Literary Techniques

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Arrow of God can be viewed as instrumental in establishing Achebe's style for he extensively revised it ten years after its first publication. In it he refined techniques used in his earlier work Things Fall Apart. Bruce King sees Achebe's so-called "structural" revisions as refinements that unify the novel through the vision of the main character. According to other critics, the novel has also become less concerned with explaining Igbo culture to westerners. Yet vivid scenes that depict Igbo life and customs, especially those centering on marriage, the harvest, and healing, give the novel a marvelously immediate sense of place.

With the exception of some flashbacks and shifts of scene to the outpost of the British officials, the narrative follows a fairly straight chronological line. But throughout the fairly simple arrangement of plot and scene, the actions and reactions of the characters are put to the test by interpretations of individual characters and by the constant interplay of the sometimes conflicting, frequently limited, conventional wisdoms of both British and Igbo culture, their laws and their religions. All but the worst of the British characters are aware that their behavior toward the Africans has to be reasonable so as not to arouse undue reaction from the Igbo. Clarke is so worried about the repercussions of keeping Ezuelu in prison that he consults Winterbottom in the hospital when he is almost too ill to think. Winterbottom gives the answer that he must continue Ezuelu's sentence until he "learns to cooperate with the administration." Clarke is then greatly relieved, as much because he has the right wording for his report as that he has Winterbottom's approval.

The reader is constantly invited to evaluate the characters' choices. Ezuelu's political enemy, Nwaka, interprets his refusal to take the Warrant Chief position as owing to hereditary madness, even though he has in the past tried to smear Ezuelu as politically ambitious. Even here, however, the narrator interpolates his view that Nwaka's malicious statements often have a basis in truth, and offers the information that Ezuelu's mother has been given to mad fits, but they have been greatly assuaged by his father, "a powerful man with herbs." This insight foreshadows what turns out to be a real susceptibility for Ezuelu, whose many setbacks, isolation from his people, and consequent loss of power, keep him from saving himself from madness.

Ezuelu's refusal to eat the sacred yams in multiples causes extensive debate among the people that enlarges our view of his predicament, the predicament of the people, and the inevitable movement of history. The people point out precedents for change and flexibility, but Ezuelu refuses because he has received no sanctioning message from Ulu. His explanation that "the gods sometimes use us as a whip" does not persuade the men, but helps explain the title, and echoes his speculation slightly earlier in the novel that his own son Oduchi is "an arrow in the hand of Ulu." Ironically, it may be that Ezuelu himself is the arrow. Used not by Ulu but the Christian god, he conveniently makes way for the Christian solution to the problem of the unharvested yams.

The role of proverbs and the characters' use of them has been noted by several critics. African characters are more likely to cite proverbs from both religions and act on them. Oduche's ludicrous attempt to crush the python has its parallels in more serious appropriations, like the African Anglican priest Goodcountry's use of the yam crisis to win converts. Proverbs are used for consolation, justification for decisions, and persuasion in group meetings. Obika's death scene is full of...

(This entire section contains 913 words.)

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mostly cautionary proverbs, all in italics, and "he felt like two separate persons, one running above the other." They seem to suggest that advice for behavior has become so conflicting that no clear decisions can be made. The British are more likely to cite precedents, common sense reasoning, and the mission of colonialism to save the African as justification for their actions. Both groups of characters are concerned with historical precedent and such concern often seems to distinguish the more intelligent characters on both sides. Winterbottom has a certain integrity gained partly from his long experience in the region, however misguided and insensitive he can sometimes be. In the case of the people's rationalizations about Ezuelu at the end of the book, however, history seems misappropriated: "Their god had taken sides with them against this headstrong and ambitious priest and thus upheld the wisdom of their ancestors — that no man however great was greater than his people; that no one ever won judgment against his clan."

In addition to proverbs and other utterances of conventional wisdom, there is a sense created by Ezuelu that the particular lives played out by the characters are part of a longer continuum which ancestors can view from their abode in Ani-Mmo. This is buttressed by the author's use of irony and, gives a longer and broader view of the novel's action. This view helps to convince the non-African audience for Achebe's work that we ignore the human catastrophes, the achievements, and perhaps even the gods of Africans at our own peril. As the British officials debate the practical pros and cons of their decisions, or weigh them against their view of the "mission" of colonialism, and as Ezuelu deliberates about his allegiance to Ulu and the demands of his role vis a vis his people, the reader feels the need to evaluate actively all that goes on.

