Study Guide

Dead Men's Path

by Chinua Achebe

Dead Men's Path Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.