the school grounds. But soon Obi observes that some of the people living in the village near the school use a small path across the school compound. As Obi fears the Government Education Officer could reject this use of the school compound, he decides to block the path by planting sticks at the end and the beginning of the path. After a while, the priest of the village comes to visit Obi and asks him to reopen it. The priest explains the villagers’ belief that it is used by dead peoples’ souls to leave the earth, and that it is the path for the newborns’ souls. However, Obi doesn’t make up his mind. When a woman dies giving birth to a child two days later, the villagers blame Obi for her death. Believing they have to reconcile their ancestors, they trample down the flowers of the school compound and even pull one of the school buildings down. To make things worse, the supervisor comes to inspect the school and writes a bad report about Obi’s unwise decisions as a headmaster because of the damages which were caused and the conflict Obi elicited.
"Dead men’s path" is told by an omniscient third-person narrator, because he switches forth in time twice in the story ("Three days later”, p.70, l. 4). The narrator isn’t part of the story and the most important character for him seems to be Obi, as it is him who appears in every scene of the story. Additionally, the narrator describes mainly Obi’s opinion, wishes and behaviour. Even so you could say that the narrator’s view is limited because he merely depicts the different places in which the protagonist’s are set as well as the characters’ emotions and thoughts. The narrator also comments very little on the different characters’ decisions and behaviour in the story.
Language and stylistic devices:
In general, the language that Achebe uses in “Dead men’s path” is easy to understand. Even so the numerous images in the text, above all the ones which seem to be taken out of a religious context, are striking, e.g. the phrase “let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch” (p.71, l.1), which is the golden rule of the Ibo religion (cf. http:// www.kwenu.com /odinani/ odinani.htm) and a demand for more tolerance and peaceful co-existence between different cultures or religions. There is also an allusion to the Bible, when “Obi was admiring his work” (p.69, l.6), which presents Obi as a kind of god in the world he created: the school.
Frequently used stylistic devices in the story are for example exaggerations and irony. Firstly, there is an exaggeration that underlines Obi’s position towards the path’s importance. It is obvious that he doesn’t respect the priest’s explanation of the path’s meaning for his religion. Obi considers it as nonsense and therefore he doesn’t want "people to make a highway of [his] school compound" (p.70, ll. 12 f.). This expression shows how important this perfect little world is for him and that he can’t allow anyone to destroy his work.
Moreover, Obi’s one-sided way of thinking is emphasized by a sarcastic phrase:" I don’t suppose the ancestors will find the little detour too burdensome" (p.71, ll. 7 f.). This example shows that Obi thinks of the priest’s religion in a ridiculous way and makes fun of it. He doesn’t count other opinions and considers his position as the one and only. Furthermore, Obi criticizes the priest’s old-fashioned way of thinking. His religion is very ancient and unfamiliar for him and therefore he thinks it is less important and less respectable, too.
"Dead men’s path" leads to two different intentions. Firstly, the author wants to stress that it is important to move on, to develop and to be modern, as the change the school undergoes is actually positive. But progress doesn’t automatically mean the devaluation of old and traditional things. In the story Obi is the character who represents the modern pole, whereas the priest holds on to his traditional religion. Obi, who considers himself to be in a higher position, has a very low opinion of unmodern things. This leads us to the second intention. The author wants to emphasize that the world is missing of tolerance. Above all, the various religions get into fights with each other. They want to prove which one is the right one without accepting other opinions or making compromises. This lack of tolerance sometimes even causes wars or the death of hundreds of people regarding the suicide attacks committed because of religious conviction. In "Dead men’s path" Obi doesn’t respect the priest’s religion and devalues it as superstition. He doesn’t even try to understand the unknown and just waits for the moment to jump in and show the priest how wrong his attitude is. In fact, these two different men could co-exist happily if they just made a compromise, which gets at any rate impossible by Obi's intolerance, and finally both parties lose.

Sources (2009-01-09) :
http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/profile/chinua-achebe.shtml (author)
Written by Katharina Mayer und Jessica K.

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