Chike’s birth gives his family cause to celebrate—as the last child in his family, he is the first boy after a string of five girls. His parents, Sarah and Amos, are so happy to have birthed a son that at his baptism, they give him three names: John, Chike, and Obiajulu, which means “the mind is at last at rest.”
Here, readers are immediately introduced to the many cultural influences the characters must navigate throughout the story. First of all, the anxiety about not having any male children is a marked characteristic of Igbo culture (although the privileging of sons is by no means exclusive to the Igbo people). Additionally, by giving Chike three names, Sarah and Amos demonstrate their desire both to preserve Igbo culture—Chike and Obiajulu are Igbo names—and to assimilate into English culture with the generic biblical name “John” as the first of Chike’s three names.
Although Sarah and Amos still have traditional beliefs about gender, they have chosen to raise their children “in the ways of the white man,” different from the “traditional” ways of the others in the village. Chike and his sisters grow up singing Christian hymns and praying first thing in the morning. What’s more, they’re not allowed to accept any food that the neighbors’ have offered, as their mother says this food has been “offered to the idols.” This sets the family against the time-honored tradition of their community to treat children as “the common responsibility of all.”
This passage suggests that Chike and his sisters are isolated from their community due to their parents’ Christian beliefs. While it can be assumed that Chike’s peers grow up eating in neighbor’s houses and being cared for by various adults in the community, Chike and his sisters have only their parents to rely on. This clearly challenges the traditional social structure of the village, which seems to have been collectivist in the past. It can be inferred, then, that if members continue converting to Christianity, relatively isolated nuclear families the village will soon become the norm in the village.
Inevitably, the day arrives when a neighbor offers Chike a piece of yam. Proudly, Chike refuses and replies that his family “doesn’t eat heathen food.” Offended, the neighbor scoffs that “even an Osu is full of pride these days, thanks to the white man.”
This moment further indicates that the way Chike is raised isolates him from his community. It also adds complexity to the idea that the social structures of the village are being challenged—the neighbor alludes to the fact that Chike is an Osu, a member of the lowest class. Therefore, Chike is not only subverting traditional values by not accepting the food of “heathens,” but is also subverting the hierarchy that exists among castes in the village by asserting himself to a member of a higher social class.
Indeed, Chike is an Osu, meaning he is a “slave” to his clan and is “despised and almost spat on” by the “free-born” people in the village. In the past, an Osu couldn’t marry a free-born, but that is changing. Sarah, Chike’s mother, is an Osu, while his father, Amos, was not. But when Amos converted to Christianity, he began to believe it was possible to disrupt the traditional social structures. The village thought he had gone mad to make such a choice, and that the new religion had “gone to his head […] like palm wine.” But with the support of Mr. Brown, a white missionary who lives, practices, and runs a dispensary in the village, Amos stuck to his decision to marry Sarah in spite of her social class.
Amos’s decision to marry Sarah reflects the extent to which colonial influence is capable of altering local culture. By choosing to marry Sarah, Amos has perhaps inadvertently chosen to honor the authority of Mr. Brown over the values of his people. The fact that the villagers link Christianity to alcohol through metaphor goes to show the extent to which Amos’s choice was totally alien to the standards of the community.
When Amos’s mother, Elizabeth, heard about her son’s plan to marry an Osu, she refused to go down without a fight. Although she herself had already converted to Christianity, the idea of her son marrying an Osu was unthinkable. She went to consult the diviner, locally recognized as wise and powerful. He performed a ritual and told her to sacrifice a goat to appease the gods, to the end that Amos would call off the wedding. The ritual didn’t work, and Amos married Sarah. Elizabeth remained so shocked and disappointed at what Christianity had made her son do that she returned, for good, to “the faith of her people.”
In response to what Elizabeth judges as Amos’s poor decision, Elizabeth goes to consult the diviner, who functions as the foil of Mr. Brown when it comes to figures of leadership and authority—whereas Mr. Brown represents encroaching Western influences, the diviner represents the village’s devotion to their traditional religion. Interestingly, Elizabeth chooses to reconvert to her traditional faith, even though the diviner’s ritual doesn’t work. This suggests that Amos’s decision to go against the community’s traditions has so disturbed Elizabeth that she would rather trust in someone who has proven himself to be unreliable rather than stay in the religion that normalizes Amos and Sarah’s marriage.
In the present, when Chike is five or six years old, he is finally old enough to study in the village school. He adores his new school clothes and his slate and pencil, eager to begin learning in spite of his older sisters’ threatening warnings about the schoolteacher. An Igbo song they sing ominously warns that the teacher, with his scary cane, “flogged them to death.” Chike suspects they might be exaggerating, but still, the song worries him.
