Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Men’s Path” is the story of a new headmaster’s attempt to modernize a school. It’s a popular short story for students.
“Dead Men’s Path” Analysis
This analysis starts with a summary then looks at themes and a question.
“Dead Men’s Path” Summary
Michael Obi, at only twenty-six, is appointed the new headmaster of Ndume Central School in Nigeria. The Mission authorities view him as an ideal candidate to run an unprogressive school, as he is young, has many modern ideas, and condemns the narrow views of the locals. He’s eager to take on the job.
His wife, Nancy, looks forward to her position as a trendsetter and the admired wife of the new headmaster. She also has a passion for modern methods, and envisions a beautiful garden for the school. She’s temporarily disappointed on hearing the other staff members don’t have wives, but she focuses on her husband’s prospects. He looks weak as he sits down, but says he looks forward to showing everyone how a school should be run.
Michael and Nancy work hard at the new school, focusing on the teaching standards and on beautifying the grounds.
One evening, Michael sees an old woman walk across the school grounds through a flower bed and hedges. He’s amazed that the teachers allow the villagers to use this trail. One of them tells him the path is important to the villagers; it connects their shrine to their burial grounds. They tried closing it off once, but there was an uproar over it.
Michael doesn’t see how that concerns the school. He decides to close it off. A Government Education Officer is coming soon for an inspection, and who knows what he might see if that path is in use. A makeshift fence with barbed wire is put up at each end.
A village priest, an old man with a cane, visits Michael three days later. He explains the path’s importance to the villagers—it’s viewed as a gateway for deaths, births, and visits from ancestors. Michael explains the school’s purpose is to do away with such ideas. He tells the priest to make another path around the school premises.
Two days later, a village woman dies in childbirth. It’s determined that their ancestors were insulted by the fence, and a sacrifice is needed. The school grounds are vandalized—the hedges torn up, the flowers trampled, and one of the buildings torn down.
A Government Education Officer comes to inspect the school. He writes a nasty report on its condition, and blames the new headmaster for a brewing tribal-war between the school and village.
“Dead Men’s Path” Theme: Culture Clash
The culture clash is set up clearly with the unprogressive school and village on one side, with their “pagan” beliefs, and the young headmaster and his wife with modern ideas on the other, who are Christians.
Michael is “outspoken in his condemnation of the narrow views of these older and often less-educated ones”, and wants to “show these people how a school should be run.” His wife wants everything to be “modern and delightful.”
The school, on the other hand, “was backward in every sense of the word”, with its lax teaching standards and untended grounds. Michael and Nancy immediately get to work on both. It’s reasonable to assume that the “high standard of teaching” Michael insists on doesn’t include anything positive about local beliefs. The grounds are tended beautifully.
The main source of cultural contention, is, of course, the path. It’s not frequently used, but that’s because it’s only used at important times—births and deaths by the villagers, and it’s believed to be used by their ancestors.
While the culture clash is unavoidable, it doesn’t have to be contentious or lead to any hostilities. The priest indicates this when he says, “. . . let the hawk perch, and let the eagle perch.” That is, they can both share the space without interfering with each other. It sounds like his version of the saying, “To each his own.” Michael is having none of this. He belittles the local’s beliefs and won’t consider any cooperation.
Michael’s purpose is to modernize this area, and we can easily imagine how some cooperation would have been conducive to this. There likely are people in the village, particularly younger ones, who are open to what he has to say. Being tactful and showing respect to the local customs would have appeased those with traditional beliefs. Michael would then have been free to introduce modern ideas to the others.
Why are we given details about Nancy?
The story includes some information about Michael’s wife, Nancy, that is seemingly unnecessary to the plot. It’s true that if these details were omitted, or even if Nancy’s character was removed, the story would work just fine. So why is it included?
One reason is that Nancy provides an interesting foil to Michael. They both face some adversity and disappointment, but they react very differently.
Nancy is looking forward to her new position as “the admired wife” and “the queen of the school”. As the headmaster’s wife, she will outrank the teacher’s wives, who will “envy her position” and look to her to “set the fashion in everything.” These hopes are dashed when she finds out the teacher’s are unmarried. Her social life and standing won’t be nearly what she thought they would be, and she is “downcast” and “skeptical about the new school” over this “little personal misfortune.”
However, Nancy’s disappointment lasts only a few minutes, after which, she focuses on “her husband’s happy prospects.” She reacts to this let down admirably, unselfishly focusing on the positive, and is ready to work to make the best of the situation.
We can contrast this with how Michael reacts to his difficulties. When he gets some resistance from the village priest, Michael doesn’t compromise at all. He can only think about what he wants. While his wife accepted her disappointment, Michael won’t accept any. The school has to be 100% “modern”, and with the path open, he would only be able to focus on the small part that isn’t. He’s not willing to make the best of the situation, as his wife did. (see more on Nancy, next section)
“Dead Men’s Path” Theme: Lack of Empathy
Michael shows a lack of empathy for Nancy and the villagers.
When Nancy asks about other wives, Michael responds seemingly without any regard for how she feels. There’s no indication he thinks about what the absence of other wives means for Nancy. Instead, he gives her the news, which is bad for her, with enthusiasm.
To make matters worse, he then calls their unmarried state “a good thing” because the men will be able to “give all their time and energy to the school.” He completely discounts the contribution Nancy is going to make, and implies he would be a better headmaster without her.
The actions that lead to Michael’s undoing also depend on a lack of empathy. First, he blocks the path on both ends with posts and barbed wire. Remember, the only person he has seen walking the path so far is an old woman. He doesn’t show any regard for her physically or spiritually.
Next, he shows a lack of empathy when he belittles the villager’s and flatly refuses to open the school grounds. He doesn’t consider the villager’s attachment to their long-held beliefs. Michael’s self-centeredness leads to his failure when the locals revolt against his rules.
In contrast, the priest shows empathy when he explains that they can co-exist peacefully. He doesn’t insult Michael’s modern methods or religion. He simply wants Michael to cease interfering with their traditions.
I hope this “Dead Men’s Path” analysis, summary and look at themes was helpful.