Optimism and Pessimism in "Civil Peace"

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1630

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.

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‘‘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 and then "collapse[d] into near-madness in an instant.’’ When Jonathan's neighbors come over to sympathize with his loss, Jonathan displays composure. He has neither the inclination, nor the time, to share their regret. Significantly, as they are speaking their words of commiseration, Jonathan has mentally and physically already moved on. " 'I count it as nothing,' he told his sympathizers, his eyes on the rope he was tying.’’ His eyes are fixed on the future—the rope that represents the earnings that will come his way through his hard work and that of his family. Also significantly, Jonathan imputes no blame on his neighbors or manifests any bitterness toward them for not coming to the aid of his family. The story closes with Jonathan's oft-repeated expression of hope: "Nothing puzzles God.''

Despite the many notes of optimism that ring throughout the story, a darker undercurrent runs through it, which is discernible from the very first paragraph. When the narration enumerates Jonathan' s most important blessings as the lives of three of his four children, no regret for the little boy who was lost is evident. In the second paragraph, the narrative style turns even grimmer as the boy is obliquely compared to the bicycle, which Jonathan buried during the war ''in the little clearing in the bush where the dead of the camp, including his own youngest son, were buried.’’ After the war had ended, the bicycle is metaphorically and physically brought back from the dead, becoming a ‘‘miracle," but the boy is never mentioned again. Another dark note is tacitly raised by the Iwegbu children's mango-selling business. They collect the fruit near the military cemetery, and with this minor detail, the narration implies that any present success of Nigeria will be based only upon the deaths of those who suffered during the war.

Similarly, while Jonathan downplays the psychological effect of the thieves' visit, the menace posed by this band alludes to the dangers inherent in contemporary Nigerian society. The house is hardly a miracle anymore, for behind "its rickety old door [that] could have fallen down,’’ Jonathan and his family can find no true safety. The thieves represent modern devices of carnage. They are armed with automatic weapons that ‘‘rang through the sky.’’ Their leader's voice carries ‘‘like a lone shot in the sky.’’ They make threats to enter the house if they don't get the money they demand. To keep them out, Jonathan is forced to swear on the lives of his wife and children, his "inestimable blessings,’’ that he only has twenty pounds. With this declaration, Jonathan shows the close linkage between life and death in post-civil war Nigeria.

Jonathan also explains to his neighbors why he does not care about the loss of his ''egg-rasher'' payment. As he points out, he did not' 'depend on it last week'' and instead relied on his own labor to rebuild his life. However, the words that he uses to express the insignificance of this loss actually shows that Jonathan—and Nigerians like him—have experienced terrible losses solely because of the war. He compares the "egg-rasher" to ‘‘other things that went with the war.’’ But the reader knows that Nigerians lost precious, irreplaceable possessions in the war: children, homes, the ability to earn a living, a sense of security and safety. Therefore, despite Jonathan's disavowal, the egg-rasher must be a serious loss. ‘‘I say, let egg-rasher perish in the flames! Let it go where everything else has gone,’’ Jonathan declares, but likening the theft of the money to its immolation in fire acknowledges that the war has actually brought about useless, devastating destruction, the kind that cannot be so easily forgotten or mended. G. D. Killam points out the discrepancy between what Jonathan claims to feel and what he must be feeling in The Writings of Chinua Achebe: "And though he says that he can accept his losses in peacetime as he has accepted those in war . . . there is really faint consolation for him and little to distinguish 'civil peace' from civil war.’’

The words of the leader of the thieves also supports Killam's assertion. ‘‘Trouble done finish,’’ the leader tells Jonathan. ‘‘War done finish. ... No Civil War again. This time na Civil Peace. No be so?’’ Jonathan and his family lost almost everything during the civil war. Now, when the war is over and the country should be at peace, they once again lose their most valuable possessions. The implication seems to be that there is really little difference in Nigeria during the civil war and after the civil war. In both times, lawlessness prevails with little hope for substantial improvement.

