Death and the King’s Horseman

Death and the King’s Horseman Act 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At the ball, which takes place at the Residency, couples around the room wait for the prince's arrival. The band begins to play, but their music is bad. The prince and the resident enter the room, the band laboriously plays a waltz, and the prince opens the dance floor. The couples dance and after a while, the prince sits in a corner. The resident brings couples over to introduce them to the prince, and finally, Pilkings and Jane approach the prince. The prince is fascinated by their egungun costumes, and Pilkings demonstrates how the natives dance when they wear the costumes. After a few minutes of this, a footman brings a note to the resident. The resident fetches Pilkings and leads him outside.
The music being so bad suggests that the colonizers aren't at home in Nigeria—everything seems uncomfortable and out of place. Pilkings, who dances in the egungun costumes, believes that he knows enough to show the prince how things work here—when in reality Pilkings doesn't, especially given that he's doing something awful by wearing the costume in the first place. His role as a colonizer, however, gives him the power to do what he wants with it.
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The resident is concerned about the contents of the note, but Pilkings says that it's just a strange custom and, apparently, Elesin has to commit suicide because the king died. The resident is shocked, especially since the king died a month ago, but Pilkings says that the ceremonies last around 30 days. The resident is still confused—the notes says the market women are rioting. Pilkings admits that he's not sure what this has to do with the suicide, but he wonders if Amusa (who wrote the note) is exaggerating. Looking at the note again, the resident says that Amusa sounds desperate. He asks Jane to go find his aide-de-camp and Amusa.
The resident also lives in Nigeria; his implication that he also didn't know about these customs shows that none of the colonizers have a good grasp of the culture they're trying to suppress. It's at least easier for the native people to keep their customs alive when the colonizers don't know about them, however. In the same vein, Pilkings and the English aren't as successful as they think they are.
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Sternly, the resident reprimands Pilkings for not informing him earlier about all of this. He says it'd be disastrous if things blew up while the prince is visiting. Pilkings admits that he didn't find out that this was going on until earlier tonight, but the resident tells Pilkings to be vigilant—they must be if they want the empire to succeed. Under his breath, Pilkings says that if he hadn't found out about this, they'd all be peacefully in bed, but assures the resident that he won't let this sort of thing slip past him again. The resident says he needs to go back to the prince and somehow explain his abrupt actions. Pilkings suggests he tell the prince the truth, which scandalizes the resident. The resident points out that this is supposed to be a safe and secure colony.
Pilkings's comment under his breath shows the reader that he really doesn't care about what's going on with Elesin. This is a big night for Pilkings, and he was enjoying entertaining the prince; Elesin's suicide is a mere annoyance for him. However, not stopping Elesin's suicide earlier is also making Pilkings look bad in front of the prince and the resident. This all suggests that Pilkings wants to have a good time and receive recognition, but he doesn't really want to put in the work.
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Amusa and his constables arrive. The resident doesn't recognize them and asks if they're the ringleaders of the riot. When he learns that Amusa is a police officer, the resident notes that Amusa's uniform is missing "colorful sashes" and a "colorful fez" with pink tassels. Through his teeth, Pilkings tells Amusa to not act superstitious and threatens to feed him pork if he does. He also tells the resident that Amusa probably lost his hat in the riot. The resident thinks this is very funny, asks for a report in the morning, and wanders off. The aide-de-camp asks Pilkings if he needs help and shares that they have extra soldiers that came with the prince if Pilkings needs backup.
The resident's confusion as to who Amusa is betrays his racism—as far as he's concerned, all black people must be part of the riot, not part of the English colonial effort. Pilkings's threat to give Amusa pork shows that when it's convenient, Pilkings knows how to weaponize a person's religion and use it to get what he wants. This is cruel and patronizing, and indicates that Pilkings cares only for getting his way and not at all for the beliefs of others.
