SUMMARY OF THE NOVEL
Set in the 1920’s, the period in which the British were making the transition from direct to indirect rule, Achebe’s Arrow of God describes the efforts of Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu, to assert and to maintain his religious authority. Ulu is a god created by the people of Umuaro in a time of crisis to rule over the individual gods of the six federated villages and thereby to increase the security of the loose federation. Thus, Ezeulu is the chief authority figure in Umuaro, but the traditional independence of Igbo social structure leaves the true extent of his authority in doubt.
Moreover, Ezeulu’s Umuaro is a divided community, and his religious authority is threatened in two ways. On the one hand, its traditions are undermined by the proselytizing of the Christian missionaries who have built a school and a church nearby. On the other hand, Ezeulu’s authority is challenged from within the community, particularly by Nwaka and Ezidemili, the Chief Priest of Idemili, the leader of the cult of the python. Ezeulu’s situation is paralleled by that of District Commissioner Winterbottom. Winterbottom, a veteran of fifteen years in the colonial service, resists the new British policy of indirect rule because it will force him to delegate some of his secular authority. Each of the two leaders, therefore, is defending his authority against the encroachments of historical change.
Ezeulu’s debate with Umuaro begins when the community, led by Nwaka, insists on going to war with neighboring Okperi over a piece of land. The Umuaro ignore Ezeulu’s warning that Ulu will not support a war that is not just. Their five-day battle with Okperi is halted by the intervention of colonial troops, and Winterbottom orders all the guns in each community destroyed. After a hearing at which Ezeulu is a witness against Umuaro’s claim, Winterbottom awards the land to Okperi. To Ezeulu, this result is a vindication of his judgment, but many in Umuaro see it as betrayal.
After Umuaro provokes a war with Okperi, the British colonial administration steps in to stop the fighting. They rule in favor of Okperi, based in part because of testimony of Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu and a resident of Umuaro.
Umuaro is angry with Ezeulu for siding with Okperi. They accuse him of bringing the white man into Umuaro, despite the fact that Ezeulu had originally opposed the war with Okperi. Nwaka challenges Ulu, suggesting that he’s an impotent god, and he might be replaced him with a new god. Nwaka spreads stories about Ezeulu, suggesting he’s power hungry and is angling to be the king of Umuaro. Nwaka aided by Ezidemili, the priest of the lesser deity Idemili, who owns the sacred python. Over the course of several years, the enmity between Ezeulu and Nwaka grows, until it infects both of their villages.
A few years after the war, Ezeulu sends his son to learn the ways of Christianity. Oduche takes to the new religion, learning theology and admiring the catechist. He wants to be accepted into this community. So when the new catechist suggests that he must prove his faith by confronting old religious beliefs and killing the sacred python, Oduche decides to do just that. He chickens out at the last minute, and puts the sacred python in his box, hoping it will die, but he won’t be responsible for killing it. When Ezidemili, the priest of Idemili (the deity that owns the python), hears of it, he sends Ezeulu a message. Ezidemili wants to know what Ezeulu intends to do to purify his house. Ezeulu ups the ante, responding that Ezidemili can take a hike, and the animosity between the two villages continues to grow.
Winterbottom is forced to comply with British colonial rule, and must appoint a warrant chief for Umuaro. He decides that Ezeulu is just the man, the one honest man he knows in Umuaro. But Ezeulu is reluctant to leave Umuaro when Winterbottom’s messengers call, and Winterbottom gets ill while Ezeulu thinks about what he should do. Ezeulu asks his village elders for advice, and they all say he should go to Winterbottom, emphasizing that he’s at fault for the white man’s presence in their midst. When Ezeulu arrives, Clarke detains him, deciding to teach Ezeulu a lesson. Then Ezeulu refuses the warrant chief position, and Clarke detains him until he has learned to be more “cooperative” (Winterbottom’s words). Finally, with no real reason to detain him longer, and with orders from above to forget the warrant chief business, Clarke lets Ezeulu go home.
Ezeulu is angry that the people of Umuaro have treated him, the chief priest of Ulu, with so little respect, allowing him to be detained by the white man and blaming him for the British presence. Ezeulu decides that he is Ulu’s arrow of punishment. Ulu’s revenge begins soon after Ezeulu returns to Umuaro.
