In Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, tragedy is the driving force of the plot and the development of Ezeulu’s character. Contrary to the popular saying “that which does not kill you makes you stronger,” the successive and increasingly personal tragedies that befall Ezeulu fuel his descent from the wise and highly respected high priest of his people to a petty and spiteful man, perfectly willing to starve his people for a perceived slight. Ezeulu is corrupted by power, and as his family and village heed his advice less and less, he exerts more and more power to sway them until he nearly leads his people into catastrophe.
In the beginning, Ezeulu truly is a wise man, and his advice on the conflict between Umuaro and Okperi is some of the little sound leadership Ezeulu displays through the entire novel. Not only does Ezeulu display integrity in his advice not to go to war over land that rightfully belongs to Okperi (Achebe 26), but Ezeulu also correctly predicts that Akukalia is too hot headed to send as a diplomat in the land dispute. When Akukalia and the other diplomats arrive in Okperi, they refuse all friendly rituals in favor of simply demanding an audience with the elders. Their hosts are understandably offended by this and an insult to Akukalia’s manhood sets Akukalia on a rampage, ending with an Okperi idol destroyed and Akukalia dead. This first tragedy precipitates the chain that leads to Ezeulu’s eventual downfall. For, this tragedy begins the war between Umuaro and Okperi, and, Ezeulu’s and Nwaka’s differing opinions on the war set their villages (Umuachala and Umunneora respectively) at odds.
It is this conflict between Nwaka and Ezeulu, and Umuneora and Umuachala that sets the stage for Ezeulu’s eventual downfall. Prior to this point in the story, Ezeulu was truly a servant of his people. The book describes Ezeulu watching the night sky for days to ensure he saw the new moon and completed the necessary ceremonies (Achebe 1). This conflict is the first time that Ezeulu’s word is not obeyed by Umuaro and the first time that Ezeulu is put at odds with any part of the village. At this point, the seeds of resentment are planted. Ezeulu now mistrusts at least some of his village and thinks less of the rest for following Nwaka and not his own advice.
By the time Ezeulu leaves for Okperi to meet with Winterbottom, his mistrust if his village has crystallized. When Winterterbottom falls ill and Clarke keeps Ezeulu waiting, Ezeulu is already hoping that he is kept longer so that he can plot revenge against the village. On page 161, he thinks to himself, “Let the white man detain him not for one day but one year so that his deity not seeing him in his place would ask Umuaro questions.” This thought, combined with his earlier conviction to not look for the new moon while in Okperi (Achebe 159), demonstrates that even before his imprisonment, Ezeulu has lost his way and has turned against his people. Ezeulu is imprisoned by the British for the “crime” of not accepting the title of Warrant Chief for thirty-two days. Including the four days it took before Clarke met with Ezeulu, Ezeulu was away from Umuaro for 36 days and two new moons and thus was unable to eat the sacred yams. In this way, the tragedy of Ezeulu’s imprisonment allows Ezeulu to take revenge by providing an excuse to delay the harvest and cause famine.
Despite realizing that his close friends and family are not against him or Ulu, Ezeulu carries out his plan and refuses to allow a harvest and insists that the village wait an extra two moon cycles to harvest to account for the two new moon he missed in Okperi. Here, Ezeulu’s arrogance and spitefulness begin the final downfall of Ulu, tradition, and indeed his own final downfall.
The death of Ezeulu’s son Obika is a final insult before Ezeulu fades into obscurity. Ezeulu’s plan for revenge is successful and Umuaro starves for a time, until the villagers slowly convert to Christianity. The local church promises immunity from the wrath of Ulu, and the people choose to eat as Christians rather than die following Ulu and Ezeulu. Ezeulu’s fears of the whole village turning against him and against Ulu materialized, and the great tragic irony of it all is that Ezeulu’s plans for revenge to punish the people for disobeying him and Ulu is the very thing that drove them to convert. In the end, not even the book remembers how Ezeulu died, his importance had waned so much. Ezeulu, and Ulu with him, simply fade into obscurity. Ezeulu’s authority as a leader replaced by the British, and the religion of Ulu replaced by Christianity.
Both British political officers of similar rank, Clarke and Winterbottom have understandably similar views on the natives, and, both have a devotion to their jobs and a desire for British plans to succeed in Nigeria, despite not always agreeing with their superiors’ directives. The primary difference between Clarke and Winterbottom is that, whereas Clarke believes that native institutions are not all bad, Winterbottom can only see the worst in the natives.
