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Ezeulu, the chief priest of Ulu, watches his authority slowly erode both from within and without. While the British, through Christianity and road building, try to solidify their rule over the Igbo, the people themselves, through petty rivalries, aid and abet them, as when Ezeulu's efforts to maintain peace with the Okperi are overridden by the militant and powerful Nwafo and the British come in and settle the dispute in favor of the Okperi. Yet colonialism has brought forces to bear that men on neither side have much control over. Ezeulu has learned how to deal amicably with Captain Winterbottom, but with advancing age and the onset of illness, this relatively benign Englishman delegates his duties increasingly to the less insightful Clarke and Wright who drink late into the night and make fun of him. Among other things, they ridicule Winterbottom for his scruples about sleeping with "native" women. On both sides shallower, amoral men are seen to take over for wiser, more circumspect older men. It seems to be no accident that Winterbottom becomes severely ill and requires hospitalization just before Ezeulu is arrested.

As he has done so powerfully in his earlier novel Things Fall Apart (1958), Achebe here shows how the conventional wisdom of both Igbo belief and British Christianity yield to the pressure of experience. Oduchi's cruelty to the python is a parody of Christian doctrine that has repercussions beyond what anyone expects. On the other hand, Ezeulu's use of this lesser son to be a mole in the Christian camp backfires because of Oduchi's unanticipated and single-minded zeal. Still, the character of Ezeulu on the whole shows a remarkable integrity (as does Captain Winterbottom's in a more limited way). His harshness in sticking to the literal rule in the eating of the yams is not occasioned by mere ego concerns, but by loyalty to Ulu and a profound desire to be steadfast when dissolution is all around him. The ultimate betrayal, in part manifested by the death of his favored son Obiko, by the same god he has served so steadfastly, occasions his madness at the end of the novel. The narrator considers the madness in some sense fortunate, as it provides Ezeulu the opportunity to live undisturbed by his people, most of whom have become Christians. The contrasting condition of the recuperated and unscathed Winterbottom, who has not intervened to help Ezuelu, reminds one of the toll exacted mainly from Africans by colonial rule.

The opportunism that may not have been always intentional on the part of Christian missionaries is a recurrent theme in Achebe's work that here finds expression in the efforts of John Goodcountry, the African Anglican Christian priest who seizes the opportunity of the delayed yam harvest to undermine Ulu and Ezeulu. When it appears the yams will rot in the ground unharvested while the people go hungry, Goodcountry offers Christian dispensation to those who ignore Ezeulu's command and harvest the yams anyway. Most do so. The book ends with the statement: "Thereafter any yam harvested in his fields was harvested in the name of the son." The statement ostensibly signals the ironic triumph of the Christian religion, but it also resounds with the idea of the betrayal of the father, and the tone of the ending seems echoed in Achebe's dedication of his book to his own father.

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