When Ezeulu’s assistants come to ask him why he hasn’t called the Festival of the New Yam, Ezeulu says that the time hasn’t yet arrived. The elders call on him. Nobody can harvest the yams until Ezeulu calls the Feast. Ezeulu explains that because he was imprisoned in Okperi for so long, and because nobody visited with Ulu during his absence, there are still three sacred yams left. It will take three months before he can call the Feast of the New Yam.
Though the men plead with him that they will take the punishment on their own heads, Ezeulu refuses. It is his duty to keep the tradition exactly as it is, and he can’t eat more than one sacred yam in any given month. The village of Umuaro grows desperate as they hear that Ezeulu plans to stubbornly wait the three months out, knowing that they will begin to starve and their crops will be ruined if they can’t harvest.
After a couple of months of famine, the people of Umuaro are suffering. The catechist at the Christian church, John Goodcountry, offers to accept the people’s sacrifice of new yams so that they can harvest their crops. He says that the Christian god will protect them from Ulu’s wrath. When Ezeulu’s son Obika dies suddenly after performing a funeral rite, the people decide that it is Ulu’s punishment on his headstrong and stubborn priest.
When the people of Umuaro realize that Ulu has punished its priest, Ezeulu, they turn their sights to another god. They ask the Christian god for protection from Ulu’s wrath. They plant that year’s crops in the name of Christianity.
Arrow of God is set in 1920s Nigeria, after the pacification period and long before independence. During these the decades many Nigerians began turning away from their traditional religions, becoming Christians, and sending their children to mission schools to get a more Western education. At the point in which the novel is set, the colonial project is well under way, and many British officials and contractors are in Nigeria building the infrastructure needed to continue this project to “civilize” and modernize Africa.
The novel’s two settings – rural Umuaro and the British colonial station – provide a contrast between two different worlds. We see Igbo rural life during the transitional time period as the old culture is slowly giving way to new cultural norms and belief systems. This is contrasted with the British colonial station, where colonial officials debate the merits of official colonial ideology, such as “indirect rule.” In Umuaro, we watch as the importance of the deity Ulu slowly declines over the course of several years, after Umuaro makes contact with the colonial administration. At the British colonial station in Okperi, we observe first hand how the inconsistency of colonial ideology affects colonial officials like Winterbottom and Clarke. We also see how Africans who work for the colonial administration, like John Nwodika, have a wider vision of the world than those who have never experienced life outside of Umuaro.
Theme of Religion
Arrow of God explores how Igbo spirituality and religious life dies an ignominious death when confronted by Christianity. Christianity is backed by the white man’s military and political power. As a result, Christianity is also identified with the source of their power. When the people of Umuaro are faced with famine because the chief priest of Ulu refuses to break tradition, the catechist at the church offers protection so the people can harvest their yams. When Ezeulu’s son Obika dies, the people interpret that as a sign that Ulu was punishing his priest. With Ezeulu’s power broken, Umuaro turns to the Christian god for help.
Theme of Tradition and Customs
Traditions dictate the lives of the people of Umuaro. Seasons are punctuated by rituals, and festivals are managed by the priests of the various deities associated with each village. The overall deity, Ulu, provides the important purification rites as well as feast associated with the rhythms of agriculture. In Arrow of God we see that these traditions are undermined by the coming of Christianity, the power of the British colonial office, and, most importantly, by Ezeulu’s inflexibility and insistence on adhering to tradition. Ezeulu insists on waiting a full month to eat each sacred yam, even though that means he can’t call the Feast of the New Yam for another three months. Meanwhile, the people’s crops are rotting in the field and people are starving to death. The elders of Umuaro offer to take the punishment on themselves, but Ezeulu refuses. While Ezeulu is stubbornly following tradition – and punishing his people – the people of Umuaro slowly begin to starve because they are unable to harvest the crops.
Theme of Power
A lust for power motivates many of the characters in Arrow of God. As the British administration’s power rises, the men in Umuaro discover that their power is diminishing. All the men discover that their power is limited when the British administration steps in and stops the war with Okperi. Meanwhile, Nwaka and Ezidemili accuse Ezeulu of desiring power in order to mask their own attempts to unseat him and usurp his place. Ezeulu punishes the people of Umuaro because they didn’t accord him and his deity Ulu proper respect. The power struggle between Ezeulu and the people of Umuaro gives the Christian catechist, Mr. Goodcountry, the opportunity to win converts. The book concludes with Ezeulu’s power receding as Christianity takes precedence.
