Dead Men's Path Themes

The two main themes in “Dead Men’s Path” are tradition versus Westernization, and Christianity and colonialism.

  • Tradition versus Westernization: Michael Obi, a young headmaster at a village school, attempts to suppress local traditions and impose Western reforms.
  • Christianity and colonialism: As the appointee of mission authorities, Obi represents the conversion to Christianity of African people by white colonizers.

Dead Men's Path Study Tools

Ask a question Start an essay


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Tradition versus Westernization

“Dead Men’s Path” by Chinua Achebe is a meditation on a common theme in the Nigerian author’s work: the tension between traditional Nigerian customs and the Western values imposed by European colonizers. The story “Dead Men’s Path” examines this theme in a humorous but realistic way, with a prideful young headmaster meeting his downfall due to his zeal for “modernization” and his scorn for the inhabitants of the village, particularly those he considers “superannuated,” or old-fashioned. The destruction of Michael Obi’s best-laid plans at the story’s conclusion suggests that shallow attempts to stamp out long-established ways of thinking and being are doomed to failure.

If Obi had wisely heeded the old priest of Ani’s injunction to “let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch”—that is, to live and let live—he would have avoided the villagers’ revenge and the school supervisor’s condemnation; it is Obi’s rigid adherence to his own narrow-minded “modern” views that causes his fall from grace. Achebe thus implies that the supposedly “backwards” locals in fact have more room in their worldview for difference and tolerance than does the supposedly enlightened headmaster, with his higher education and endorsement by the white colonial establishment. It is only because he refuses to allow the path to coexist with the school—or the sacred, traditional, and indigenous to coexist with the rationalist, modern, and colonialist—that the villagers take action against Obi and the Ndume Central School. Prior to the blocking of the path and the disregarding of the priest’s advice, there appears to have been no resistance from the local people to the presence of the school or its headmaster, suggesting that the villagers would have been content to live alongside them. But in refusing to grant the villagers the same courtesy and allow the path, and the channels of communication, to remain open, Obi takes a step too far. The result is disastrous for him, as well as wryly comic.

Christianity and Colonialism

The conflict between Christianity and indigenous non-Christian beliefs is explored in depth in this story. Michael Obi, who is appointed to his post by Christian “mission authorities,” also represents the history of forced conversion of indigenous African and other populations to Christianity by Western missionaries, a topic to which Achebe would return in his novel Things Fall Apart.

This idea comes to the fore during the story’s rising action. When Obi is offended by the sight of a local villager walking down a spiritually significant path that happens to cut through the grounds of the Ndume Central School, he decides to build a barrier in order to block the pathway, insisting that the school must not be turned into a “highway”—despite the fact that the path predates the school and has perhaps existed since time immemorial. His absolute intolerance to the idea of the path being used reflects his unwillingness to allow the “superannuated” and “backwards” traditional beliefs and practices of the local people to intrude upon the newly reformed bastion of “modern,” Western, presumably Christian thinking that is the school. This is, in turn, intolerable to the villagers, for whom the path serves as an important connection between a shrine and a burial ground, as well as an artery carrying the lifeblood of their religious traditions and cultural memory. As the priest of Ani explains to Obi:

The whole life of this village depends on it. Our dead relatives depart by it and our ancestors visit us by it. But most important, it is the path of children coming to be born . . .

The path thus connects past, present, and future; in cutting off access to it, Obi denies the villagers access to a meaningful relationship with all three. He smugly tells the priest,

The whole purpose of our school . . . is to eradicate just such beliefs as that. Dead men do not require footpaths. The whole idea is just fantastic. Our duty is to teach your children to laugh at such ideas.

In the end, however, it is Obi’s recently established, mission-approved authority that crumbles in the face of the villagers’ stalwart adherence to “the practices of [their] fathers.” This results not only in the villagers tearing down one of the school buildings but in their laying waste to Obi and his wife’s carefully crafted campus gardens. These gardens can be read as representing the imposition of a flimsy artificial order on the preexisting natural landscape, which ultimately—like the villagers’ belief system—reigns supreme, outlasting any attempts to force it to conform to designs imposed by outsiders.

The fact that Michael Obi is himself Nigerian, and that his campaign of modernization fails spectacularly, suggests that any power granted to African people by Christian European authorities is false and can be snatched away at a moment’s notice. This is confirmed when the white school supervisor, presumably also associated with the Christian mission, writes his scathing report on what he condescendingly terms a “tribal-war situation” resulting from the new headmaster’s “misguided zeal.” Ironically, it seems that Obi’s passion for Western modernity, and scorn for traditional beliefs, is too much for even the mission authorities who appointed him—though only because his attempt to suppress local customs has ended in chaos.

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