Characters

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Last Updated May 22, 2024.

Ezeulu 

As the Chief Priest of the deity Ulu, Ezeulu presides over the six villages of Umuaro. He lives in a large compound with his two wives, Matefi and Ugoye, and their many children. His people depend on Ezeulu to mark the passage of time and preside over their ceremonies and rituals. One of his responsibilities involves announcing cultural events, such as the New Yam Feast, which allows the villagers to harvest their crops with Ulu’s blessing. 

Ezeulu believes himself to be the “arrow of god”—a half-man and half-spirit destined to do Ulu's bidding. Because of this, he often conflates his wishes with that of his deity’s grand designs. While he attributes to Ulu his decision to postpone the New Yam Feast, he selfishly wishes to punish the villagers for questioning his authority in the past. The tragedy of Ezeulu is his pride and stubbornness. When his son Obika dies because of his foolish decisions, Ezeulu becomes a broken man. 

Edogo

Edogo is Ezeulu’s eldest son. His mother, Okuata, was Ezeulu’s first wife and had already died before the novel opens. Described as quiet and brooding, Edogo takes his work as a carver very seriously. Because of his reliable work ethic, the people of Umuaro depend on him to carve their sacred masks. Edogo has no desire to inherit his father’s position. 

Obika

Despite being the second eldest son, Obika is Ezeulu’s favorite because of his masculinity and fearlessness. He is also very handsome, having inherited the terracotta-colored skin of his father. However, his two main shortcomings are his chronic drunkenness and fiery temper. Obika often plays important roles in Umuaro’s rites and rituals—a responsibility that eventually leads to his demise. 

Oduche

In contrast to Obika, Ezeulu’s third son, Oduche, is his least favorite. Edogo surmises that this is one of the reasons Oduche is sent to the local church to learn the white man’s new religion and become their informant. While initially unwilling, Oduche soon becomes a believer in Christianity, even turning his back on his father’s teachings.  

Akuebue

As his closest friend, Akuebue is one of the few people whose advice Ezeulu heeds. However, when he attempts to criticize Ezeulu’s decision to send Oduche to the church, the latter sharply reminds him that his heart is “unknowable.” Despite this, Akuebue continues to stand by his friend, even defending his controversial postponement of the harvest.  

Nwaka

Nwaka is a very wealthy man from Umunneora, one of the six villages of Umuara. He holds one of the highest titles in the land—Eru, named after the god of riches. Because of their clashing stances on the Umuara-Okperi land dispute, he and Ezeulu have despised each other for years. As a great orator, Nwaka successfully turns the tide against Ezeulu multiple times. 

Captain T.K. Winterbottom

Named the District Officer of the region, Captain Winterbottom has served the British colonial administration in Nigeria for fifteen years. Despite his loyalty, he is frustrated with certain orders from his superiors, such as their policy of indirect rule. He does not see the merit in keeping native institutions in place, as he sees the locals as either children or savages. 

Tony Clarke

Clarke is the much younger, inexperienced Assistant District Officer in Okperi. Although he is more “progressive” than his superior, Clarke and Winterbottom are ultimately cut from the same cloth. He takes great offense at Ezeulu’s refusal of the role of Paramount Chief. However, Clarke still releases him because he cannot bear to keep Ezeulu detained without good reason. 

John Goodcountry

Goodcountry is a Christian missionary with the British colonial administration, sent to Umuaro after having been stationed in Niger Delta. Although he makes a show out of listening to his students’ dissenting opinions, he is contemptuous of the native Nigerians' cultural beliefs. He also despises Moses Unachukwu, a local convert who serves the church overzealously. 

(This entire section contains 724 words.)

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Characters

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Characters are rendered not only through the eyes of the omniscient narrator, but through those of other chief characters, giving a rich multifaceted view of their motives and forces that have shaped them.

The central character of this novel is the chief priest of the god Ulu, who originated in reaction to the marauding of the neighboring tribe of Abame whose mercenaries raided the six villages now joined together as Umuaro in order to capture slaves. He has married three wives, one of whom has died, and tends to shift his affections from older sons onto younger ones. Seen through the eyes of his oldest son Edogo, he is single minded and expects all others to think as he does. Thus the growing isolation, contributed to heavily by the advance of colonialism, is seen to be partly his fault. As the novel opens, Ezuelu is unhappy with the escalation of a minor conflict with the nearby Okperi tribe whom he sees as entitled to a disputed piece of land. His arguments for not going to war are considered and reveal his knowledge of history. But a powerful speaker and a very wealthy leader, Nwaka, prevails. Unfortunately, the delegate sent to the Okperi gives in to his anger after being goaded about his virility and breaks the ikenga or ancestral image of the Okperi spokesman, who then kills him. The resulting war is crushed by the British District Officer, Winterbottom, who rules in favor of the Okperi. (The choice of this name for him is humorous, as it appears to be a euphemism for "ashy buttocks," the undignified epithet hurled at the British in Things Fall Apart.)

