In “Chike’s School Days,” readers glimpse a Nigeran Igbo village that is struggling to integrate British colonial culture into their way of life. In many ways, the introduction of Christianity and British culture seems to destroy traditional practice and beliefs. Alongside that destruction, however, Achebe hints at the necessity of forming new practices and traditions at the intersection of the two cultures. One of the most prevalent ways in which readers observe the destruction of traditional culture, the formation of the new culture is through Achebe’s treatment of language, especially in the context of Chike, the protagonist, learning English.
The protagonist’s name is the first instance in which readers observe a confused form of language use. Chike’s birth is an important occasion, as he is the first boy in the family. His parents give him “three names at his baptism—John, Chike, and Obiajulu. The last name means ‘The mind at last is at rest.’” This is significant, because readers understand all of Chike’s names except the one which he uses throughout the story. John, readers understand to be a generic, biblical English name, which Chike’s parents obviously chose in an effort to integrate Christianity into their family culture. Ojiabulu is an Igbo name, which his parents chose because he was their firstborn son. However, Chike, which is the most prevalent of all three names, remains a mystery to readers. It is seemingly empty of meaning. It is also second in line between Chike’s English name and his Igbo name—it exists at the intersection of the two cultures. Chike being placed physically in between the other two names, linking English and Igbo, suggests that the link between the two cultures, the practices that will be created through this intersection, are still unknown. This sets the precedent for a story in which language will be used to name the unknown that exists at the intersection between two cultures. The fact that Ojiabulu means “the mind at last is at rest,” is also ironic, as over the course of the story Chike and other characters become more and more confused at the mixture of English and Igbo culture in their town. In other words, the minds of the villagers have never been less at rest. The unsettled quality of the mind becomes most evident in Chike, as he himself struggles with learning the English language. When Chike begins to learn English, he enjoys the language, even though he is initially unable to form words or sentences that actually have meaning.
At school, Chike and his classmates sing “Ten Green Bottles,” but the lyrics, pronounced in the children’s accent, are “Ten grin botr angin on dar war,” followed by a middle that is “hummed and hie-ed.” Here, it is clear that Chike has no notion of the meaning of the words, nor is he able to produce the sounds such that they would have meaning to others. When a child from one culture is in the initial stages of learning the tongue of another, there is a period of time when it is impossible to communicate meaning. Chike, in his learning process, doesn’t prioritize meaning: his favorite word is “periwinkle,” implying that what speaking English means to him is still superficial, about the sound of the words rather than their meaning. Chike’s linguistic period of emptiness, meaninglessness, and inability to communicate parallels a similar moment for his village culturally, as the colonial and local cultures collide. They run into each other, each negating the other’s significance, creating a cultural void in which meaning needs to be recreated.
Chike’s eagerness to learn English eventually develops into what Achebe implies as an eagerness to forge that new culture at the intersection of the preceding two. At the end of the story, Chike makes up a “meaningless song,” with English words that is “like a strange window through which he saw in the distance a strange, magical new world.” In this moment, language is the lens through which the “new world,” forged through the mixing of Igbo and Western traditions, is first glimpsed. The implication is that the language used to create Chike’s song, while meaningless now, will become a tool with which to make meaning. The particular language created at the intersection of Igbo and English will, eventually, be used to build a “new world.”
While the story ends on a hopeful note from a child’s perspective, it is not clear whether the narrator shares that same perspective. The cold and startling reflection that a child’s song is “meaningless,” suggests that the narrator may be more skeptical of the future that is to come. In either case, though, the mixture of two languages epitomizes the crash of the two cultures—both the meaninglessness that comes from this merging and the necessity to create new cultural significations.
Language and the Struggle to Create Meaning ThemeTracker
Language and the Struggle to Create Meaning Quotes in Chike’s School Days
It did not matter to their dancing that in the twentieth century Caesar was no longer ruler of the whole world.
Chike read it over and over again at home and then made a song of it. It was a meaningless song […] But it was like a window through which he saw in the distance a strange, magical new world. And he was happy.