Social Concerns

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The clash between the civilization of the Igbo and the British bringing colonialism and their Christian religion to West Africa is reenacted in this novel through the perspective of Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu in Umuaro, a god who had originated from the need to fight the slave traders of neighboring Abame. A land dispute between the Okperi people and the Umuaro that results in a brief war is forcibly stopped by the British District Commissioner, Captain Winterbottom, and sets the stage for further British intrusion into Umuaro. The British masterplan for governing the Igbo, a plan with which Winterbottom, a seasoned colonial ruler, vehemently opposes because it invites exploitation and corruption, is to set up certain African leaders as British toadies. Conflict resolution, both British style and as the Igbo do it is thus a major concern, and it is often undermined by ill-conceived practices on both sides. The war starts because one of the delegates sent from Umuaro to resolve the dispute violates the ancestral shrine of an Okperi man by breaking his ikenga, or symbol of his ancestors. In retaliation the Okperi man murders the Umuaro delegate and the body is sent back with no explanation. It is this lack of mediation, not the murder itself, that precipitates the war. As the novel progresses, Ezeulu is imprisoned for refusing to take the position of Warrant Chief offered by Winterbottom at the behest of his superiors.

Colonialism is seen as a complex web that prevents even the best people from acting for the common good. Chapters in which the British officials confer with one another reveal that while they are not the worst of their type, racism and ignorant condescension more or less come with the territory. Their actions result in far more harm than they anticipate. Stuck in prison for his refusal to be a Warrant Chief during the time that he should have started eating one sacred yam per month to mark the time before the harvest, Ezeulu upon release refuses to eat them in multiples to catch up, and he thus incurs the enmity of his people and the demise of the worship of Ulu in favor of the Christian faith, so that he ironically becomes the chief martyr of Ulu.

Achebe is concerned with the toll taken on Igbo people by the supplanting of their old beliefs. A lesser son of Ezeulu, Oduchi, is chosen to go a Christian school more or less as a mole to keep his father informed. In a literal and misguided interpretation of scripture, he decides he must crush the head of one of the pythons who are sacred creatures to the Igbo. Straddling the fence between the two beliefs, his courage fails, and he locks the smaller of two possible pythons in a box so that it can die passively of suffocation. The dampened effort to crush the serpent results in a public display as the box starts to move rather like an enlarged Mexican jumping bean, and Ezeulu himself opens it with his spear revealing the abomination and dealing another blow to his reputation.

The building of a road between Umuaro and Okperi is another attempt by the British to bring "progress," and men from both villages are hired — or rather impressed into service — to work on it for low wages or none. A minor dispute results in not only racist epithets but also in the whipping of Ezeulu's most favored son, Obika, whose alcoholic tendencies may be in part a reaction to the incursions of colonialism.

The position of women within Igbo society is seen as compromised by polygamy — older wives often express jealousy of new ones — but worse possibilities occur because of the corruption of colonialism. One African elevated to a position of status by the British is said to take any woman he wants without paying the bride price. Within the Igbo culture, women are at least protected. Achebe is careful to note in the descriptions of most marriages between characters he cares about that genuine love exists between the husband and the favored wife, as in the tenderly drawn marriage between

Obika and Okuata. On the other hand, the wealthy, greedy Nwaka who opposes Ezeulu at the outset of the book has acquired five wives by the book's end.

Literary Precedents

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Joyce Cary's Mr. Johnson and Conrad's Heart of Darkness discussed at length below in relation to Things Fall Apart (1958) also apply here; the theme of road building and its connection to the British "mission" and destruction of the African find expression in Mr. Wright's enslavement of and brutality to the workers. There are of course other writers on Africa, both of African and European descent who try to give a realistic view of the clash of colonialism with the indigenous cultures of Africa, and the abuse by tyrants on both sides of the people under their control. His Nigerian contemporary, Wole Soyinka, is one of them, and he and Achebe are really the giants of present day Nigerian literary accomplishment. Amos Tutuola, whose first book The Palm-wine Drinkard Achebe has reviewed, may have aided Achebe's awareness of the resources of his own Igbo oral tradition.

Other writers recounting the debilitating effect of colonialism in Africa on both the perpetrators and the victims of it must include Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, and Nadine Gordimer. George Orwell, who exposed the problems of British colonialism in Myanmar (formerly Burma), also deserves mention.

The central figure of Ezuelu, his self-defeating efforts to remedy very real problems, and above all his stature as a tragic hero evoke Greek tragic heroes like Oedipus as other critics have noted: next to the mad Ezuelu, the supposedly healthy Winterbottom and his steady African ally John Goodcountry surely pale, simply because they have not felt or known the conflicting insights and pressures Ezeulu has.


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Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe, 1970, 1980.

Innes, Catherine L., and Bernth Lindfors, eds. Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, 1978.

Njoku, Benedict Chiaka. The Four Novels of Chinua Achebe, 1984.

Obeichina, Emanuel. Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel, 1975.

Ravenscroft, Arthur. Chinua Achebe, 1969, 1977.


Critical Essays


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