Theme of Pride
In Arrow of God, the main character Ezeulu’s pride gets him in trouble from the very beginning. Angered by the Umuaro community’s decision to ignore him in the matter of going to war with Okperi, he nurses his silent grudge for years. Since Ezeulu is the priest of Ulu, the highest god in Umuaro, Ezeulu shouldn’t worry about being but his jealous pride for his status eventually causes him to take revenge against the people of Umuaro. Ezeulu isn’t the only one who is proud. Winterbottom accuses all Igbo men of putting on airs; he argues that if you give an Igbo man a little bit of authority, he will soon be abusing even his own relatives. Winterbottom says that Igbo men love titles, not realizing that his men, Clarke and Wright, have made similar comments about how much Winterbottom loves his own title, “Captain.”
Ezeulu’s pride motivates him throughout Arrow of God. He’s the chief priest of Ulu, the god that rules Umuaro. Ezeulu plays a prominent role in Umuaro, a collection of six villages in southeastern Nigeria. As chief priest, Ezeulu feels obligated to offer his advice, even though the people don’t seem to pay attention to him. When they ignore him, his feelings get hurt. He believes that the people don’t have proper respect for Ulu, and when Nwaka challenges Ulu, suggesting that he may be a useless god and the people should get rid of him, Ezeulu is put on the defensive.
Ezeulu’s adherence to duty means that he tells Winterbottom the truth when Winterbottom asks how the war with Okperi began. The people of Umuaro are angry with Ezeulu, especially since it causes Winterbottom to rule in Okperi’s favor. They are further disturbed when Ezeulu sends his son Oduche to school and to church to learn the ways of the white man. They blame Ezeulu for bringing the British to Umuaro. Ezeulu resents all the backbiting of his neighbors, friends, and kinsmen, and recognizes that it is coming from one source, Nwaka, who is aided by the priest of Idemili. When things start to go badly in Ezeulu’s household, the tension escalates between Ezeulu and his enemies. Ezeulu’s son, Oduche, commits an abomination against the royal python, which belongs to the god Idemili. Because of the priest Ezidemili’s insults, Ezeulu refuses to do anything special to purify his house. Then his son Obika is whipped by Mr. Wright because he’s late coming to work on the road. Ezeulu blames Obika, and his son Edogo criticizes him for choosing a stranger over his own son.
Ezeulu is further frustrated when Captain Winterbottom sends a mysterious message that Ezeulu should appear before him in Okperi. As chief priest of Ulu, Ezeulu doesn’t wander far from his hut. But the elders and men of title convince him that he should go, and he sets out the next day, unaware that Winterbottom has put out a warrant for his arrest.
When Ezeulu finally returns home, the people of Umuaro welcome him. Ezeulu’s anger relents, but not completely. He continues to plan his revenge in secret. What is interesting about Ezeulu’s revenge is that he clearly tries to separate himself from this revenge; he doesn’t see it as revenge for his own sake, but for Ulu’s sake. He sees himself as doing Ulu’s will, rather than seeking personal satisfaction for his own wounded pride.
The moment for revenge finally arrives. Ezeulu informs the people that he can’t name the day for the Feast of the New Yam until he has finished the sacred yams – because he was gone for so long, there are three yams left, which will take three months to eat. The people panic. After three months, their crops will be ruined, rotted away in the ground. They beg him to reconsider, but Ezeulu is steadfast – he must do what Ulu calls him to do.
Famine settles in to Umuaro. Ezeulu’s family also suffers. When Ezeulu’s son, Obika, dies suddenly, the people see it as a judgment against Ezeulu, who is too proud, headstrong, and stubborn. It gives them the latitude to turn to Christianity, to a god who seems less unpredictable in his need to punish the people.
Ezeulu’s pride is what breaks him in the end. Shocked that Ulu would allow Obika to die, Ezeulu begins to wonder if he is being punished. But he can’t figure out what he did to deserve punishment. He was only following Ulu’s will, no matter how much he personally suffered as a result. His mind wanders, and he becomes delusional.
