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Followers of the Igbo tribe have a strong belief that the spirits of the dead ancestors observe their actions and behavior. This statement justifies the moral of Chinua Achebe’s short story that describes the tension between the newly appointed headmaster Michael Obi, who has “passion for modern methods” and the villagers, who “follow the practices of their ancestors” in an effort to control natural calamities, and turn aside the wrath of fate. The story’s rising action portrays the cultural conflict, when Obi personifies an arrogant and ignorant protagonist of the values of the modern British colonialism. In this respect, the author indirectly characterizes the headmaster’s motivation and behavior through his disregard of the tribe’s traditions, which are represented with an ancient path. The path is a symbolic object whose attributing meaning underlines the literal meaning of acknowledgment and valuing of the ancestors’ heritage. Therefore, the allegorical story reveals destructive consequences of the cultural clash as a result of the individual’s self-worth overestimation above the tribe’s traditional values.
The author uses the elements of characternym that personify the headmaster’s personality and physical traits through description of his looks with the main focus on his “deep-set eyes”, which give “them an extraordinary power of penetration”. Furthermore, the author describes the headmaster as a product of the British Colony’s enrollment, a flat character whose hubris is reflected through “his condemnation of these older and often less educated ones”. In this respect, such overestimation of Obi’s competence became his motivation in turning the school compound “into the place of beauty”. The headmaster’s rise in the career, encouraged his wife Nancy to become “completely infected” with his protagonist views to the modern colonialism beliefs, and inspired her to become “the queen of school” .
Thereby, Obi’s colonialism values, loss of cultural relativism, and desire of becoming an important figure in the teaching environment resulted in the abrupt turn of the events owing to his disregard of the importance of the footpath to the villagers’ ancient traditions.
The headmaster’s egocentrism and arrogant decision of closing the path led to foreshadowing of reverse circumstances for denying the wisdom behind the traditions. For the purpose of describing the story’s climax, the author uses unrelated symbolic objects, in order to unite its context. In this respect, the path is an allegoric symbol, which represents the relationship between the villagers whose “whole life depends on it”, and the “dead relatives”, who “depart by it”. For Obi the path symbolizes an archetype of unwanted burden, which represents “pagan rituals” and beliefs that his modern, educational methods of Western values “eradicate” (228-229). Furthermore, the author describes the dialogue between Obi and the Priest as a rising action, which becomes a peripety of the cultural conflict.
Obi’s involvement around the nature of modern believes and his disregard of the path’s importance, proved the veracious of the controversy of the traditional customs, and “prescribed heavy sacrifices to propitiate ancestors”. The author emphasizes the importance of valuing traditions as an enveloping action of the story. Furthermore, perinatal mortality of the young woman in the village is the exposition of the story, which led to the climax of the cultural conflict when protagonists of the ancient traditions ruined Obi’s modernized work. In this respect, the author gives the reader an opportunity of sudden realization of how arrogant ignorance can result into reverse circumstances. The story’s setting is a microcosm of cherishing and valuing of the traditions in the light of the story’s open resolution, which concludes the peripety of the cultural clash by the Government Education Officer’s “nasty report”. Therefore, the story teaches the reader to respect the ancient traditions, and unconditionally accept the controversial wisdom behind them.
The underlying meaning of the short story’s context reveals that individual’s disregard to the cultural relativism that creates a tension between the protagonists and antagonists of the ancient traditions, and can lead to the peripety of the misfortunes. Achebe’s highly symbolic, didactic story teaches the believers of the modern values to respect general intededness of the unique oral heritage of the ancestors.