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Michael (“Mike”) Obi is the protagonist of the story, and his name, representing an equal blend of European and African origins, is the first thing that appears in the story.
If the story contains no stated moral, the biblical warning that “Pride goeth before a fall” is implicit throughout, especially in the visions of the future possessed by Michael Obi and his wife Nancy. Michael represents, in small scale, the excesses of governmental bureaucracy; his stated agenda is to inflict his “modern methods” on his colleagues and neighbors with little attention to the cultural realities of the community around him. His high-handedness turns on itself in the story’s conclusion, and he is amply paid back in his own arrogant coin.
Achebe’s use of detail, the barbed wire that blocks the path and the comments of the Supervisor (who is, ironically, white) that Michael has precipitated a “tribal-war situation” may be Achebe’s sly way of telling us that the conflict between established tribal customs and “modern methods,” so trivial here, may in fact lie behind the devastating civil wars and tribal genocide that have plagued Africa since the end of the colonial period.
“Dead Men’s Path” enacts in miniature one of the central themes of Achebe’s novels—the clash between modern European ideas and traditional African values, progressive international standards and deeply rooted local custom. The story’s protagonist, Michael Obi, is a well-educated forward-thinking idealist with a passion for “modern methods.” Quite intelligent and undoubtedly dedicated to education, Obi is more comfortable in abstract thought than in facing the complexities of real life. He doesn’t notice unspoken feelings; for example, his wife’s considerable disappointment upon learning that the other teachers are all unmarried. His view of the world is rational and therefore incapable of fully understanding the parts of life ruled by emotion, intuition, or custom. Obi looks down on the older headmasters of the Mission schools. Note how Achebe subtly undercuts Obi in the opening paragraphs. Only twenty-six, the newly appointed headmaster appears much older with his “stoop-shouldered” posture and “frail” build.
Having introduced his protagonist and set up the narrative premise, Achebe focuses his story on a single incident—Obi’s attempt to close the footpath that the locals believe is used by dead and unborn souls to enter the village. Obi uses rational, progressive arguments in discussing the matter with the village priest (who ironically seems both more rational and open-minded than the ideological headmaster). “What you say may be true,” admits the priest, adding “but we follow the practices of our fathers.” The results of Obi’s idealistic obstinacy ultimately prove disastrous for both the school and his own career.
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