Study Guide

Arrow of God Respect and Reputation

By Chinua Achebe

Respect and Reputation

Every time he prayed for Umuaro bitterness rose into his mouth, a great smouldering anger for the division which had come to the six villages and which his enemies sought to lay on his head. And for what reason? Because he had spoken the truth before the white man. But how could a man who held the holy staff of Ulu know that a thing was a lie and speak it? How could he fail to tell the story as he had heard it from his own father? Even the white man, Wintabota, understood, though he came from a land no one knew. He had called Ezeulu the only witness of truth. That was what riled his enemies – that the white man whose father or mother no one knew should come to tell them the truth they knew but hated to hear. It was an augury of the world's ruin. (1.57)

Ezeulu's reputation suffered with his own people the first time the white man made his appearance in Umuaro, to settle the war between Okperi and Umuaro. But even though his own people blamed him, the white man (Captain Winterbottom) recognized that Ezeulu was a man of truth.

Umuaro might have left the matter there, and perhaps the whole land dispute with it as Ekwensu seemed to have taken a hand in it. But one small thing worried them. It was small but at the same time it was very great. Why had Okperi not deigned to send a message to Umuaro to say this was what happened and that was what happened? Everyone agreed that the man who killed Akukali had been sorely provoked. It was also true that Akukalia was not only a son of Umuaro; he was also the son of a daughter of Okperi, and what had happened might be likened to he-goat's head dropping into he-goat's bag. Yet when a man was killed something had to be said, some explanation given. That Okperi had not cared to say anything beyond returning the corpse was a mark of the contempt in which the now held Umuaro. And that could not be overlooked. (2.85)

The fact that Okperi has so little respect for Umuaro that they fail to communicate the murder of one of Umuaro's sons is what ultimately sparks the war between the two neighboring regions.

The next day, Afo, saw the war brought to a sudden close. The white man, Wintabota, brought soldiers to Umuaro and stopped it. The story of what these soldiers did in Abame was still told with fear, and so Umuaro made no effort to resist but laid down their arms. Although they were not yet satisfied they could say without shame that Akukalia's death had been avenged, that they had provided him with three men on whom to rest his head. It was also a good thing perhaps that the war was stopped. The death of Akukalia and his brother in one and the same dispute showed that Ekwensu's hand was in it.

The white man, not satisfied that he had stopped the war, had gathered all the guns in Umuaro and asked the soldiers to break them in the face of all, except three or four which he carried away. Afterwards he sat in judgement over Umuaro and Okperi and gave the disputed land to Okperi. (2.102-103)

Because of the white man's reputation for violence and destruction, the men of Umuaro offer no resistance to the colonial soldiers' entry into their war.

Tony Clarke was dressed for dinner, although he still had more than an hour to go. Dressing for dinner was very irksome in the heat, but he had been told by man experienced coasters that it as quiet imperative. They said it was a general tonic which one must take if one was to survive in this demoralizing country. For to neglect it could become the first step on the slippery gradient of ever profounder repudiations. Today was quiet pleasant because the rain had brought some coolness. But there had been days when Tony Clarke had foregone a proper dinner to avoid the torment of a starched shirt and tie. (3.17)

In the climate of southern Africa, it is easy for Europeans to lose their respectability. This is why all colonial officials are reminded time and again to maintain standards – even if it's a misery to behave like the upper class do in cool, wet England. The colonial project is dependent on its officials behaving in a proper manner. Though it might not seem obvious that wearing a properly starched tie and shirt to dinner is important, it keeps standards high, so that one doesn't slip into other, more morally gray habits.

Oduche who had thus far inclined towards Unachukwu's position had a sudden stab of insight. He raised his hand and was about to put it down again. But Mr. Goodcountry had seen him.

"Yes?"

"It is not true that the Bible does not ask us to kill the serpent. Did not God tell Adam to crush its head after it had deceived his wife?" Many people clapped for him.

"Do you hear that, Moses?"

Moses made to answer, but Mr. Goodcountry was not going to give him another opportunity.

"You say you are the first Christian in Umuaro, you partake of the Holy Meal; and yet whenever you open your mouth nothing but heathen filth pours out. Today a child who sucks his mother's breast has taught you the Scriptures. It is not as Our Lord himself said that the first shall become last and the last become first. The world will pass away but not one single world of Our Lord will be set aside." He turned to Oduche. "When the time comes for your baptism you will be called Peter; on this rock will I build my Church." (4.77-82)

Oduche, Ezeulu's son, gains respect and reputation in the Christian church at the expense of one of his elders in Umuaro. He challenges Unachukwu's interpretation of the Bible and, by default, takes the side of Christianity and Western culture over his own people's traditions and his father's religion.

But as he [Clarke] turned to go he [Winterbottom] called him back.

"When you are in Umuaro find out as much as you can – very discreetly of course – about Wright and his new road. I've heard all kinds of ugly stories of whippings and that kind of business. Without prejudging the issue I may say that I wouldn't put anything past Wright, from sleeping with native women to birching their men…" (5.8-9).