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Once the aide-de-camp is gone, Pilkings turns to Amusa. Amusa starts to speak, but then stops and looks at the ceiling. Pilkings is angry, but Amusa repeats what he said earlier: he can't talk about death to the death cult (Pilkings is still wearing the egungun costume). Pilkings dismisses Amusa from duty for the evening and gets ready to leave himself. The clock strikes midnight and Pilkings stares at Jane with a look of horror. Jane seems nervous too, and says that the natives don't keep time like they do. Pilkings runs away, followed by the constables. Amusa tells Jane goodnight, but leaves without looking at her.
Jane's comment that the natives observe a different system of time may be true, but again, she says it in such a way as to make it seem that the native way of keeping time is more primitive and less correct, rather than just different. Amusa's continued stand against Pilkings shows Pilkings that it's going to take a lot more than having native policemen on the force to truly change the culture.
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Jane stands awkwardly. A young black man appears and peers into the ballroom as though he's looking for someone. Jane recognizes him as Olunde. Olunde is thrilled once he recognizes Jane, and asks for Pilkings. Shocked to see Olunde, Jane says that he looks well. Olunde says that from what little he can see of her, Jane also looks well. She asks Olunde if he's shocked by the egungun. Olunde says he isn't, though he thinks it must be hot inside the costume. Jane replies that it is hot, but it's worth it to have the prince see it. Olunde suggests that seeing the prince isn't actually a great reason to "desecrate an ancestral mask," which makes Jane sigh in disappointment. Olunde says that after four years in England, he understands the English—they don't respect things that they don't understand.
Olunde speaks like a Westerner, making Jane feel comfortable at first, but this then allows him to clearly state that what Jane and her husband are doing is extremely disrespectful. Because Olunde can reach across the cultures like this, he becomes the character that tells the (Western) reader or audience the most about the Yoruba culture and their traditions in a way that they will find easier to understand.
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Jane sighs that Olunde has returned with a chip on his shoulder, and she asks how Olunde found England. Olunde says that in many ways, he admires the English, especially for their courage in the war. Jane explains that in Nigeria the war feels remote, though there was recently some excitement: a captain blew up his ship in the harbor, as the ship was dangerous to other ships and the coastal populations. Jane apologizes for welcoming Olunde home with news like this, but Olunde says he finds the captain's sacrifice inspiring. This shocks Jane, who says that nobody should die deliberately. Olunde asks if the captain's sacrifice was worth it to save the hundreds of people living around the harbor, and Jane doesn’t have an answer.
Olunde's insistence that the captain's choice to sacrifice himself is an inspiration shows that Olunde still adheres to the Yoruba belief that it's acceptable and admirable to sacrifice one person for the greater good, which is exactly what Elesin intends to do. Especially when he's able to recognize that there are Englishmen who also behave in the same honorable way, it suggests that Elesin is able to make connections across the two cultures and understand both better as a result.
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Olunde asks again for Pilkings. For the first time, Jane understands the significance of Olunde being here. She says that there's a problem in town that Pilkings is dealing with, and asks if Pilkings knows that Olunde is here. Olunde refuses to answer and says that he needs Jane's help to speak to Pilkings. He says that he's already been to their home and has spoken with Joseph. Jane says that if he's spoken to Joseph, Olunde must know what Pilkings is trying to do for Olunde and for his people.
Note that it never crosses Jane's mind that Olunde might know exactly what's going on with his father. This shows how little Jane thinks of the Yoruba and how invested they are in their traditions. In other words, it doesn't occur to her that Olunde might be fully on board with what's happening, as his time in England would, in her mind, have made Elesin's suicide unthinkable.
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Olunde is perplexed, but says that a month ago, he received a cable from a relative saying only that the king was dead. Olunde explains that he knew he needed to come home to bury Elesin. Jane says that Pilkings is going to stop Elesin from dying, and Olunde says that this is why he needs to see Pilkings: he needs to explain that Pilkings shouldn't stop Elesin. Shocked, Jane sits down, and Olunde states that he's only home to bury his father.
