Editor's Choice

What does the path symbolize in “A Dead Man’s Path” by Chinua Achebe?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The path symbolizes both continuity and rupture in independent Nigeria. As the connection between past and future generations of Igbo people, the path represents the ongoing importance of traditional beliefs and practices. As the line passes through the headmaster's garden, it symbolizes the way that tradition cuts through the imposition of new, alien ways and ideas. Obi did not bother to talk to the people before taking action, and he planted imported species of flowers and shrubs.

The people's continued use of the path symbolizes their ongoing resistance to foreign ideas. Obi's increasingly rough and desperate measures to keep them out—even resorting to barbed wire—stands for the aggressive and dehumanizing aspects of the neocolonial aspects of the post-independence state; barbed wire is generally used to keep animals out of fields.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Man’s Path” portrays a cultural clash between a headmaster who wants to bring his school up to modern standards and the villagers who follow traditional animistic beliefs.  The headmaster Michael Obi wants to beautify the outside of the school as well as improve the educational standards. 

Neither Obi nor the villagers are willing to give in to change. Both believe that they are right. 

The villagers believed that there was an invisible path between the village’s burial ground and their worship area.  It went through the school yard.  Specifically, it went through the flower beds that the Michael Obi and his wife planted.  Of course, the headmaster was unaware of the dead man’s path. 

The dead man’s path was an imaginary line between the villagers' burial ground and their worship area.  The path symbolized the animistic beliefs of the villagers who believed in spirits and the importance of the passage of the spirit to their resting place in the burial ground. This was particularly important for the babies that died.  The traditions to these unsophisticated people were their lives and tribal culture. 

When the headmaster notices an old woman walking through the flower beds, he is incensed and mentions it to another teacher.  The teacher tries to warn him that this path is important to the people.  There had already been an incident concerning the path which the villagers won.

Choosing to ignore the fact the school serves the villagers, Obi places a barrier of heavy sticks and barbed wired preventing passage through the school yard by the villagers. The priest of the village comes to visit Obi and try to tell him  of the importance of the path.  Once again, the headmaster chooses to ignore the significance of the traditional path.

“What you say may be true,” replied the priest, “but we follow the practices of our fathers. If you reopen the path we shall have nothing to quarrel about. What I always say is: let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch.”

The headmaster disregards the words of the priest.

Unfortunately for the family and for the school master, a woman dies in childbirth.   According to the villagers beliefs, the child would be unable to go to the burial ground because the way was blocked by the school barriers. 

On the day the school was to be evaluated, Obi finds that his flower beds have been destroyed and even one of the school building torn down.  The supervisor wrote a bad review of the school’s grounds and the headmaster for not working with the village to settle the problem.  

A compromise would have been good on both the school master and the village.  From past history, the villagers were not going to give into not being able to use the established path.  It is important to learn from the past and to work within the situation that a person is given.  Obi should have respected the beliefs of the townspeople.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial