Analysis: What's Up with the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
– T.S. Eliot, "The Journey of the Magi"
The title for the novel comes from this selection of verses by T.S. Eliot, an early 20th-century American expatriate poet who eventually became a naturalized British citizen. T. S. Eliot lived in Great Britain throughout the period when the British tried to consolidate and strengthen their hold on their colonial possessions. He was still living in Great Britain when the nation relinquished it's hold and allowed the colonies to, one by one, gain independence.
So why would Achebe pick the poem of a white man from Great Britain as the epigraph to a book that explores the postcolonial complications?
The choice of this poem, "The Journey of the Magi," is pretty brilliant. If you look at the entire poem, you realize that it's a poem about how spiritual birth can feel like death. Even though you are being born into something new, you are still witnessing the death of your old way of life, and your old beliefs. This process can be painful.
"The Journey of the Magi" details the journey of the Biblical magi (or "wise men") as they searched for Christ. The three magi saw a brilliant new star in the east and realized it signaled the birth of a new king. They followed it until they found Jesus, and they worshipped him as their king.
In Eliot's poem, the speaker talks about how the journey was difficult: it was bitterly cold and there were many times they regretted it. They had all these memories of home, where they enjoyed warm weather and "silken girls bringing sherbet." When they finally reached their destination, a humble tavern and a stable where Jesus is born, they wondered whether their journey was for a birth or a death. They had met the Messiah and though this meeting was a birth, it was a bitter birth, one more like death than birth. In the verses excerpted here, the speaker has returned to his own home, but now that he has met Christ, he is "no longer at ease" in his old culture with his old religion and his old way of life. The speaker would be glad for "another death" like the one he just experienced, perhaps because then he would feel at ease again in his old life with his family and friends.
These short verses, the final verses of the poem, describe what many writers and literary critics have called the postcolonial condition. The journey that the magi took parallels Obi Okonkwo's journey from his home to England, where he experiences an intellectual and cultural birth that is more like death. When he returns to his home country, Nigeria, he feels culturally displaced. He is "no longer at ease" among his countrymen, with their religion and their way of life. Not only does Obi judge their lack of education (and their use of bribes to climb the corporate and government ladder), but he also feels many of their other customs are barbaric and should be eradicated as citizens embrace Christianity and/or Western education.