Chinua Achebe’s short story, ‘Dead Men’s Path’

August 22, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

In Chinua Achebe’s short story, ‘Dead Men’s Path’, we see a young and na�ve headmaster obsessed by modern practices, finding himself in conflict with a traditional village priest when he attempts to close a precious spiritual path, causing widespread turmoil throughout the community.

Achebe tells us that Michael Obi was appointed headmaster of Ndume Central School, Nigeria in 1949. Accepting the job ‘with enthusiasm’, we are then told Obi was an accomplished secondary school student, and was labeled as a ‘pivotal teacher’. It is also added that he was ‘outspoken in his condemnation’ of older, more traditional views. From this point on, I suspected that Obi would make a success of his job, with little interference from villagers, however, the true ending proved to far more satirical. It is also mentioned that Obi has two aims for his school: to have a high standard of teaching, and to turn the school gardens into a place of beauty, a task charged to his self obsessed wife. One evening however, as Obi was admiring his work, he is apparently ‘scandalized’ to see an elderly lady hobble across the school compound along an almost disused path. Despite being informed by a college of the trouble previously faced when similar action was taken, Obi decides to close the path, much to the distress of the village priest. “An old man” with “a slight stoop”, the village priest meets with Obi to discuss the issue.

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Already from Achebe’s description of the priest, we can imagine a striking visual difference between the two characters; a juxtaposition between the priests fragile fa�ade, and Obi’s youthful & powerful demeanor; let alone a stark distinction in opinion. As Obi begins to explain, he cannot “allow people to make a highway of our school compound”, however in response, the priest argues that the path allows dead relatives to depart and ancestors to visit. “But most important, it is the path of children coming to be born…” he declares. Arrogantly, Obi laughs of the claim, and conceitedly states that his job is to ‘teach children to laugh at such ideas’. Although the priest concedes this may be true, he follows the practices of his forefathers, and asks Obi to ‘let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch.’ Denying the request, the headmaster suggests building a new path, sarcastically commenting that he doesn’t suppose the ancestors will find the little detour too burdensome.

In a swift ending, it is acknowledged that a ‘young woman in the village died in childbed’ and that a diviner prescribed heavy sacrifices to ‘propitiate ancestors insulted’ by the blocking of their path. ‘Obi woke up next morning among the ruins of his work’, with buildings pulled down and flowers trampled, unfortunately for him on the day of an inspectors visit. Disgusted by the state of the school premises, the inspector ‘wrote a nasty report’, also commenting on the ‘tribal-war situation developing between the school and the village, arising in part from the misguided zeal of the new headmaster’.

Chinua Achebe’s work has had a dramatic impact on literature in Africa, and he often writes about the effects of modern customs on traditional African society. Dead Men’s Path is no different, showing the chaotic impact of Obi’s contempary methods and refusal to co-operate and allow two different cultures survive together. Obi’s stubborn nature and single-mindedness led to the opposite outcome to his intentions. Determined to keep the path closed, Obi does understand the spiritual importance of the path, and this has grave repercussions. Towards the end of the story, we being to realize that Obi must learn and change his arrogant ways, but we do not expect the elderly village priest to be capable of such destruction, and this surprise adds to the intensity of the hasty ending.

Nadime Gordimer maintains a similar theme for her short story The Train from Rhoedsisa, in which a young married discover the stark contrast in their views, when the husband foolishly insults a talented craftsman by buying his beautiful work for a ridiculously low price.

The story starts with the train approaching the station, and Nadine Gordimer describing in intricate detail, the appearance of the station and the reactions of its inhabitants. ‘The stationmaster came out of his little brick station with its pointed chalet roof; the carved wooden animal, eternally surprised, stuck of a sack’. The dogs and chickens; with skin stretched like parchment over their bones’ and seen to follow the stationmaster’s children down the track. As ‘they waited’, Gordimer applies personification to the train, as it ‘cries’, ‘I’m coming…I’m coming…’.

As the train arrives, Gordimer describes how a ‘young woman curved her body father out the corridor window’ and inquires as to the price of a beautiful wooden lion. ‘Carved out of soft dry wood that looked like sponge cake’ the young woman is obviously immediately taken with the figurine, as the old man ‘held it up to her still smiling, not from the heart, but at the customer’. This shows the desperation of the man, who is determined to sell his work, and does so by being false to the passengers on the train. Inquisitively, the young husband points out the majestic fur around the neck of the lion, ‘telling you somehow that the artist had delight in the lion.’

Nadine Gordimer goes on to tell of how the other craftsmen frantically sell their works before the train leaves, and also that the lion is being offered at the price of ‘three-and-six’, a price seen as far too expensive for the young couple. The young woman draws her head back inside the carriage as the train pulls away from the station, and contemplates her marriage and her purchases in this country. Her husband ‘is not part of the unreality; he is for good now. Odd…somewhere there was an idea that he, that living with him, was part of the holiday’.

Desperately as the train begins to pull away, the craftsman runs up the young couple’s carriage, shouting ‘one-and-six! One-and-six!’. Taken by the new offer, the young husband is obliged to toss one shilling and a six towards the man in exchange for the lion. Ecstatic, the man pulls back inside the train, triumphant with the lion in his hands. We expect the woman delighted with the gift, despite the fact the husband himself is not happy because she wanted it, but because of the cheap price he obtained it for. However, evident form her previous doubts; the woman is mortified that he could have bought such beauty for such a small price. ‘Her face was drawn up, wryly, like the face of a discomforted child’. ‘If you wanted the thing, she said, he voice rising and breaking with the shrill impotence of anger, why didn’t you pay for it? Why didn’t you take it decently?’ she screams. The husband protests, ‘you wanted it so much! You said yourself it was too expensive-‘.

Flooded by rage, the woman exclaims ‘Oh you…you’ and throws the lion on to the opposite seat. ‘The heat of shame mounted threw her legs.’ The woman seems not only disappointed in her husband, but disappointed and disgusted with herself. She feels useless, there is nothing she can do now the train has ‘cast the station like skin’, and she is stuck with the guilty she is experienced for some time to come. She does not want to feel this emotion again, ‘she sat there not wanting to move or speak, or to look at anything even; so that the mood should be associated with nothing’. Morose, she remains ‘at exactly the same angle, turned against the young man’. Finally the train leave the station, and ‘called out to the sky, I’m coming, I’m coming, there was no answer.’

Towards the end of the story, we learn that the lady feels a void, emptiness, and her husband is referred to as ‘the young man’, which seems strangely distant. The wife is beginning to realize that he is not just ‘part of the holiday, but discomfortingly, a permanent element of her life. In both of these stories, arrogance leads to chaos and pain, and both of the central characters in each stories are given chances to alter the eventual outcome. It is however, in the reaction of two of the characters in which the surprise ending lies. In Train from Rhodesia, we perhaps expect the young woman to be impressed by her husband’s resilience, but most obviously to be happy with her new gift. However she is ashamed that her husband has offended the craftsmen by making him desperately running after the train and offering such a low price. In Dead Men’s Path, we do not expect the people of the village to retaliate in such a violent way, however, they tear down school buildings and trample the gardens, which is astonishing if we recall the initially frail appearance of the village priest.


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