Themes and Meanings
As in his other novels, Achebe’s purpose in Arrow of God is partly educational. To this end, he carefully describes the three forces that were competing for authority in Nigeria during the 1920’s: the secular colonial government, the traditional religious structure of the villages, and the Christian churches. Ironically, Achebe shows that the colonial government was not as great a threat to the traditional Igbo life as was Christianity. The secular and religious authorities operate in parallel but separate structures, and Ezeulu’s refusal to become a warrant chief properly maintains this separation. Yet the Christian missionaries are a spiritual force directly opposed to Ezeulu’s power. In Arrow of God, Ezeulu’s ill-advised refusal to celebrate the Feast of the New Yam results in the triumph of Christianity in Umuaro, but the dramatic conversion in the novel represents Christianity’s gradual domination of spiritual life in Nigeria in the twentieth century. Achebe, who was reared as a Christian, shows that this religious conversion fragments Umuaro, for while Ulu was a communal creation of the clan, Christ calls to individuals.
Arrow of God also explores the psychology of power. Both Ezeulu and Winterbottom are driven by a need to control their worlds. Yet the novel shows that no man can successfully stand against the will of his people. In the end, the Umuaro model of communal authority applies more generally, and the novel suggests that an individual’s authority must, to some extent, be voluntarily invested in him by others.
In his other novels, Achebe’s central theme is the tragic destruction of an extraordinary individual by cultural forces beyond his control. In Arrow of God, Ezeulu is crushed by the cultural transformation that is an inevitable result of colonialization, but Ezeulu has also doomed himself by futilely trying to force life to follow his will.