Modern society often teaches “newer is better. ” What happened to the value of history and tradition? In Dead Men’s Path, by Chinua Achebe, readers find out what happens when one disregards and disrespects the tradition of another. Achebe uses symbolism, character, and irony to show how important it is to respect others’ beliefs even if one does not understand or agree with them. Achebe uses a few symbols to reveal the fight between modern culture and tradition. The most obvious is the footpath.
The priest reveals its history and importance. “…This path was here before you were born and before your father was born. The whole life of this village depends on it. Our dead relatives depart by it and our ancestors visit us by it. But most important, it is the path of children coming in to be born…” (Achebe 176) This path obviously means a lot to the villagers but does not fit into Obi’s vision of “progression”; therefore, he has it blocked with barbed wire. The blockage also symbolizes the Headmaster’s state of mind.
Even though he was most likely brought up with similar traditions, he has constructed barriers in his mind that have closed him off to believing in his heritage. Another symbol is Obi, himself, and his wife. They represent the views of modern society: out with the old, in with the new. They show little appreciation for the culture they have the privilege of witnessing. His wife even says, “…everything will be just modern and delightful… ” (Achebe 175) The narrator further stresses the importance of respecting tradition through the character Michael Obi.
He reveals how Obi condemns the narrow views of the “older” and “less-educated” headmasters. Instead of building a better future with insight from elders and their traditions, he looks down on them and pays their superstitions no mind. Obi even goes so far as to mock the villagers, “…I don’t suppose the ancestors will find the little detour too burdensome. ” (Achebe 177) He wants to eradicate the villagers’ beliefs, “…Our duty is to teach your children to laugh at such ideas. ” (Achebe 176) Though Obi is obviously intelligent, he s more of a logical thinker who cannot truly understand and appreciate customs. He is referred to as “young” a few times throughout the story. Though he may have had a “sound, secondary school education,” there are some things only age can teach one.
There is a certain irony in the fact that the old priest is more open-minded than the young, progressive Michael Obi. Modern society is supposed to be more tolerant than the stricter, older ways. When trying to reason with Obi, the priest says, “What you say may be true, but we follow the practices of our fathers. ] Let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch. ” (Achebe 176) This proverb basically means let others believe what they want even if you do not necessarily agree. Though they had difference of opinions, the old man did not condemn Obi for his disregard of tradition. It is also ironic that in his ignorance and impertinence, Obi caused the very thing he was trying to prevent. He wanted to impress the Supervisor and show him how far he had brought the school, but only ended up taking the school back to tribal war times—at least according to the Supervisor.
Obi may have had the appearance of an old man but definitely not the insight and good judgment. Dead Men’s Path highlights the conflict between old traditions and the logic and science of current society. There is little room in today’s world for superstitions because people believe everything can be proven or disproven with science and technology. It may seem silly and outdated to one, but is important and permanent in the heart of another that follows it. Considering in the end Obi was thwarted and the results of his actions proved disastrous, readers are warned to have a certain cultural awareness and respect.
Just because one disagrees with a tradition, that still gives them no right to disrespect it. There is certain wisdom to be gained from superstitions and rituals. Modern society should not demolish the foundation of a person’s belief. “Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. ” (Mark 9:23) Works Cited Achebe, Chinua. “A Dead Man’s Path. ” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 9th ed. New York: Longman, 2005. 174-77 _The New King James Bible_. Thomas Nelson, Inc. , 1982.