Here, Olunde tries to show Jane that spending four years in England hasn't turned him into an Englishman of Nigerian origin—he's still Yoruba and still believes fully in the traditions that keep the culture alive. Instead, he'd like to use his power as someone with a foot in each culture to help Pilkings understand and behave accordingly.
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Olunde says he traveled in the same convoy as the prince, so it was a safe and well-protected journey here. Jane suggests that Elesin is entitled to the same kind of protection, but Olunde insists that Jane doesn't understand. He explains that by dying, Elesin will be protected by his own “peace of mind” and honored by his people. He asks Jane if she'd think less of the prince if he hadn't agreed to accept the risk of losing his life while touring the colonies. When Jane looks offended, Olunde says that the English think that everything that seems to make sense came from them and their culture.
With this, Olunde explains exactly how the Yoruba think of death as Elesin will meet it: it's something that allows him to maintain his honor and also perform a great service for the rest of the community. It's a positive thing, not something to be feared or suppressed. Again, by suggesting that the prince is doing much the same thing by touring the colonies while there's a war raging, Olunde encourages Jane to look outside her culture for parallels elsewhere.
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Even more offended, Jane says that the ritual of the king's horseman committing suicide is still barbaric and "feudalistic." Motioning in the direction of the dancers at the ball, Olunde asks what such decadence in the middle of a devastating war should be called. Jane insists that it's British-style therapy. Olunde says he doesn't really care what it is, but he knows now that white people are fantastic at surviving. He believes that the war should end with all white people killing each other and destroying their cultures. This would, he suggests, catapult the white, Western world into a primitive way of life akin to the way that Western people think African people live. Olunde says that he has the humility to let people survive as they see fit.
When Olunde implies that the decadent ball is silly in the middle of a deadly war, he suggests that in order to appropriately honor the people who are dying in the war, it's important to behave in a way that shows people are aware of what's going on. He also suggests that the English think the African people they're colonizing are very primitive, something that comes from the colonizers' inability or unwillingness to see that the natives are human beings too—their sides could easily be switched, especially as a result of a catastrophic event like a world war.
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Jane questions again whether ritual suicide is acceptable, and Olunde suggests that it's nowhere near as horrific as mass suicide—like what's going on with the war. He says that the English don't call it that, but young men are dying by the thousands. He says that despite all these men dying in battle, the news talks about those battles as victories. Jane suggests that this is necessary to keep morale up, but Olunde asks if calling those deaths victories isn't disrespectful to the dead. He insists that the English have no right to judge other people.
By insisting that the English are actually disrespectful in many ways—by wearing the egungun costumes, and by not honoring their own dead soldiers properly—Olunde makes it clear that the Yoruba are actually less “primitive” than the English in many ways, and they also don’t try to impose their culture and values on others. The Yoruba aren't, for example, trying to stop the English from having this ball.
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Hesitantly, Jane asks if Olunde experienced discrimination in England based on his skin color, but Olunde says that it's not that simple—he didn't forget his history or his culture when he left, and being in England made him even more appreciative of his culture. Jane asks Olunde to promise to continue to pursue his goal of being a doctor. With genuine surprise, Olunde says that he fully intends to go back to England and finish his training after he buries Elesin.
Jane's question shows that she can only conceive of one possible experience for Olunde, and it's one in which overt racism and discrimination is the main problem. Because she's made few efforts to learn about the Yoruba, she doesn't understand how Olunde is struggling to bridge the gap between the two cultures and deal with the rampant racism he surely experienced too.
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Jane scoffs, but Olunde leads her outside to listen to the drums. The rhythm builds, stops suddenly, and then begins again slowly. Olunde says it's over; Elesin is dead now. Jane screams that Olunde is callous, unfeeling, and just like the other "savages." The aide-de-camp rushes out when he hears Jane crying and tries to comfort her. Olunde tries to leave, but the aide-de-camp rudely tells Olunde to stay and answer his questions. When the aide-de-camp calls for an orderly, Jane tells him to stop and says that Olunde is a friend. Derisively, the aide-de-camp mutters that the natives think too highly of themselves when they wear European suits. Jane asks Olunde to stay, even though Olunde says he wants to go see Elesin before his body goes cold. She sends the aide-de-camp away.
