What is the moral of "Dead Men's Path"?

Expert Answers

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

Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Men’s Path” teaches that actions must be driven by mutual respect for others and not by selfish desires or conceit.

Achebe shows what happens when arrogance clouds one’s judgement. Michael Obi, from the start, intends to civilize the “unprogressive school” by condemning the old ways. He has two goals: to educate with high standards and to make the school grounds beautiful. In accomplishing his goals, however, Michael shows no respect for the customs of the older generations, and instead, he openly mocks and degrades them. He has a very narrow vision, believing that anything modern is better than any old idea. He and his wife Nancy prioritize their own beliefs and reputations over anything else. For instance, Nancy envisions herself as “the queen of the school,” one who is revered for setting “the fashion in everything.” Michael, although he does wish to educate the children, is more intent on proving that he knows best “how a school should be run.” In their zeal, the pair lose sight of the mission to teach, and instead wish to show off.

Michael’s arrogance and lack of respect continue to grow as he complains that a path from the village runs through the school gardens to an ancestral burial ground. Although a teacher and the village priest attempt to educate Michael on the importance of keeping the path open, Michael closes it and refuses to acknowledge the disrespect of his act. “We cannot allow people to make a highway of our school compound.” Furthermore, Michael tells the priest it is his purpose to erase the old ways from the children’s minds. He is adamant that the children will mock the idea that the path is traveled by the newly dead who are leaving, ancestors who are coming to visit the village, and children who are about to be born. He is unwilling to accept a tradition he does not understand, and his hubristic visions cloud his judgement.

Michael is unable to realize that different ideas and cultures can co-exist, as long as there is mutual respect. Not only does he mock tradition, but he also reveals his ignorance of it when he suggests they build another path. The priest tries to teach him: “let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch.” Michael could be successful in his vision for the school if he accepts that others have the same rights he does to an opinion. He must respect their ways while furthering his own ideas. The priest’s words go unheeded, however, as Michael is unable to let go of his own hubris.

Two days later a young woman dies in childbirth and the villagers, who feel they must appease the ancestors who are insulted by the closed path, tear up the garden. Michael’s school is inspected by the supervisor who is unhappy with the grounds. He tells Michael his “misguided zeal” has created a “tribal-war situation.” Michael’s arrogance and ignorance have sealed his fate.

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

In Chinua Achebe's short story, Michael Obi attempts to modernize the Ndume School and turn it into a European-style learning institution. The energetic and rigid headmaster attempts to reform the traditional school and begins by blocking the villagers' ancestral footpath, which runs through the school's grounds. When the local priest informs Michael Obi of the footpath's traditional and spiritual significance, Obi dismisses the priest's concerns and declares that their beliefs are superstitious. Two days later, a young woman dies giving birth, and the villagers believe it is because the footpath had been blocked. The following morning, Michael Obi awakens to discover that his beautiful flowers have been destroyed and one of the school buildings has been pulled down. That same day, a white Supervisor inspects Michael's school and writes a "nasty report," indicating that a "tribal-war-situation" is developing between the school and the village.

The moral of the story is that one should respect other cultures, customs, and traditions, regardless of personal beliefs or views. Achebe also illustrates that traditional customs and practices should not be suppressed by dominant cultures. Achebe suggests that differing cultures should peacefully coexist, instead of trying to eradicate and replace one another. Through Michael Obi's character, Achebe also implies that sympathy and perspective are more important attributes to have than personal zeal and determination.

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

The moral, or lesson of this story is about the importance of striking a balance in life, of aiming for moderation - which the main character, Michael Obie, emphatically does not do. The moral of the story is shown in his downfall.

Obie, an idealistic, enthusiastic young headmaster, allows his idealism to run away with him. He has grand visions of making his school a modern, exemplary, progressive institution and he does not have time for anything that he thinks runs counter to his vision. This arrogant attitude leads him into conflict with the villagers whom he regards as backward and superstitious, and he looks down on them instead of properly listening to them and trying to work with them. The priest who comes to see him points out the importance of toleration:

What I always say is: let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch.

In other words, people should allow different ways and customs to exist side by side - which Obie is not prepared to do. He does not want to let the villagers use a path that is sacred to their beliefs, as it cuts across the new school grounds that he has designed. The villagers, rebuffed, take their revenge by destroying the grounds. In the face of this open conflict, Obie's superior dismisses him from his job for his 'misguided zeal' which has led to such problems in the local community.

Obie, then, is punished for his hubris, his 'misguided zeal'. There was nothing wrong with him wanting to improve his school, but he should have tried to co-operate with those whose views differed from his own, instead of forcefully implementing his own ideas over and above everyone else's.  

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

In the story "Dead Men's Path," what is the moral?

A moral is a lesson that can be taken from a piece of literature.  In the case of this story, the clear lesson is that BALANCE is of the utmost importance.  Mr. Obi, the headmaster of the school, had grand plans for his school; however, he insulted the villagers by cutting off their path, which was of great significance to them, as it was said to link the living to the dead.  Obi disrespected their opinions, dismissing them flippantly.  As a result, Obi's flower gardens and hedges and one building were destroyed by the villagers as revenge for insulting them AND their dead ancestors.  eNotes remarks that:

Ironically, the same energy and enthusiasm that raise Obi to the height of his career are also responsible for his stoop-shoulderedness and frailty, his premature aging, and his eventual tragic fall. His white supervisor's negative report on the “tribal-war situation developing between the school and the village” exposes the superficiality of Obi's idealism. The once acclaimed “pivotal teacher” is then laid low by his own “misguided zeal.” (eNotes)

Obi should have realized that the improvements to the school and the ancient path could have co-existed.  It did not have to be one or the other.

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
Last Updated on