That a reader can find both optimistic and pessimistic, both earnest and cynical, messages within the text of a story as brief as ''Civil Peace'' should come as little surprise. The instability of a post-war period may easily engender ambiguity within all aspects of society and generate vastly different responses from those who live through it. Jonathan Iwegbu and the energetic hope with which he approaches the reconstruction of his life, combined with the undercurrent of insecurity inherent in Nigeria, represent a wide gamut of that country's experience. In a 1969 interview, Achebe declared, ‘‘I believe it's impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest." "Civil Peace’’ is Achebe's protest against the anguish the Nigerian civil war has brought and his message of brighter hopes for the future.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on ‘‘Civil Peace,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Roles of the Story and Story Teller in Society

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1719

At first blush, Achebe's short story ‘‘Civil Peace’’ appears to be a sad tale of one man's failure to cash in on the meager rewards of post-civil war Nigeria. Jonathan's windfall of twenty Nigerian pounds is taken from him in a midnight scene filled with portents of violence and bloodshed. But, if the reader examines Achebe's own words about the storyteller's responsibility in society, ‘‘Civil Peace’’ can be construed as a story that teaches its readers about survival and about the merits of a never-say-die attitude.

In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, aired in January 1994 on the Canadian Broadcasting System's show Writers and Company and later reprinted in The Malahat Review, Achebe talked about the writer's role:

I don't think the world needs to be told stories of despair; there is enough despair as it is without anyone adding to it. If we have any role at all, I think it's the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don't just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.

As with many of his stories, Achebe presents ‘‘Civil Peace’’ in the form of fable or a traditional tale—a story that teaches a lesson and culminates in a moral. In his interview with Wachtel, Achebe noted that he grew up fascinated with the tales of the Ibo, Achebe's tribe of origin in Nigeria, and remembers choosing to listen to the Ibo storytellers even while being reared as a Christian to reject many of the indigenous ways of his ancestors. Like a traditional tale, ''Civil Peace'' is told in the third person, and Achebe tells readers little about his main character except the information critical to the telling of the tale. This makes for a lean and clear account proceeding directly to the message Achebe wishes to deliver, the importance of making right choices in the face of challenges. ''I think good stories attract us and good stories are also moral stories ... and I think there is something in us which impels us towards good stories,’’ said Achebe.

The tone Achebe uses for his story of Jonathan and his experiences after the civil war between Nigeria and the state of Biafra, which declared its independence in 1967, is that of a man who understands the limitations of his position but seeks to function as successfully as he can within those limitations. Jonathan never complains but is cautious and careful in his dealings and always looks toward what he has been able to save from the years of bloody conflict in which hundreds of thousands of his countrymen have died. This is not a man who is blind to the great tragedy around him, so whatever he has gives him strength to push on.

At the same time, Jonathan does not operate with the blind optimism of the philosopher Pangloss, a character in Voltaire's play Candide who embraces the attitude that he lives in ''the best of possible worlds,’’ despite the numerous misfortunes and calamities that befall him. The greeting of the day after the civil war, ‘‘Happy survival,’’ is Jonathan's doctrine, indicating his willingness to surmount almost any calamity with endurance and hard work. As well, this greeting makes clear that Jonathan understands the circumstances in which he and his neighbors find themselves.

Achebe presents Jonathan immediately as a confidently resourceful man, despite the loss of one of his four children, ready to put his family's life back together again. Instead of fighting with the soldier for his bicycle, Jonathan ''suspecting that he might be amenable to influence,’’ gives the soldier money in exchange for the bicycle. Even though this costs him money that was meant for his family's immediate provisions, Jonathan's quick thinking and pragmatism pays off in the end because he is able to use the bicycle a year later to make money. In fact, Achebe uses this scene to illustrate a moment of post-war rebirth: after burying the bicycle to prevent any further challenges to its ownership, Jonathan unearths it, giving the valuable machine a new and lucrative life as a taxi.

Jonathan sees any good fortune that comes his way as a miracle, a gift from God. In fact, his response to much of what happens in the story— both good and bad—is to say in amazement "nothing puzzles God.’’ But these are not the words of a man giving in to circumstance; rather the phrase echoes Achebe's belief that the world is not meant to be perfect, but a work in progress, with humanity's participation. The Ibo people have a different notion of creation than do most Western societies. In his interview with Wachtel, Achebe acknowledged that, in the Ibo view, ‘‘God is constantly having a conversation with humanity on how to improve the environment. It was not finished in six days; we have a role to play.’’ He adds that the Ibo do not struggle against the fact of imperfection, but believe that it is their duty to make the world a better place through their work. Evil is to be expected and recognized—this is the only way to proceed in the world.