Winterbottom is a chief foil for Ezuelu, as he is presented as colonial governor with superior sensitivity and certainly common sense. After the war, he breaks all the guns in Umuaro, and becomes known by an epithet that evokes this act. Winterbottom is also an idealist, however, who strongly believes in the mission of British colonialism. He had been promoted to Captain in the British campaign against the Germans in Cameroon in 1916, and he has become used to the Nigerian climate, although it often makes him sick. He is one of five male British officials in the area, the others being Tony Clarke, Roberts, Wade, and Wright. There is also the dedicated and severe missionary Dr. Mary Savage, who is at first secretly courted by Winterbottom and later marries him, and the Nigerian Anglican preacher John Goodcountry, who takes advantage of Umuaro's yam crisis to gain converts.

Clarke is Winterbottom's assistant and a replacement for "Poor John Macmillan" who has "died from cerebral malaria." Wright oversees the building of the road with little more humanity than a Simon Legree — he routinely beats the workers (his victims include Ezuelu's son Obika), and does not pay them, and Clarke sticks up for him by failing to investigate reports of abuse and then denying that they have happened in his reports. Less intelligent characters like Wright are more likely to use demeaning epithets for the Africans. Wade is a slightly sketched character who assists Clarke. He steals the coin from a sacrifice displayed on the side of the road, causing even Clarke to feel alarmed at the desecration. That Achebe sees important distinctions in quality and depth of character among these different supposed puppets of colonialism indicates that he is not writing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) in reverse, as some critics have maintained.

Significant relations of Ezuelu are his four sons Obika, the second son and heir apparent, Oduche, the lesser son sent to the Christian school, and Edogo, the oldest son. Obika drinks heavily, often with his friend Ofoedu, who is "never absent from the scene of a fight." He defends his half-sister, Akueke, after she is battered by her husband by humiliating and almost killing the batterer. He has a rash temperament, and is beaten for his insolence by Wright when he goes to work on the road. Yet his relationship with his wife, Okuata (a woman with the same name as Ezuelu's late wife) is sensitive and caring. He dies of a fever during a festival, contributing to the suffering thatbrings on Ezuelu's defeat and madness. Oduche's overzealous adherence to the literal rule of the Christian faith is comically dealt with (described above). Ezuelu has two wives, Matefi, the senior one, and Ugoye, the younger one; his first wife, Okuata, has died three years prior to the time of the novel and is the mother of daughters Adeze and Okueke, and the eldest son Edogo, who lives in a compound tangential to the father's house. Matefi's children are Obika and Ojiugo; Ugoye's are Obiageli and Nwafo, who has suffered from convulsions at night but has been cured by a sacred image or okposi. These children are young enough to be friends with, tease, and tell stories to Akueke's daughter Nkechi. Amoge is the wife of Edogo, whose first child has died and whose second one has turned very sickly. Ezuelu also has a younger brother Okeke Onenyi, who speaks up to ensure her safety when it appears that the battered Akueke's husband wants her back.

Ezuelu's best friend is Okbuefi Akuebue, who is of the same age group and one of few "whose words gain[ed] entrance into Ezuelu's ear," and he can even tell Ezeulu he is wrong. They have wonderful dryly witty dialogues when not speaking about totally serious subjects, and they take snuff together. Akuebue goes to see the priest after Obika has been whipped, and with Edogo the two discuss the matter, Edogo and Akuebue arguing that the son has been badly treated, while Ezuelu attributes the trouble to Obika's fondness for palm wine and his ne'er do well friend Ofoedu.

There are also numerous citizens of Umuaro, who give advice, debate precedents, or outright disagree with Ezuelu. These are the very rich Nwaka, who has five wives; the foul-mouthed warmonger Akukelia, killed after he desecrates the Okperi man's household god; and Egonwanne, one of the oldest men in the village, who also counsels war with the Okperi. Another vividly drawn character is Moses Unachukwu, a Christian carpenter who although much older than the young men who work on the road, knows English well and serves as the interpreter between them and Wright, at one point preventing Obika from attacking him. Nweke Ukpaka is a witty road worker who actually fans the flames for this fight by his irreverent jokes. Yet he defends keeping the carpenter around (despite his age) because of his knowledge of English and the white man. Another man supports this decision, citing the importance of asking the white man why they have not been paid for working on the road. The most important gathering of the citizens occurs when they try to persuade Ezulu to hurry up and eat the yams; the powerful Nwaka is omitted from the ten-man delegation to appease Ezuelu, and other dignitaries, including Ezekwesili, Egonwanne, Anichebe Udeozo, Onnenyi Nnanyelugo, and Ofoka try to persuade him to change his mind. Each of these characters is vividly drawn and given his own approach and style of speaking.

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