Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like many of Cyprian Ekwensi’s works, “The Great Beyond” deals with Nigerian city dwellers, the stock-in-trade characters of most of his novels and short stories. As its title implies, the story is about the city dwellers’ preoccupation with and response to death and dying and the questions of existence and mortality that often surface during the funerals of others. In “The Great Beyond,” Ekwensi takes up the themes of death, the occult, and clairvoyance, weaving folk belief with humor and irony in a way that neither questions the validity of the folk beliefs about death and the afterlife nor ridicules the characters’ belief system. He simply poses the questions of life and death and the idea of the hereafter in an amusingly serious way through characterization. For example, Ekwensi casts Ikolo, the dead protagonist, as a jesting, carefree, life-loving sort whose death affords both his less-than-pious wife and the well-fed pastor an invaluable opportunity not only to broach the serious metaphysical and theological questions about the meaning of existence and the nature of the great beyond but also to attempt to make some sense of good and evil and repentance.

Throughout the story, Ekwensi is able to maintain an undercurrent of seriousness by the very nature of the subject matter and still sustain a humorous tone throughout the story, albeit with his moral finger wagging. However, unlike the sometimes heavy-handed moralizing for which he has come under much criticism in his major works, Ekwensi frames the story’s moral subtly in the final exchange between Jokeh and the pastor who, ironically, is the one of the two that has to ponder the question of morality and the essence of his own calling as a “preparer” of souls.