The first indication of this ideological difference comes early in the book, when Clarke and Winterbottom are discussing The Pacification of the Primitive tribes of the Lower Niger, which Winterbottom had previously loaned to Clarke. On page 35, Clarke indicates that while he enjoyed the book, he felt that the author did not give enough credit to native institutions. Winterbottom immediately replies that Clarke is merely inexperienced and will eventually think like the author of the book and himself. He punctuates this with an anecdote about finding a man buried alive up to his neck, and baited with yams and left to the vultures.
At this point, Winterbottom credits the French with developing a better approach. Whereas the English have allowed the natives autonomy, the French simply took what they wanted through force. Although Clarke quickly changes the subject, later, he expresses similar admiration on the French and their more direct methods of colonization (Achebe 106). Despite their shared admiration of the French, they have different underlying reasons for preferring French directness. In the case of Winterbottom, Winterbottom admires the French for their disinterest in the natives. Winterbottom also admires that the French simply take what they want from the natives, whom Winterbottom views as savages, through force. However, Clarke admires the French because they have cut through bureaucracy, although the methods they employed are problematic. On page 106, Clarke thinks to himself, “The French made up their minds about what they wanted to do and did it. The British, on the other hand, never did anything without first sending out a Commission of Inquiry to discover all the facts.”
In contrast to the ideologically and politically motivated officers, Wright is a crude man who enjoys his earthly pleasures. Wright is known to enjoy the company of native women. While even Clarke is interested, Wright is the only European in the district that acts on these desires openly. This fraternization puts Wright and the natives on the same level, at least by some measures. Mr Wright also whips the natives, and his inconsistency hurts his image with the natives. On page 82, immediately before Wright whips Obika, the narrator explains that “although the white man always carried a whip he had rarely used it; and when he had done he had appeared to be half joking.” When Wight whips Obika, it is the first time he truly whips any of his workers. The savage whipping stirs dissent among the road workers. They begin to question why they work without pay when other natives are paid. We never see anything come of this situation beyond conversations between Clarke and Winterbottom, but natives were indeed questioning the authority of the British. This is one of the few instances in the book when any group of natives move towards a return to traditions of their own accord.
When the villagers disregard Ezeulu’s advice against going to war, this is their first real rejection of Ulu and thus symbolically traditional Africa. They disregard tradition and old values for a petty land grab. It is this departure from traditional values that allows the British influence over Umuaro. Had the people of Umuaro trusted in Ezeulu and conceded the land to Okperi, the natives would not have allowed the British to establish themselves as the true central authority of the area. On page 28, it is stated that “The white man, not satisfied that he had stopped the war, had gathered all the guns in Unuaro and asked the soldiers to break them in the face of all… Afterwards he sat in judgement over Umuaro and Okperi and gave the disputed land to Okperi.” The British break their guns, taking away their capacity to resist: this maneuver serves as a public show of force, and the people of Umuaro submit to the British judgement and drop their claims to Okperi’s land.
The second rejection of traditional Africa comes about from Ezeulu’s guidance, at least indirectly. Ezeulu had sent his son Oduche to study Christianity under British missionaries, the intent being to have a close set of eyes on the British (Achebe 42). However, rather than feed Ezeulu information, Oduche appears to simply convert. Oduche rejects several traditional ceremonies over the course of the book and fails to provide any useful information to Ezeulu. Oduche’s rejection of tradition reaches a peak when he attempts to suffocate a sacred python to death in a box. Oduche is Ezeulu’s son and is thus an extension of Ezeulu and his household. If Ezeulu represents traditional Africa, then Oduche represents the very beginnings of the new colonial Africa. Oduche is unable to bring himself to kill the python outright and attempts to kill it passively by suffocating it. His failure to kill the python shows that Oduche’s conversion is incomplete and that he still harbors serious reservations about this change to a new order. Oduche is content with simply learning the new dogma; it is only under pressure that he makes his half-hearted attempt to extinguish past traditions.
In the end, however, it is not the young’s conversion that puts an end to traditional Africa, but the inflexibility of traditional Africa. Although Ezeulu’s decision to delay the harvest is largely driven by a personal agenda, it is in line with the strict interpretation of the religion of Ulu. Ezeulu makes up his mind while brooding in prison, and, even after being reminded that not all of Umuaro is against him and Ulu, his mind is set, and he follows through with his revenge. Ezeulu was inflexible due to his fear of his people turning away from Ulu, and his people turned away from Ulu because Ezeulu was inflexible. Achebe never explicitly states that Ezeulu died, much less how or when. And this ambiguity reflects the ambiguity of traditional Africa’s death. One cannot point to one year or one event and say here is where and when traditional Africa died. Rather, traditional Africa was gradually replaced by the new colonial Africa.