Student Question

In "Dead Men's Path," how do repression and unconscious motives inform the main character's actions?

Quick answer:

Michael and Nancy are repressing important information from their superegos which put them in touch with their communal roots -- roots that they have turned against in favor of some newer ideal. The following question refers to "Lukundoo" by H. P. Lovecraft:

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There is some important context to consider before answering this question, namely some context on "repression" and the "unconscious."

The theory of psychological repression was first proposed by Sigmund Freud who, as part of his general theory of psychoanalysis, suggested that mind is composed of three parts -- the ego, the superego, and the id. The ego is the "conscious self," which is tasked with regulating the internal demands of the id, the part of the mind where our instinctual and sexual drives exist, and the superego, the part of the mind that has internalized societal mores and rules. Under this model, a person is confronted with internal conflicts that the brain resolves through repression -- the effort on the part of the person to forget painful or traumatic memories or evocations. While such traumas may be forgotten temporarily, they cannot be ridden from the mind altogether, as they exist in "energy-form," and thus, Freud believed, continue to exist in the "unconscious mind." 

Given this, we can attempt to understand some of the unconscious motives of Michael and Nancy -- the two characters in Dead Men's Path of whom we have psychological access. The first two sentences of the story tell us about some of Michael's conscious goals, namely that he was striving to become headmaster at Ndume Central School, which appears to be have been a long-term goal of his. He is appointed headmaster, and we learn that both he and his wife, Nancy, view this as an opportunity to transform the school into a modern institution. Modernity is symbolized in the story by Nancy's dream-garden, with the "...Beautiful hibiscus and allamanda hedges in brilliant red and yellow..." Michael and Nancy seem to relish in the thought that they could bring progressive change to an institution filled with "old and superannuated people." 

In the third paragraph, we're given access to Nancy's psyche and discover that upon reflecting upon her new status as the "admired wife of the young headmaster," she is stricken with anxiety at the prospect that there "might not be other wives" who would feel envious of her. Here we discover this anxiety is motivated by the desire to be admired or envied by other wives. This repressed emotion proceeds to color her perception of Michael after seeking reassurance for herself. She looked at him and he seemed "stoop-shouldered and... frail" as his "bodily strength seemed to have retired behind his deep-set eyes." This view of Michael reveals the possibility that he too is struggling with internal conflicts and repressing them in order to pursue his goal of modernizing the antiquated school system.

Later we learn that Michael's vision is incompatible with the beliefs of the local villagers who use an old path that runs through the school compound that, they believe, connects them with the deceased and the unborn. Michael expresses his disdain for this path in conversation with the village priest who is described as carrying "...a stout walking stick which he usually tapped on the floor, by way of emphasis, each time he made a new point in his argument." During their dispute, Michael speaks of a Government Education Officer referred to as the "white Supervisor," who, Michael believes, wouldn't approve of such antiquated belief systems. "Dead men do not require footpaths," he says.

In the conclusion of the story, we learn that the white Supervisor was, in fact, displeased with Michael and the direction he was taking the school, describing his modernist ideology as "misguided zeal." Thus we learn that Michael's blind pursuit of his ideal school had caused more conflict than it purported to resolve by upsetting the villagers. The irony in the fact that the white Supervisor branded Michael the religious zealot speaks to the possibility that, deep down, Michael holds these ancestral beliefs himself and is potentially repressing them. That would perhaps explain Nancy's initial momentary skepticism of the new school.

When one examines the language and the description throughout the story, it is clear that there is a contrast between the flowery, ideal vision of the new school and the dreary, antiquated traditions of the villagers, who are presented as "unprogressive" and "rank." One of our only physical descriptions of Michael, which comes at the beginning of the second page, reveals a worn-down, tired-looking person, and despite being twenty-six years old "looked thirty or more." The author intentionally uses this description and this kind of language to give us hints into the possibility that both Michael and Nancy are repressing important information from their superegos which put them in touch with their communal roots -- roots that they have turned against in favor of some newer ideal. On the morning the white Supervisor made her comments, after the beautiful flowers were trampled and the hedges torn down in an effort to propitiate the ancestors, Michael stands accused of the very thing he condemned the old school system of being.  

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