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Choosing Between Modernization and Tradition in "Dead Men’s Path"

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It was a serious problem that traditional culture was destroyed by the invasion of Western civilization while Nigeria was invaded by Britain in the 19th century. The story “Dead Men’s Path” begins when Michael Obi is promoted to the headmaster of Ndume Central School. He is keen to develop the school through a modern system and blocks a path that connects the village to a graveyard. Therefore, he argues with a village priest who wants to reopen the path. In the short story “Dead Men’s Path,” Chinua Achebe denotes the theme of traditional standards versus modern customs through characterization, symbolism, and metaphors.

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To begin with, one of the main elements of the short story is the characters that make readers guess the whole story. Firstly, Michael Obi, twenty-six, is the protagonist. He is influenced by the new ways; also, his wife, Nancy, is affected by him; thus, she changes her mind about the custom: “In their two years of married life she had become completely infected by his passion of “modern methods” (Achebe 472). As the story can be seen, he is progressive, influential, and a symbol of modernization because he is pursuing modernization. Secondly, an antagonist is a village priest of Ani. He meets the headmaster when he hears about closing the path because he is trying to maintain the traditional cultures: “Three days later the village priest of Ani called on the headmaster” (473). In other words, because of the path for the dead that is the symbols of the previous methods; hence, Achebe creates him who is conservative and a symbol of the traditional method. However, both of them have a similar character which is uncompromising. As the readers can observe in the story, Mr. Obi and the priest do not change their minds: “We cannot allow people to make a highway of our school compound” (473), said Obi and “If you reopen the path we shall have nothing to quarrel about” (474), claimed the priest. Furthermore, this personality has aggravated the conflict and makes it more serious. Consequently, he successfully emphasizes the problematic issues in reality through the characters.

In addition, there are many symbols of modernization or tradition. First of all, “the path” (473) symbolically represents and has two meanings. One of the meanings is that it is the road which leads from a place to other spots: “it connects the village shrine with their place of burial” (473), so it means it is the road for newborns and forefathers. Another is that the path symbolizes the traditional beliefs: “this path was here before you were born and before your father was born” (473). It is revealed that the path implies the culture of the African villagers. Moreover, it is one of the ways to connect with ancestors, but “heavy sticks” (473) and “barbed wire” (473) block the path. These two obstacles clearly demonstrate opposition to traditional beliefs. Furthermore, there is a symbol of modernization such as “gardens” (473) as well as old customs. The reason why the gardens imply the new cultures is because the gardens are as the symbol of England, which reflects the garden for the first in the city. It also reveals the weakness due to the fact that it is destroyed easily by the villagers: “ the flowers trampled to death” (474). As the readers can observe, it is clear that those things symbolically represent the modern customs and the traditional ways.

Finally, the author sometimes uses metaphors to imply significant points. It is undeniable that Nancy, the headmaster’s wife, is ostentatious owing to her mind. This is change is clear “She began to see herself already as the admired wife of the young headmaster, a queen of the school” (472). The school does not have the queen and there are only unmarried people. Also, nobody knows about her; hence, the readers are able to infer her character from the story. There are the metaphors not only about the characters, but also about the theme. “The hawk” (474) and “the eagle” (474) have a similar appearance, so the priest recommends his think through this metaphor: “let the hawk perch and let the eagle perch” (474). Therefore, the writer would like to claim that if progressive and conservative people respect each other, they can live close to each other. In other words, modern and traditional beliefs can coexist. Hence, Achebe successfully empathizes main ideas through the metaphors. 

In conclusion, Achebe wrote about the problem between the modern methods and the old ways to solve the problems through characterization, symbolism, and metaphors. Besides, he wanted to warn against the reckless acceptance of Western culture through the short story.

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