Summary and Analysis
The new head of the Christian church, the Reverend James Smith, possesses nothing of Mr. Brown's compassion, kindness, or accommodation. He despises the way that Mr. Brown tried to lead the church. Mr. Smith finds many converts unfamiliar with important religious ideas and rituals, proving to himself that Mr. Brown cared only about recruiting converts rather than making them Christians. He vows to get the church back on the narrow path and soon demonstrates his intolerance of clan customs by suspending a young woman whose husband mutilated her dead ogbanje child in the traditional way. The missionary does not believe that such children go back into the mother's womb to be born again, and he condemns people who practice these beliefs as carrying out the work of the devil.
Each year, the Igbo clan holds a sacred ceremony to honor the earth deity. The egwugwu, ancestral spirits of the clan, dance in the tradition of the celebration. Enoch, an energetic and zealous convert, often provokes violent quarrels with people he sees as enemies. Approaching the egwugwu, who are keeping their distance from the Christians, Enoch dares the egwugwu to touch a Christian, so one of the egwugwu strikes him with a cane. Enoch responds by pulling the spirit's mask off, a serious offense to the clan because, according to Umuofian tradition, unmasking an egwugwu kills the ancestral spirit.
The next day, the egwugwu from all the villages gather in the marketplace. They storm Enoch's compound and destroy it with fire and machetes. Enoch takes refuge in the church compound, but the egwugwu follow him. Mr. Smith meets the men at the church door. Then the masked egwugwu begin to move toward the church, but they are quieted by their leader, who belittles Mr. Smith and his interpreter because they cannot understand what he is saying. He tells them that the egwugwu will not harm Mr. Smith for the sake of Mr. Brown, who was their friend. Mr. Smith will be able to stay safely in his house in Umuofia and worship his own god, but they intend to destroy the church that has caused the Igbo so many problems. Through his interpreter, Mr. Smith tries to calm them and asks that they leave the matter to him, but the egwugwu demolish his church to satisfy the clan spirit momentarily.
Throughout the book Achebe gives his characters names with hidden meanings; for example, Okonkwo's name implies male pride and stubbornness. When Achebe adds British characters, he gives two of them common and unremarkable British names, Brown and Smith. His third British character, the District Commissioner, is known only by his title. The choice of names, and lack thereof, is in itself a commentary by Achebe on the incoming faceless strangers.
Achebe portrays Mr. Smith as a stereotype of the inflexible Christian missionary in Africa. He is a fire-and-brimstone type of preacher, who likens Igbo religion to the pagan prophets of Baal of the Old Testament and brands traditional Igbo beliefs as the work of the devil. Achebe suggests that the issue between Mr. Smith and the local people may be more than one of religion: "[Mr. Smith] saw things as black and white. And black was evil."
Mr. Smith preaches an uncompromising interpretation of the scriptures. He suspends a woman convert who allows an old Igbo belief about the ogbanje to contaminate her new Christian way of life. He labels this incident as "pouring new wine into old bottles," an act prohibited in the New Testament of the Christian Bible — "Neither do men put new wine into old bottles" (Matthew 9:17).
Achebe implies that strict adherence to scripture and dogma produces religious fanaticism. Enoch's unmasking of an egwugwu is portrayed as a result of unbridled fanaticism. In traditional Igbo religion, the ancestral spirit communicates through the mask in which it speaks. The Igbo believe that during this time, the human underneath the mask is not present; the mask is transformed into the spirit. Thus, unmasking the egwugwu kills the ancestral spirit. Enoch's action exposes the non-divine nature of an egwugwu, just a man beneath a mask, another sign of "things falling apart." Ironically, the outcome of Enoch's fanaticism must surely cause some clan members to question their long-held, sacred beliefs regarding the egwugwu.
Consistent with his high-energy radicalism, Enoch is disappointed that his action and its consequences do not provoke a holy war against the Igbo nonbelievers. "Holy war" was the term applied by zealot Christians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to the Crusades against the infidels, nonbelievers in Christianity.
The reference to the Mother of Spirits is another foreshadowing of the decline of the Umuofians. Her wailing and crying signals the death of "the very soul of the tribe." Enoch's unmasking of the egwugwu and the subsequent destruction of the church by the Igbo represent the climax of confrontation between traditional Igbo religious beliefs and British colonial Christianity, and, to a great extent, these events symbolize the broader cultural confrontation. Even the egwugwu leader acknowledges the cultural standoff between them: "We say he [Mr. Smith] is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his." Such an acknowledgment seems an indication that the Igbo are becoming resigned to their "new dispensation" — that they are moving toward a collective surrender to becoming civilized under the onslaught of forces far more organized and powerful than themselves.
about sheep and goats / about wheat and tares Two frequently quoted teachings of Jesus relate to the need for separating the good from the bad. In one, he refers to separating the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:32); in the other, separating the wheat from the tares, or weeds (Matthew 13:30). Mr. Smith was obviously much concerned about dividing the community between the good (the Christian converts) and the bad (the traditional Igbo believers). Not coincidentally, his suspension of a convert is also based on a quotation from Matthew (9:17).
prophets of Baal Mr. Smith is comparing the pagan worship of the warrior god Baal, mentioned in the Old Testament (I Kings 18) to the Igbo religion. The Israelites saw the worship of Baal as a rival to their worship of God, causing the prophet Elijah to challenge the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
bull-roarer a noisemaker made from a length of string or rawhide threaded through an object of wood, stone, pottery, or bone; a ritual device that makes a loud humming noise when swung rapidly overhead.
ogwu medicine, magic.
desecrated to have taken away the sacredness of; treat as not sacred; profane.
The body of the white man, I salute you. The egwugwu speak indirectly, using a formal language of immortal spirits.
guttural loosely, produced in the throat; harsh, rasping, and so on.