Nwaka is Ezeulu’s nemesis. Every time we see Nwaka in Arrow of God, he’s challenging Ulu or criticizing Ulu’s high priest, Ezeulu. Nwaka believes strongly that Ezeulu is power-hungry, that he’s trying to grab more authority than he is due.
Nwaka appears to be motivated by his friendship with Ezidemili, the priest of a lesser god, Idemili. Ezidemili fortifies and strengthens Nwaka in his attacks on Ezeulu’s character. Nwaka might be power hungry himself, or he might be manipulated by Ezidemili, who may be hoping to destroy Ulu so that Idemili can take his place.
Though we don’t see any growth in Nwaka’s character over the course of the novel, he does accompany the other men when they visit Ezeulu to beg him to announce the day for the Feast for the New Yam. In other words, he squashes whatever enmity he has towards Ezeulu for the good of all of Umuaro.
Winterbottom is old-school British military: dutiful, patriotic, and obedient to commands from his superiors, even when he disagrees with their orders. At first, we assume Winterbottom simply likes his powerful position when he brags about his reputation in Umuaro. But soon we discover that Winterbottom really believes in the African projects. And not only that, but he holds himself to very high moral standards because he wants to be an example to the Africans around him.
We can see that the Administration’s inflexibility and lack of respect for experienced men like Winterbottom who have lived in Africa for years eats away at him. In the final scene, Winterbottom expresses total contempt for the orders of his superior.
Obika is Ezeulu’s son and is an irresponsible young man who drinks too much and acts impulsively. One example of his impulsive behavior is the time when he almost kills his half-sister’s husband. Everybody lets Obika get away with his rash actions, however, because he’s so handsome. In the course of the novel, Obika changes. Two things change him: the humiliation of being whipped publicly by the white man and getting married. His marriage in particular seems to help Obika to grow. But Obika doesn’t have a chance to explore his new found maturity and wisdom. Almost as soon as he gains it, he dies suddenly.
Oduche, Ezeulu’s next to youngest son, is proud to be his father’s “eyes and ears” in the white man’s culture by attending church and school. But soon, he finds his loyalties are divided. On the one hand, he wants to please his father; on the other hand, he wants to please the catechist at church. He can’t do both. There are two critical moments in Arrow of God when Oduche chooses the church over his father, and Ezeulu interprets it as a betrayal.
The first moment is when Oduche locks the royal python up in his box, hoping it will asphyxiate and die. It’s an act of rebellion but, more importantly, it’s a moment when Oduche tests the taboos of his culture. He discovers that there is no real penalty to his actions. Though Ezeulu rages against him, and though the village talks about what he has done, Oduche suffers no serious consequences.
Based on the fact that there seem to be no repercussions for his actions, Oduche commits a second act that his father considers a betrayal. When the catechist decides to take advantage of Ezeulu’s stubbornness and the famine to encourage people to leave the old religion and become Christians, Oduche doesn’t mention it to his father. Although Ezeulu intended Oduche to be his eyes and ears, he doesn’t realize that Oduche’s exposure to another way of life and another god will change him into somebody who no longer fits in his own culture
Edogo seems like a good-hearted man. He loves his wife and his child and worries about their health. He is respectful to his father and fulfills his duties to his family. But deep down inside, he resents the way his father, Ezeulu, favors Nwafo over all his other sons.
Though Edogo doesn’t want to be chief priest of Ulu himself, he realizes that his father may be creating a mess by giving Nwafo the impression that he will be the new priest. Ulu is the one who chooses the new priest, not Ezeulu. Because Ezeulu sent Oduche to school and to church to learn the ways of the white man, Edogo realizes that his father may be sacrificing Oduche in order to clear the way for Nwafo.
Edogo finally approaches Ezeulu’s best friend, Akuebue, and asks him to speak to his father. Akuebue despises Edogo in that moment, suggesting that he’s cowardly and weak; he implies that Edogo really wants to be priest and that he is hiding behind this excuse. At least on the surface, though, Edogo seems to be an honest man, with only one desire – to be a renowned mask carver.
Tony Clarke starts out with some progressive ideas about colonialism in Africa. He feels the call of duty to “civilize” Africa, but he believes there must be some good in indigenous institutions, and that they should be preserved. Though he belongs to the officer class, he feels more comfortable with men like Wright, who may be morally questionable but seem to have less of a superiority complex than men like Winterbottom.
