Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God is set in the 1920’s, before secularism became dominant. It begins with the image of a mask, when he tells his son not to carve the mask of a god for the white man. The mask is a symbol of change. The whole world is changing, and the people who do not change will not survive. The old priest, Ezeulu, desires change, but he cannot do it. He cannot force himself to leave the old ways behind and adopt the new ways. Thus, he sends one of his sons to learn from the white man. He cannot do it himself.
This novel shows the life and death of an Igbo priest in a battle between traditional tribal religion and missionary Christianity. The ways in which this confrontation is played out also repeat. A Christian church is set up in a traditional village. The Christians have two attitudes regarding traditional religion. John Goodcountry’s enthusiasm inspires Oduche, the Christian son of Chief Priest Ezeulu, to capture the sacred python. Goodcountry is opposed by Moses Unachukwu, who may be open to both cultures out of pragmatic motives, since he appreciates the religious and economic power of the white man, and he hopes to profit from that power.
Ezeulu has mixed feelings. He sends Oduche to the missionaries in order to gain access to their wisdom, but he fears the aggressiveness of the new religion. However, his devotion to his god, Ulu, is unquestionable, as is seen in his participation in the New Yam festival.
Ezeulu, the main character of the novel, is sincere when he refuses to obey Winterbottom’s summons to Okperi because such behavior does not befit his sacred role. Ezeulu stands up for what he believes is right, as his god reveals it to him, even when there is no profit in it for himself. He even loses much by saying the truth. Thus, he is like a saint.
Ezeulu has a negative side too. He wonders if he is merely the tool of Ulu. Does he have any personal power, himself? Could he refuse to authorize the New Yam Harvest Festival? At the other extreme, he has bad dreams about being dishonored together with his god. As the story proceeds, Ezeulu feels more and more alienated from his community. They do not support him, and they do not even admit that he was right when they get bad effects from their headstrong actions. They go against Ezeulu’s advice, and things go bad, but they still insist that they were right and he was wrong. Worst of all, Nwaka does not even get a belly ache after he sends the young men to the other village to announce the war for the piece of farmland. In reaction, Ezeulu claims a special vision for himself and talks about sacrificing Oduche to the white man. At the same time, he feels a “haughty indifference” to the clan, which turns into a desire for revenge.
When Nwaka speaks, the people listen to his talk of war. They are afraid to go against him. But they do not listen to Ezeulu. They are not afraid of him, and they will not stand beside him, even if they think he is right. He thinks that he knows the truth about the land dispute, but he knows only the facts. The truth is deeper, that the white men will give the land to Okperi, and the white men have guns and soldiers.
Ezeulu’s son Obika walks through the night, sometimes singing and sometimes speaking. His “voice rose louder and louder into the night air as he approached home. Even his whistling carried farther than some men’s voices.” Some day, Ezeulu hopes that his son’s voice will speak for the god. But this is not going to happen. All of the old man’s dreams will die, while the culture of his people dies all around him. The white man is too powerful, and they cannot stand up against the Christian missionaries and the British soldiers. They are doomed.
His older son, Edogo, carves the mask. He sits in a dark hut, surrounded by “older masks and other regalia of ancestral spirits, some of them older than even his father. They produced a certain ambience which gave power and cunning to his fingers.” Thus, Edogo is drawing power form the old traditions. However, he is also leaving the old ways behind. He is adopting the ways of the white man. It is the only way for him to survive in the changing world.
Ezeulu’s dream after he returns from Okperi convinces him that he should not submit to the people’s wishes. After delaying the New Yam Festival, he interprets the people’s anguish as a kind of scapegoating. They are blaming someone else for their own faults and mistakes. Ezeulu’s downfall is disastrous not only for the people but for traditional religion, because the hungry people dedicate their crop to the Christian God. They see Ezeulu’s insanity as the judgment of the ancestors against his disregard for the clan he is supposed to serve. It is really just the last straw, since his son is dead and he must bury him. Now the old priest has nothing left, not even a young man to look at the stars for him when he is old and blind.
Ezeulu’s strategy of resistance has led instead to the opposite of what he wanted. Instead of reviving the cult of the ancestors, he has seen it replaced with Christianity.
Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe presents some cultural dynamic problems, such as religious conflict, disunity, and war among villages of the Igbo nation. The biggest problem is the colonial impact and cultural conflict against the British imperial rule. The novel illustrates themes like foreign cultural conflicts, western influences on African cultural traditions, patience, masculine feminine divine principles of African culture, and religions contradictions. Cultural conflict includes the colonial impact and its effects upon all aspects of Igbo and African life.
Arrow of God focuses on Nigeria’s early experience with colonialism, from first contact with the British to widespread British administration. It starts after World War I, a time when the British ruled much of the world and imposed their cultural values on the “primitive” cultures which they found.
This book explores the failure of the British to understand traditional beliefs and values of the African people. Captain Winterbottom just thinks that they are savages with no brains. The Christians just think that they are souls to be saved. In a world of change, the old priest is not flexible enough to adapt, so he is swept aside.
The story of the old priest is actually the story of all his people in all the six villages. They forget their religion, and they accept the religion of their conquerors. Ezeulu forgets first, and then the people forget. The people created the god Ulu when they united the six villages to form Umuaro. Ezeulu wrestles with the people on behalf of the god Ulu, since he forgets that Ulu was made to serve the people. They were not made to serve Ulu. The priest fails to understand his relationship to the god and the community. He is supposed to serve the community, but he is trying to force them to serve his god. This is the source of his downfall.
When Ezeulu is released from prison, it is raining, and he feels like it is healing and restoring him. But his pride will make him do the wrong thing again. He has suffered, and now he wants revenge, but he will only destroy himself and those he loves. He sees that others suffer because of their own actions, but he does not take responsibility for his own suffering. He just goes insane.