In telling the story of an educated man who becomes a teacher in a small, rural village, Chinua Achebe explores the overall theme of the multiple ways that tradition conflicts with modernity. Another related theme is the differing values that people place on education, which Achebe calls attention to by making the protagonist, Michael Obi, a teacher. Obi emphasizes the acquisition of knowledge as a means of social advancement, while some villagers see formal education as giving in to the British rulers.
After gaining an education in the British-run schools, Obi marries and takes a post as a teacher. He takes very seriously his mission to help the villagers, whom he regards as backward and hindered by unthinking adherence to the tribal traditions. Far beyond what he teaches in the classroom, his understanding of education encompasses all aspects of society, including the garden at the teacher’s home. Unfortunately, he disregards important elements of local customs that pertain to the proper attitudes toward the ancestors.
The importance of religion is a third major theme. In addition to conveying faith in the gods, religion is closely connected with adhering to tradition because it represents loyalty to one’s family. The theme of religion is closely tied to the villagers’ everyday behavior, not only special occasions designated for worship. Ani, the local priest, tries to communicate to Obi the importance of adhering to the traditional ways—literally as well as conceptually following a path. Ani understands that the villagers are not backward but need their religious practices to help them reach toward the future, as the path links the deceased ancestors to the unborn children.