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The Main Themes in “Dead Men’s Path”


Various paths of presenting leading ideas can be implemented in literary writings. Understanding the themes discussed by the author and underlining the primary examples behind them is an exceptionally prominent topic of discussion. Chinua Achebe’s Dead Men’s Path offers a negative example of an authoritative figure’s disregard towards the community, outlining Michael Obi’s actions as irresponsible and damaging to the local indigenous culture. In this work, three main themes from Achebe’s work, such as education, past civilizations, and modernity, will be discussed, and particular examples for each topic will be presented.

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Education and Instructive Thinking

One of the most prominent subjects in the short story Dead Men’s Path regards education and the main character’s interpretation of its purposes. Michael Obi understands colonial education as a way of establishing specific ideas and presenting them as the only universal truths. The young educator is eager to propagate the Mission’s knowledge regardless of the villagers’ perceptions and needs. As such, the main character becomes the antagonist of this narrative by directly dismissing the natives’ opinions and desires, as well as their ancestral heritage. Even though the man’s colleagues, for example, other teachers, try to appeal to Obi, he still disregards their thoughts and continues to follow his personal ideology.

A fascinating example of the educator’s disposition towards the colonial views can be seen in his motion to prohibit indigenous habits and actions. The man restricts the use of the villagers’ ancestral path, as he believes that such activities might be seen as inappropriate by the government education officer. Obi states that “The whole purpose of our school, […] is to eradicate just such beliefs as that” (Achebe line 83-84). Such statements are especially harmful to the whole cultural identity of the native people, as they purposefully outline negative attitudes towards their beliefs. It is clear that the antagonist hopes to educate the villagers and alter their aboriginal views despite their own thoughts and preferences.

The main character’s behavior is especially detrimental to the villagers’ indigenous culture, beliefs, and overall well-being. Obi’s commitment to interfering with their ways of life and transforming them to being preferable to the Mission causes significant distress to the members of the community. Such actions further escalate the situation into a conflict between the people of the village and the school. The antagonist’s ignorance of the individuals’ perspectives provoked the inhabitants, generating his work’s destruction. As said by the priest, it would have been possible to avoid the obliteration of the building’s property if the villagers were allowed to continue with their lifestyle customs. Nevertheless, Obi decided against this option, following his own judgment and causing damage to the cultural identity and his work.

Cultural Ideas from the Past Perceived by Obi

The theme of education has a close connection to the indigenous culture presented in this work. Throughout the short story, Michael Obi openly despises the original beliefs and habits consistent with the villagers’ history. Examples of the antagonist’s disregard towards the town’s traditions can be seen in numerous actions, such as his conversation with the community priest. After disallowing the settlement members to use the ancestral path that is imperative to their lifestyle, the educator explains his views on traditions to the priest. Obi argues that “Our [school’s] duty is to teach your children to laugh at such ideas” (Achebe line 84-85) Altogether, the educator sees the indigenous ways of life as consequences of their derelict culture, which have to be eradicated and shaped according to the missions directives.

Obi’s discontent with the villagers’ ways of life is evident throughout the narrative. One of the most striking examples can be seen in his vivid reaction to the older woman using the ancestral path. The author depicted the headmaster as “scandalized to see an old woman n from the village hobble right across the compound” (Achebe line 47-48). The activity undertaken by one of the natives is particularly shocking for the educator as it directly contradicts his expectations of their behavior. His decision lies in the immediate prohibition of the pathway. Finally, Obi presumes that it is necessary to prohibit the natives from using the path as it will only lead to other paganistic rituals. All of these instances offer a clear view of the educator’s negative attitude towards the aboriginal people’s endeavors.

Disregarding the population’s beliefs has detrimental consequences for the headmaster and his future career development. The death of a woman two days after the path’s prohibition is seen by the village diviner as a punishment from angered ancestors. The community’s reply to outrageous violations from the antagonist is quite swift and severe, as they destroy all of the work previously conducted by Michael and his wife. Furthermore, these actions heavily impact the man’s future, as a highly negative report is provided by the white supervisor on the next day. Overall, the educator’s decisions were incredibly ignorant and disrespectful to the community in question, causing gruesome consequences for the headmaster.

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Modernity in the Vision of Headmaster Obi

Another fascinating topic described by the author pertains to academic advancements imposed on the indigenous society. The idea behind this theme is especially controversial, as it presents the conflict between providing additional knowledge to native cultures and keeping their heritage intact. It is essential to maintain the balance between suggesting new ideas and forcing a particular perspective on the individuals in question. In the short story discussed, the antagonist fails to consider the aboriginal culture’s representatives’ views and beliefs, thus endangering the fragile relationship between the white people from the Mission and the local community.

Obi’s aspirations to change the school’s overall structure are seen in his conversations with the other teachers. A fine example of the headmaster’s thoughts on modernity can be found in his reply to his colleague’s explanation of the footpath’s existence on the school grounds. Obi states that he does not understand how the natives’ way of life is connected with the building’s development. The antagonist explains that academic changes should be implemented regardless of the community’s thoughts and beliefs. As such, he prohibits using the footpath because it can negatively impact the education officer’s impression of the headmaster’s achievements in this area. In Obi’s vision, aboriginal habits can be dangerous for the school’s performance level, and allowing such practices is an absolute risk. Furthermore, Obi does not believe that it is possible to discuss these changes with the villagers, as he prohibits the use of the path by planting heavy defenses across this area. In his opinion, advancements do not require any input from the culture that is being educated, and the authorities should not attempt interacting with the community during the process of decision-making.

The headmaster’s solutions present a negative example of irresponsible leadership. Even though Obi was given a choice to peacefully resolve the conflict arising between the school and the local tribe, he disregarded the priest’s suggestion without any consideration of the community’s opinions. The man’s assumption that the Mission’s regulations are of higher priority than the indigenous population’s needs caused gruesome consequences for both the natives and the educator himself. By negating any possibility of discussion between him and the locals, he shattered their cultural identity and connection to their deceased relatives. Furthermore, he forced their outrage in the form of the school’s property destruction and the negative review received by the education officer. It is important to note that the evaluation stated the headmaster’s guilt in the destruction of the relationship between the local tribe and the school. This example states that the rules that Obi presumes are necessary were, in fact, shaped by him and not by the Mission authorities. It is possible that the education officer would have been more impressed at the sight of a balance between the education system and the indigenous population.


To conclude, three main themes presented in Dead Men’s Path by Achebe were described in detail. The stability between suggesting an idea to the local community and forcing it is crucial to maintain for any educator. Michael Obi’s actions are an exceptional instance of extremely irresponsible and ignorant decisions, which caused detrimental consequences to the tribe’s cultural identity. The headmaster’s actions shattered the fragile connection between the villagers and their diseased family members, forcing the conflict to escalate. Moreover, the antagonist’s future was hugely impacted by his actions, negatively influencing his next endeavors.

Work Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “Dead Men’s Path.” Sabanci University, 2021. Web.

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