Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
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.