Summary and Analysis
Chapter 17 continues the story of how Nwoye becomes a Christian. The missionaries sleep in the Mbanta marketplace for several nights and preach the Christian gospel each morning. After several days, they ask the leaders of the clan for land on which to build a church. The elders agree to give them a part of the Evil Forest, where people who died of evil diseases are buried, as well as the magical objects of great medicine men. The elders think that the missionaries are fools for taking the cursed land; according to tradition, the missionaries will be dead in a few days.
To the villagers' surprise and disappointment, the missionaries build their church without difficulty. The people of Mbanta begin to realize that the white man possesses incredible magic and power, especially because the missionaries and the church survived twenty-eight days — the longest period the gods allow a person to defy them. The missionaries soon acquire more converts, including their first woman — pregnant and previously the mother to four sets of twins, all of whom were abandoned in the forest. The white missionary moves on to Umuofia, while his interpreter, Mr. Kiaga, assumes responsibility for the Mbanta congregation.
As the number of converts grows, Nwoye secretly becomes more attracted to the religion and wants to attend Sunday church service, but he fears the wrath of his father if he enters the church.
One day, Okonkwo's cousin sees Nwoye inside the Christian church. He rushes to tell Okonkwo, who says nothing until his son returns home. In a rage, he asks Nwoye where he has been, but he gives no answer. When he starts to beat Nwoye with a heavy stick, his uncle Uchendu demands that Okonkwo leave his son alone. Nwoye leaves the hut and never returns. Instead, Nwoye moves to Umuofia, where the white missionary started a school for young people. He plans to return someday to convert his mother, brothers, and sisters.
At first, Okonkwo is furious with his son's action, but he concludes that Nwoye is not worth his anger. Okonkwo fears that, after his death, his younger sons will abandon the family ancestors because they have become attracted to the new religion. Okonkwo wonders how he gave life to such a foolish and womanly son, one who resembles his grandfather, Unoka, in so many ways.
As the Christians begin to gain power, the villagers see their traditional beliefs as increasingly outdated and powerless. For example, Mbanta's Evil Forest proves to be less sinister than they have believed; their gods allow the missionaries to escape punishment. Here, Achebe implies that clinging to old traditions and an unwillingness to change may contribute to their downfall. Achebe does not pass judgment on their point of view, but he illustrates the kinds of circumstances that could make things fall apart.
The missionaries are beginning to influence not only the community's religious views and practices but also its deeper social customs and traditions; for example, they welcome the first female convert, a woman who is scorned by the community because of her four sets of twins. To her, as well as to other early converts shunned by the clan for one reason or another, the missionaries provide support and acceptance. The missionaries will not throw away newborn twins, and the community will eventually see that they are as normal as other children.
The missionaries apparently expect the new Christians in the community to accept a new weekly calendar: "Come [to church] every seventh day." Suddenly, the narrative refers to "Sunday" instead of the Igbo days of the week. Did the missionaries know about the Igbo four-day week? Did they preach the seven-day creation story? Consider the impact on a community when outsiders impose a new arrangement of days and weeks.
Okonkwo's violent reaction to Nwoye's conversion is typical; he immediately wants to kill the Christians. He recalls that he is popularly called the "Roaring Flame." Then he blames the "effeminacy" of his son on his wife and his father and then on his own chi. The last line in the chapter suggests that Okonkwo has an insight: "Living fire begets cold, impotent ash" — perhaps a realization that his own "Roaring Flame" behavior leaves behind coldness and powerlessness in others — as it has in his son.
fetish any object believed by some person or group to have magical power.
impudent shamelessly bold or disrespectful; saucy; insolent.