Study Guide to
Chinua Achebe's "Dead Men's Path"

This study guide is organized around three separate readings of the story.  It is probably not a good idea to do these in immediate succession.  At the same time, it is important, before proceeding to a new reading, to first collect your thoughts about the issues you were focusing on in your previous reading.  Only then should you think through the next set of questions, and work hard to get yourself to bring them to bear during your next reading.

(1)   Where would you identify the precipitating incident in this story's plot?

Once you've decided on this, you know what functions as exposition.  The question to raise about it is:  

(1a) What would have been the cost of eliminating this or that element of the exposition?  Put another way:  for each element of the exposition, in how many ways does it turn out to be important for our ultimate picture of the protagonist's character and, through that, for our sense of the story's theme?  

[Ideally, you'd press this question about each and every identifiably distinct elements of the exposition.  In practice here you might settle for less, but you should at least press this curiosity with a couple of elements that catch your attention.]

(2)   What best qualifies as the story's climactic moment?

Once you've decided on this, you've effectively decided on what constitutes the rising action and the falling action of the plot (if there is a dénouement).  Questions to raise about these, in turn, include:

(2a) As to the dénouement (if this is a story that has one), what of importance would have been sacrificed if the author had ended the story with the climactic moment?  How is this (how are these) important?

(2b) Reflecting back on the rising action, do you notice some details that functioned, at least retrospectively, as foreshadowing?  What aspects of the climactic moment do they tend to throw into more emphatic relief?  What strikes you as important about these aspects/facets/implications of the climactic moment, or scene?

It's best not to read further in this study guide until you have completed your first reading.  

After you've collected your thoughts on the curiosities you've been pressing during your initial reading, give some thought to the following issues, during your second reading of the story.

(3)  What do you think of Michael Obi as an employer?  Are there any ironies at work here, considering in particular what kind of school he is the headmaster of?

(4) An important marginal character is Michael's wife Nancy.  What kind of person does she come across as being?  

(4a) How does Achebe manage to convey these traits?

(4b) In what ways is the presence of this character in the story important in the plot of the story?

(4c) In what ways is the presence of this character important in your ultimate picture of the character of Michael himself?

(5) Another important marginal character is the old priest of the neighboring village of Ani.  How does he function as a foil to Michael Obi?

(5a) How many logically distinguishable traits of Obi does the old priest -- in light of the traits of character his manner and conduct exhibit -- throw into relief?

(5b) Why, do you figure, Achebe was concerned to make each of these a part of our conception of Michael Obi?

It's best not to read further in this study guide until you have completed your second reading.  

After you've collected your thoughts on the curiosities you've been pressing during your previous reading, give some thought to the following issues, during your third reading of the story.

(6) What elements of setting are important 

(6a) in the plot of the story?

(6b) symbolically, in characterizing the mentality of this or that character in the story?

(7) Is the protagonist of this story a dynamic, or a static character?

(7a) How is Achebe's decision here important for conveying what you take to be the overall theme of the story?

A useful way to bring this question into focus is to notice how the story falls under one of four basic kinds of plots we can imagine in light of this aspect of characterization.  Which category of plot (under this scheme of classification) do we have here?

(8) By the way:  would you say that Michael Obi is portrayed as a flat, or as a round character?

(8a) How is the simplicity, or the complexity, of the protagonist important in leading you to sharpen your sense of what Achebe might be getting at thematically in this story?

One way of getting at the implications of the author's decision in this respect might be to ask:  are we being solicited to entertain mixed feelings about the protagonist, or are we asked to feel unequivocally one way or another about him?  

When you've finished your third reading, stop and review these last three questions.  (By the way:  were you pressing them during your reading, or did you forget them?)  Take a little time to collect your thoughts around them.  Then review all the questions, and the notes you've jotted down, and think out how what you've been through squares with the idea that, in short story, plot is subordinate to characterization.  That is:  

(9) How, in this story, does plot function not as something of interest for its own sake but rather

(10) Reading this story, how do you think Achebe feels about the Christianizing of the part of Africa in which he grew up?

(Careful:  Achebe's thinking upon what he has called "living at the crossroads of cultures"  might be rather complex!  How might we be appropriately cautious in inferring what this story says about the topic, and still be able to commit ourselves to some picture of what the story does imply about it?)

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   Contents copyright © 2004 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 08 February 2004 .