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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Chinua Achebe wrote his short story “Dead Men’s Path” while still an undergraduate student at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. The tale was first published in the University Herald in 1953, making it one of Achebe’s earliest published works, and was collected in Girls at War, and Other Stories in 1972. Like Achebe’s novels—including his most famous work, Things Fall Apart—“Dead Men’s Path” depicts the conflict between traditional African ways of life and the “modern” Christian ideas imposed by European colonizers.

The story can be analyzed in several different ways. The first is to look at the text as a metaphor for race relationships throughout all of colonized Africa and Nigeria in particular. If Michael Obi’s village and the Ndume Central School serve as a microcosm of the continent, then Achebe is saying that the purpose of colonization is to tear out the old religious spiritualism of a particular landscape and replace it with the hard-nosed academia Obi attempts to introduce. Colonization is not met without resistance, and Obi receives this first through a verbal warning and then through physical action. It is important to note Obi’s position as a native African in the employ of the colonizing force; he has authority over other Africans. In his position, he is both the product and the method of intellectual colonization.

Obi’s position can further be analyzed from a Marxist perspective. Marxist literary theory asks a reader to look at characters through value levels in terms of what they gain or lose economically or what they could help others to gain or lose. Obi is a middle-tier worker—he can only take orders from the authority of the school government, which is run by “the white Supervisor” and “the mission authorities.” Underneath Obi are the villagers, represented only by the old priest of Ani who tries to dissuade him from blocking access to the path.

Another point of analysis could be from the perspective of gender. Obi’s wife, Nancy, is introduced at the beginning of the story, but she has only a small role to play. Moreover, she fervently subscribes to all of her husband’s beliefs about modernization. As the wife of the headmaster, she hopes to win the admiration and envy of the other teachers’ wives and is disappointed to learn that the other teachers are unmarried. This briefly causes her to view the school with skepticism, but she abandons this independent line of thought when she sees her husband’s excitement about the job. Readers are then given a revealing description of Obi from Nancy’s perspective. From this point on, Obi remains the main focus, and the only other characters he speaks with are male, showing the locus of power and authority within the village. The only other women who are mentioned are the elderly woman whom Obi sees walking along the path, prompting Obi to construct his fence, and the young woman who dies in childbirth, prompting the other villagers to partially destroy the school and its gardens. In a sense, then, women do create change in this text—but not of their own volition.

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