Readers who come to ''Civil Peace'' without at least a brief acquaintance with Achebe's ideas about the roles of writing and writers in the development of a nation and its people might find themselves confused. Why doesn't Jonathan fight the injustice occurring amid the breakdown of civil society? Why doesn't he fight off the criminal gang at his door? Why isn't he angry that his neighbors, as well as the police, are so unresponsive to his cries for help? But in the Ibo setting, Jonathan's responses to the events around him are perfectly reasonable. A close examination of those characters in the story who do call out for revenge or expect assistance against wrongdoers makes clear that those who recognize the power of evil and, instead of ranting against it, move toward a practical solution, are the most successful. For example, Jonathan recounts the story of a man who received his post-war ex gratia payment (or ''egg-rasher'' payment, as ''few could manage its proper official name’’), only to have it stolen almost immediately. The unlucky man's response was to ‘‘collapse into near-madness,’’ a reaction that the unsympathetic surrounding crowd, as well as Jonathan, thinks unnecessary and unproductive. Jonathan makes sure that when he receives his payment, it is deposited into his pocket and protected by his hand.

Nevertheless, despite his precautions, Jonathan later loses the money to a gang that robs him at his house. He calls out to his neighbors and to the police for help, but soon realizes that the situation's outcome is entirely up to him. Jonathan is upset but practical in his response: ''What is egg-rasher? Did I depend on it last week?... Nothing puzzles God.'' The morning after the robbery, his family is back to their usual activities, trying to survive in the harsh post-war economy, as the egg-rasher was no greater than ‘‘the other things that went with the war,’’ according to Jonathan. Achebe's words are echoed here: the world is a progressive effort, and man's job is to work with God to make it a better place. Crying over the lost money would not bring it back, but getting on with the day's efforts would soon bring more wealth to his family.

Jonathan, with his practicality, is also contrasted to his neighbors, who insist on endlessly waiting at the Coal Corporation, expecting to be hired back to their pre-war jobs. Jonathan checks back with the company a few times, just in case work does become available, but after a period he decides that what he has now is far better than what could be at the mining company. He takes matters into his own hands and ''faced his palm wine bar'' and his family's other entrepreneurial efforts. While he could have given in to anger at not getting his old job back, he believes that a successful person cannot rely on capricious events.

In Charles H. Rowell's 1989 interview with Achebe, published in Conversations With Chinua Achebe, the author stressed the educational responsibility of his fellow African writers. ''The story of today has to do with raising the standards of education of the country, you see,’’ remarked Achebe. This sentiment is a guiding force for Jonathan's actions in ‘‘Civil Peace.’’ To have Jonathan violently strike out against those who do him harm— whether it is the government of the army or a group of thieves—would run counter to Achebe's understanding of the power of writing and storytelling. Achebe feels a great responsibility in the telling of his tales and expects his readers to see the morality in his protagonists' actions and decisions. To allow Jonathan the possible satisfaction of reprisal, in Achebe's mind, would be negligent and in blatant disregard of the influence a storyteller traditionally holds in the Nigerian and Ibo societies. Speaking of his readers, Achebe commented to Rowell, ''They are not expecting frivolity. They are expecting literature to say something important to help them in their struggle with life.’’

Achebe places Jonathan in the midst of this struggle—the same one faced by many of his fellow Nigerians after the Biafran civil war. After a war, when the rules of civil society have been bent and broken, each person must daily make decisions that impact the survival of his or her family. The temptation to join others who simply wait around for help, to fall to larcenous behavior, or to become bitter at the sight of so much unpunished wrongdoing, can be especially great. In ‘‘Civil Peace,’’ Achebe celebrates the uncelebrated heroes of a war, the ones who come back to their homes and try to pick up the pieces of a shattered nation, one small affirmative act at a time.

Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on ‘‘Civil Peace,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer.

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