The reference to Chike’s school clothes illustrates the subtle influence of colonial culture: these are likely not traditional Igbo clothes, meaning that the schoolchildren are expected to conform to a westernized style of dress in order to attend school. Additionally, even though it is clearly exaggeration, his sisters’ inference that the (presumably English) schoolteacher flogged students “to death” is one of the more obvious allusions to colonialism as a form of violence in village life. Finally, the fact that this is communicated through song rather than regular speech nods to the overall challenge characters face in expressing themselves throughout the story.
Because Chike is young, he is first sent to the “religious class.” There, he and his fellow students sing and even dance the catechism. Chike doesn’t understand the meaning of the English words they use, but he does enjoy the sound and the rhythm. In one Igbo song the students sing in class, the teacher asks the students who Julius Caesar is. Chike and his peers reply that he is “ruler of the whole world,” although in the 20th century, of course, this is no longer true.
This passage speaks to colonialism as a form of violence. Most notably, Achebe highlights the absurdity of young Igbo children learning about Julius Caesar, who is irrelevant to young children growing up in 20th-century Nigeria. In spite of this fact, Caesar continues to be included on the curriculum due to colonial prioritization of Western culture. What’s more, the fact that Chike and his schoolmates presumably don’t understand the meanings of the English songs further demonstrates the fact that the colonial instruction the students are receiving is not relevant to them, and only serve as tools of assimilation.
The English songs they sing are even more mysterious to Chike. His favorite song is “Ten Green Bottles,” though he and his classmates sing with heavy accents and forget many of the words, humming and mumbling the middle of the song.
In this moment, the students’ heavy accents betray their inability to discover or create meaning in the English language. This highlights the foreignness of the language they’re required to use in school and invites readers to consider how unnatural it is for children to learn the foreign language of their country’s colonizers at such a young age.
Chike moves on to Infant School, where the reader “need not follow him” as it is "a full story in itself.” though not different from that of any other child. In Primary School, Chike begins to develop individual likes and dislikes. Arithmetic is no good, but he still adores songs and stories. Most of all, he likes the way English words sound, “even when they [convey] no meaning at all.” “Periwinkle” and “constellation” are among his favorites—even though he doesn’t know what these mysterious words really mean, he invents his own “private meaning[s].” He imagines that “periwinkle” has “something to do with fairyland.”
Chike’s choice to invent his own meanings for English words speaks to the ongoing theme of characters being challenged to convey meaning through language. Because English is not Chike’s native language—rather, it is imposed on him through colonialism—Chike is forced to create his own definitions. This speaks to the innovation that always exists at the merging of two cultures: words are re-signified, and through this resignification, new forms of meaning are produced that are original to neither British nor Igbo culture.
The schoolteacher has a huge vocabulary that really impresses Chike. He likes to use big, impressive words from his dictionary to make fun of students or punish them for being late. One lesson that stuck with Chike forever was the one about seed dispersal, which could happen through “five methods: by man, by animals, by water, by wind, and by explosive mechanism.” Even for the students who forget the other methods, “explosive mechanism” sticks in their memories.
The teacher’s quote about “seed dispersal” is one of the most salient moments of the story. Seed dispersal itself is an easy analogy for colonialism: the schoolteacher’s job is essentially to planting the figurative seed for Igbo children to be dependent on and tied to English culture. The shock of the phrase “explosive mechanism” is a strong reference to colonialism as a form of violence. Achebe doesn’t even explain what is meant by “explosive mechanism,” but the clear violence in that phrase provides a harrowing analogy for how religion, language, and other customs are forcibly and often violently spread through colonialism.
When he gets home from school, Chike likes to read from his New Method Reader, stories that to him are like fairytales, something from a completely different world. Once he’s done reading, his favorite thing to do is to make up songs out of the things he’s read. The songs are “meaningless,” but still, they are like “a window through which he [sees] in the distance a strange, magical new world.” The vision of this new world makes Chike happy.
Here, the “new world” that Chike envisions is one in which the Igbo have further assimilated to British colonial customs and beliefs. In the moment the story is narrated, this world does not yet exist, and therefore cannot yet be conceived of by Chike or even the adults in his family. It exists at an intersection between languages and cultures that has not yet been reached. The cold dismissiveness of the narrator’s description of a song made up by a child as “meaningless” is intentionally cynical. It suggests that although Chike may be excited about the new world that is to come, the narrator has reservations, and likely suspects that the violent destruction of Igbo traditions will prove detrimental to the continued existence of Chike’s culture.