Winterbottom has already had cause to chide Wright for his behavior; Wright's diminished reputation allows Winterbottom to believe any and all reports about his behavior.

Because of his familiarity with the white man's language the carpenter, Moses Unachukwu, although very much older than the two age groups, had come forward to organize them and to take words out of the white man's mouth for them. At fist Mr. Wright was inclined to distrust him, as he distrusted all uppity natives, but he soon found him very useful and was now even considering giving him some little reward when the road was finished. Meanwhile Unachukwu's reputation in Umuaro rose to unprecedented heights. It was one thing to claim to speak the white man's tongue and quite another to be seen actually doing it. The story spread throughout the six villages. Ezeulu's one regret was that a man of Umunneora should have this prestige. But soon, eh thought, his son would earn the same or greater honor (8.7)

Though Wright considers Unachukwu to be "uppity" because he knows too much about Western culture and language, he finds Unachukwu to be useful. It is more than useful to the people of Umuaro, and because they see the importance of it, Unachukwu's reputation goes through the roof. Ezeulu, seeing this, is glad he's made the choice to send Oduche to church to learn about the white man's source of power.

Ezeulu now sat down on the iroko panel with his back against the wall so that he could see the approaches to his compound. His mind raced up and down in different directions trying vainly to make sense of the whipping story. Now he was thinking about the white man who did it. Ezeulu had seen him and heard his voice when he spoke to the elders of Umuaro about the new road. When the story had first spread that a white man was coming to talk to the elders Ezeulu had thought it would be his friend, Wintabota, the Destroyer of Guns. He had been greatly disappointed when he saw it was another white man. Wintabota was tall and erect and carried himself like a great man. His voice sounded like thunder. This other man was short and thick, as hairy as a monkey. He spoke in a queer way without opening his mouth. Ezeulu thought he must be some kind of manual labourer in the service of Wintabota.

[…]

Ezeulu came finally to the conclusion that unless his son was at fault he would go in person to Okperi and report the white man to his master. His thoughts were stopped by the sudden appearance of Obika and Edogo Behind them came a third whom he soon recognized as Ofoedu. Ezeulu could never get used to this worthless young man who trailed after his son like a vulture after a corpse. He was filled with anger that was so great that it also engulfed his son.'

What was the cause of the whipping?" he asked Odogo, ignoring the other two. (8.94; 96-97)

Despite his initial reaction of anger against the white man for whipping his son, and despite his lack of respect for Wright, Ezeulu is wiling to believe the worst of his son. (He knows Obika to be lazy, drunk, and ill-tempered, especially in the company of his friend Ofoedu.) Ezeulu can't stand Ofoedu and seeing him with Obika now, he instantly jumps to the conclusion that Obika must be at fault.

"A man does not speak a lie to his son," he said. "Remember that always. To say My father told me it to swear the greatest oath."



"It is so," said Akuebue. A man can swear before the most dreaded deity on what his father told him."

"If a man is not sure of the boundary between his land and his neighbour's," continued Ezeulu, "he tells his son: I think it is here but if there is a dispute do not swear before a deity."

It is even so," said Akuebue.

"But when a man has spoken the truth and his children prefer to take the lie…" His voice had risen with every word towards the dangerous pitch of a curse; then he broke off with a violent shake of his head. When he began again he spoke more quietly. "That is why a stranger can whip a son of mine and go unscathed, because my son has nailed up his ear against my words. Were it not so that stranger would already have learnt what it was to cross Ezeulu; dogs would have licked his eyes. I would have swallowed him whole and brought him up again. I would have shaved his head without wetting the hair." (9.12, 9.80-83)

A man's reputation is staked on what he has heard and learned from his father. Knowledge is passed down in this way, and that knowledge is trustworthy, because a man will not lie to his son.

"The real trouble with Winterbottom," said Wright after deep thought, "is that he is too serious to sleep with native women." Clarke was startled out of his own thoughts, and for a brief moment he completely forgot about Winterbottom. On more than one occasion during his present tour he had come up in his mind against the question: How widespread was the practice of white men sleeping with native women?

"He doesn't seem to realize that even Governors have been known to keep dusky mistresses." He licked his lips.

"I don't think it's a question of knowing or not knowing," said Clarke. "He is a man of very high principles, something of a missionary…."

[…]

"I think you are right about the missionary business. He should have come out with the C.M.S. or some such people. By the way, he has been going around lately with the woman missionary doctor at Nkisa. Of course we all have our different tastes, but I would not have thought a woman missionary doctor could provide much fun for a man in this God-forsaken place." (10.26-29).

We've already heard about Winterbottom's disgust for Wright, who puts the British project of "civilizing" the world at stake due to his low standards of behavior. In this short passage, the question of respect and reputation is turned on its head. Rather than applying the usual standards, we hear Wright's take on the subject. Though at first he believes that Winterbottom's puritan ethics are due to his ignorance, Clarke convinces him to accept instead the theory that Winterbottom is like a missionary. Though he keeps standards high, he misses out on all the fun.