Ultimately, however, Clarke begins to realize that he’s surrounded by men who are corrupt in some way or another – if not morally, then ideologically. There is no resolution to this aspect in his character however. When we last see Clarke, he is releasing Ezeulu after receiving orders from the Administration that they don’t plan to continue appointing new chiefs. In the end it seems that Clarke is slavishly obedient to the whims of the Administration, despite his moral qualms.
Mr. Wright provides a great contrast with Mr. Clarke and Captain Winterbottom. As a fellow Briton, he’s just as immersed in the colonial project as they are. But he chooses a different path. Though he clearly feels superior to the Africans he works with, he isn’t bound by any ethical considerations to treat them fairly. He uses violence when it suits him, and he sleeps with African women when it suits him. He feels little solidarity with his fellow countrymen. Though he befriends Mr. Clarke, it’s at Winterbottom’s expense – the two men bond while disparaging their boss.
The python symbolizes the old gods in the conflict between Christianity and Umuaro’s religion. The python is the religious icon that the catechist seizes upon and urges local Christians to kill. Many of the local Christians aren’t prepared to violate the sacred python even though they have embraced the new religion. Killing one of the most sacred symbols of traditional religion seems to be going too far. But Oduche, Ezeulu’s son, takes the challenge and tries to kill the python; at the last minute he loses his nerve and imprisons it in a box instead. Ezeulu discovers the box and releases the python, horrified that his son could commit such an abomination. Oduche’s abomination precipitates one of the crises in the book. The priest of the god Idemili – owner of the royal python – demands that Ezeulu purify his house.
In Ezeulu’s dream has in the final chapter, he symbolically becomes the python and must run away when the Christians come. More importantly, Ezeulu is alone. His entire family has disappeared, either because they have joined the Christians or because they are simply gone.
Breaker of Guns
When Captain Winterbottom stopped the war between Okperi and Umuaro, he broke all of Umuaro’s guns, except a few that he took as mementos. By doing so, he symbolically took away the manhood of Umuaro’s men and turned them into children. By removing the possibility of using weapons, Umuaro could no longer decide to go to war.
Yams are a crop grown exclusively by men. Growing yams is labor intensive, and the size of a man’s fields and harvest says much about his work ethic. Yams are grown to gain wealth and also to feed one’s family. They are a symbol of masculinity and ability as a provider.
According to Umuaro religion, the harvest can’t take place until the Feast of the New Yam is called by Ulu’s chief priest, Ezeulu. And in order to punish Umuaro, Ezeulu stubbornly maintains that he can’t call the feast until he eats the three remaining sacred yams. Ezeulu claims that according to Ulu, he can only eat one yam a month. While Ezeulu keeps to this rigid schedule, the rest of Umuaro begins to fall into famine and death.
At the end of Arrow of God, the Christian church invites the people of Umuaro to sacrifice their yams to the Christian god. When this happens, it symbolizes the triumph of Christianity over traditional Umuaro religion.
The tone of the novel is light-hearted, even jovial, sometimes poking fun of the characters themselves, such as in this short passage:
“He is a man of very high principles, something of a missionary. I believe his father was a Church of England clergyman, which is a far cry from my father, for instance, who is a Bank of England clerical.” They both laughed heartily at this. When Clarke recalled this piece of wit in the morning he realized how much alcohol he must have drunk… (10.28).
Scenes that move the tragic plot along may be interspersed with long interludes that have no apparent point except to entertain. For example, we may be treated to the scene of a quarrel between two of Ezeulu’s children, or the drunken boasts of Obika and his friends. The reader unfamiliar with Achebe’s style may be lured into believing that this is a comedy, or a novel where all will turn out well in the end, instead of a classic tragedy. Don’t be fooled: the light-hearted tone has little to do with the tragic events of Arrow of God.
Diction: Achebe’s way of writing is easy and understanding and it is self explanatory
Proverb: Achebe makes use of proverbs in his writings
Use of Transliteration: Achebe uses transliteration in his novels as when he told his son “go to the white man’s religion and be his eyes”. The use of transliteration was used also when the court messenger came to their house to look for Ezeulu, the son told him to “ go into the bush and eat shit”