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Optimism and Pessimism in "Civil Peace"

(Short Stories for Students)

Achebe's ‘‘Civil Peace’’ shares one man's experience in a tumultuous post-civil war period. Published in 1971, only a short time after the war in Nigeria ended, the story chronicles a perilous era at the same time that Nigerians were still undergoing the sort of trials that it describes. As in his other short stories focusing on the war, Achebe does not attempt to maintain an authorial sense of detachment. ‘‘Civil Peace’’ represents Achebe's ongoing social commitment to his culture, his people, and the fight against injustice.

‘‘Civil Peace’’ captures a spirit of optimism. After three years, the bloody, deadly war is finally over. Though the people of eastern Nigeria, the former Biafra, have lost their bid for independence, with the end of the conflict, they can refocus their attention. Now, instead of funneling their energies into either the war effort or merely getting by, the can work for better, more prosperous times. The story opens on an extremely positive note:

Jonathan Iwegbu counted himself extraordinarily lucky. 'Happy survival!' meant so much more to him than just a current fashion of greeting old friends in the first hazy days of peace. It went deep to his heart.

Jonathan is sensitive to his plight and that of other Biafrans. He knows he is lucky to have escaped the war with "five inestimable blessings— his head, his wife Maria's head and the heads of three out of their four children.’’

After the war ends, wherever Jonathan goes he encounters yet ‘‘another miracle waiting for him.’’ He digs up the bicycle that he buried for safekeeping during the war, and he is able to put it into service as a taxi after only a little greasing with palm oil. Thus, at a time when many people had few material possessions at their disposal or lacked the means to make a living, Jonathan is able to embark on building his new life. His occupational success, which he deems good fortune, is later contrasted to the occupational disarray that his former colleagues at the coal mine experience. Whereas, he has created the job of running his bar, many of them are unemployed and spend their days and weeks waiting outside the mining offices, hoping to hear news of its reopening.

Upon his first trip back to Enugu, another ‘‘monumental blessing’’ stands before Jonathan: his ‘‘little zinc house.’’ While other people might bemoan its loss of doors, windows, and five sheets off the roof, Jonathan brushes any concerns aside. Again, he chooses to spend his time and energy being grateful for what he still retains, not regretful for what he has lost because of the war. He also rationalizes any misfortune. For instance, with regard to his house, since he is one of the early returnees to Enugu, he is able to readily collect enough materials to repair it. Soon, the "overjoyed'' family is able to move back in. The house even becomes a "greater blessing'' as it allows Jonathan to open a bar, which turns out to be his primary source of income.

''Nothing puzzles God,'' is Jonathan's favorite saying to express his wonder as he encounters all of these miracles. Writes C. L. Innes in Chinua Achebe, ‘‘[f]or Jonathan, every small act of recovery—even the money earned by the hard work of his wife and himself is ex gratia, an act of grace bestowed upon the lucky by the unfathomable gods.’’ Indeed, when he receives his "egg-rasher" payment from the government, even after waiting in lines for five days, he compares the egg-rasher to a "windfall" and the day to Christmas. In his eyes, the twenty pounds is a gift from the government, not personal earnings. He thus denies the hard work that he performed in the past, which led him to possess the Biafran rebel money that he then exchanged for the ex-gratia payment.

Even after losing this enormous sum of money to the band of thieves, Jonathan does not forsake his optimistic outlook. In this respect, he stands in stark contrast to another man who lost his egg-rasher money...

(The entire section is 3,349 words.)