The path mentioned in the story’s title is the most important symbol. In addition, the flower garden plays a significant symbolic role. The path symbolizes the traditions of the village people and the continuity of life from one generation to the next. Michael Obi, the new teacher, is deeply committed to modernizing the villagers, not only through schooling but also through the middle-class, imported items that he displays. His wife, Nancy, wants to support him and make her own contribution by planting foreign flowers in “beautiful gardens.”
The importance of the path grows increasingly evident throughout the story. It is significant that, early on, Michael does not even notice there is a path. Nancy delights in the hibiscus and marigolds in her “dream-gardens.” Only after he sees a village woman cutting through the grounds does he discern “faint signs of an almost disused path.”
Although another teacher explains the path is important, Michael ignores his advice and closes it off. He does not care that it goes to the burial grounds. When the priest comes to complain, Michael flatly states, “Dead men do not require footpaths.” He regards local beliefs as “fantastic” and even says he wants to teach people to “laugh at such ideas.”
The connection between the generations that the path symbolizes is made evident when a local woman dies in childbirth. This symbolizes the need for future generations to be connected with their ancestors and traditions. After this occurs, the villagers forcibly remove the barriers Michael set up, and the teacher finds Nancy’s flowers “trampled to death” and one of the school buildings destroyed. Ultimately, modernization rather than tradition has died or failed.