Dead Men’s Path Summary
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“Dead Men’s Path,” a short story by Chinua Achebe, begins in the year 1949, with Michael Obi, who has just been appointed headmaster of Ndume Central School. He was educated to be progressive, and he has been brought in by the mission to change the way things are done at the school. Through a conversation with his wife, Nancy, the reader learns that both she and Michael are looking forward to his promotion. She is eager to live in a more modern environment, with a modern garden.
She envisions herself rising with her husband. As wife of the headmaster, she fancies herself as a queen, and looks forward to the admiration and envy of the wives of other professors at the school. There is just one problem with her plan—Michael’s colleagues are young. They are not married. There are no wives to be jealous of her. While Nancy is not enthused by this information, Michael is. He tells Nancy that without wives, the professors will be able to devote more of their time to their work and the school.
Michael falls silent, withdrawing into himself, and when Nancy asks him what he is thinking, he says that he is ruminating over what an incredible opportunity this is for them. He plans to show the others at Ndume Central School how a school ought to be run.
Together, they work to achieve their goals. Michael insists on higher standards of teaching, as well as higher aesthetic standards, relying on Nancy’s input and help with the gardens and grounds. One night, Michael is frustrated to see an elderly woman walk through a flower bed. He inspects the garden and discovers there is a path from the village to the bush, through the school’s compound.
He asks another teacher about the path and learns that it connects the villagers’ temple to their burial grounds. He learns also that there was an argument the last time the school tried to close the path, but Michael is determined that it not cut through school grounds. He is worried that the Government Education Officer, on his visit next week, will think poorly of the school’s progress. He comments that the villagers might hold pagan rituals in a schoolroom. With sticks and barbed wire, the path is blocked.
A priest comes to see him three days later. The priest tells him the path must be open because not only do the villagers’ ancestors travel on the path, but that it is also the path by which the spirits of those about to be born travel to the village.
Michael’s response is to say that the purpose of the school is to get rid of such beliefs. “Dead men do not require footpaths,” he says. He adds that the school will teach children to laugh at such ideas as the priest holds. Michael suggests that a new path be constructed, and offers to have his students help build it. This new path would go around the school compound, not through it.
When a young woman dies in childbirth in the village, a diviner determines that large sacrifices must be made to appease the ancestors who cannot use the footpath. Michael discovers that the barriers have been pulled down along with a school building, and the gardens destroyed.
The school is in a state when the Education Officer arrives, who blames the trouble between the village and the school on the latter’s overzealous headmaster.
Chinua Achebe’s works often explore the aftereffects of European influence on Nigeria, the country he is from. In Dead Men’s Path, Michael and Nancy both use Christian names. In fact, the reader does not know if they have other names, or what they are. Achebe informs the reader early on that both of them value modernity. Michael is employed by a mission—it is presumed that this is a Christian mission.
Upon arriving at Ndume Central School, he decides to block the footpath used by the villagers. He later offers a compromise, but not until the priest stands up to him. He could have approached the villagers with a compromise first, and perhaps they would not have reacted by destroying the gardens and grounds to make a sacrifice.
Both Michael and Nancy are concerned with what others think of them. Nancy wants to be envied, and Michael wants the approval of the Government Education Officer. Both of them are denied these good opinions, by circumstance in Nancy’s case and by his own actions in Michael Obi’s case.
Chinua Achebe is known for his novels, short stories, and essays. Some of his notable works include Things Fall Apart and A Man of the People. In a two-and-a-half page story, Chinua Achebe compares Christianity and pagan belief, European and Nigerian customs, and tradition and modernity.
“Dead Men’s Path” enacts in miniature one of the central themes of Achebe’s novels—the clash between modern European ideas and traditional African values, progressive international standards and deeply rooted local custom. The story’s protagonist, Michael Obi, is a well-educated forward-thinking idealist with a passion for “modern methods.” Quite intelligent and undoubtedly dedicated to education, Obi is more comfortable in abstract thought than in facing the complexities of real life. He doesn’t notice unspoken feelings; for example, his wife’s considerable disappointment upon learning that the other teachers are all unmarried. His view of the world is rational and therefore incapable of fully understanding the parts of life ruled by emotion, intuition, or custom. Obi looks down on the older headmasters of the Mission schools. Note how Achebe subtly undercuts Obi in the opening paragraphs. Only twenty-six, the newly appointed headmaster appears much older with his “stoop-shouldered” posture and “frail” build.
Michael Obi’s name demonstrates his divided heritage. Michael is a Christian baptismal name of European heritage. (Remember Obi works for “Mission” schools—as did Achebe’s father, who was a devout Christian.) Obi, by contrast, is an African name. His name itself embodies the cultural conflict he is about to enter.