Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Written early during Chinua Achebe’s undergraduate days at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan and published in The University Herald in 1953, “Dead Men’s Path” is one of his earliest published short stories. Later collected in Girls at War, and Other Stories (1972), the story contains the germ of what became the major theme of his first three novels: the collision of Christianity and African traditional culture. He most closely explores the theme of culture collision and the tension and estrangement of mission-trained converts from traditional community life in his novels Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), and Arrow of God (1964).

Layered in irony, the essence of “Dead Men’s Path” is expressed in the last part of the priest’s admonition to Obi: “What I always say is: let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch.” Although Obi is fully aware of the cultural code of deference to age and status, he persists in his arrogance because of his newly acquired power and ignores the culture-specific code of existence—the world of dualities that permits two very different things to stand side by side.

To the priest of Ani, the footpath represents continuity; it is the village’s lifeline: “Our dead relatives depart by it and our ancestors visit us by it. But most importantly, it is the path of children coming in to be born.” To Obi, however, it merely epitomizes what he regards as the backwardness that he has sworn to eradicate through his “modern methods” program. The priest’s argument is simple: Two cultures can coexist, their differences notwithstanding, because there are no absolutes in the village’s...

(The entire section is 697 words.)