The aide-de-camp shows that he's extremely racist in the way that he speaks so rudely to Olunde. Further, when he says that the natives wearing suits—an underhanded way to say that they're becoming more Western—makes them too full of themselves, it shows his belief that colonized people can never actually enter the society of the colonizers; they stay separate and inferior. He wants only to profit off of them, not have them become doctors like Olunde.
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Jane implores Olunde to try and understand that everyone is just trying to help. She says she can't go back to the ball right now, and needs him to talk to her for a few minutes so she can regain her composure. She asks him to explain his calm reaction to hearing that Elesin is dead. Olunde says that it might be his medical training, but Jane says it has to be something that she and the other English people in the colony don't understand about the Yoruba.
Jane at least recognizes that she doesn't understand, and she knows that not understanding is what's causing these problems and making it so she can't effectively communicate with Olunde. This again shows that she has the potential to do and be better if she chooses to, though framing what Pilkings is doing as "helping" suggests that she's not interested in putting in real work.
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Olunde agrees that she's right, but says too that Elesin has been dead in his mind for a month now. He's been thinking only of what he must do, as the person tasked with performing the rites over Elesin's body. He explains that he can't make a mistake, as a mistake could put his people in danger. Jane reminds Olunde that Elesin disowned him, but Olunde says that Elesin was just stubborn and can't actually disown his oldest son like that. Olunde says that he needs to go, and he takes Jane's hand as he tells her goodbye.
Olunde expands the audience's understanding of the Yoruba death rites here by pointing out that if he makes a mistake, it could spell disaster for the entire culture. He also shows that while a person within the culture can try to kick someone else out, the sense of collective responsibility means that it's actually impossible to do so in practice.
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From offstage, Pilkings tells someone to "keep them here." He steps into Jane and Olunde's line of sight, jumps when he notices Olunde, and sends Jane to fetch the aide-de-camp. She runs away, and Olunde tells Pilkings that while he appreciates what he tried to do, it would've been a horrendous tragedy if he had succeeded. Pilkings is shocked. As Olunde says he needs to go see Elesin's body, Pilkings tells him that the police down the hill aren't letting anyone past. He offers an escort to Olunde as the aide-de-camp arrives.
At this point, Olunde believes that he's performing a necessary task that only he can, and that requires sharing with Pilkings why he shouldn't try to stop Elesin. In doing this, he attempts to help his people keep their culture alive for another generation and stave off the negative effects of colonialism.
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Quietly and privately, Pilkings asks the aide-de-camp if the cellar where they used to store slaves is still useable and if it still has bars. It is, and Pilkings asks for the keys and a strong guard at the bottom of the hill, so that the sound of a riot won't carry to the house and alarm the prince. Pilkings says he told the rioters that he was going to lock Elesin up at his house and then came to the Residency via a back way, so he thinks the riot won't arrive here for a while. He says he'll take Elesin to the cellar himself and two policemen will stay with him all night.
The fact that Pilkings wants to imprison Elesin in a cellar that once held slaves bound for North America makes it clear that even if (as we'll later learn) Pilkings wasn't the only reason Elesin failed to die, Nigeria's history of slavery is still affecting the native population and keeping them under the control of the English colonizers.
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Pilkings turns to Jane and asks her to stay with Olunde. When Olunde asks to see Elesin, Pilkings briskly says that there's a crisis going on related to Elesin, and given the state of security, Olunde needs to stay at the Residency. He marches off. Olunde and Jane wonder what's going on, and when Jane asks what could've sparked the riot, Olunde says that the only reason he can think of for a riot would be if Pilkings succeeded in stopping Elesin.
Jane not knowing what's going on again shows the reader how little Pilkings thinks of her and how little power she has. Pilkings still thinks that he’s helping by saving Elesin, when really he’s causing a riot.
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From a distance, Olunde and Jane hear Elesin bellowing angrily for the white men to get their hands off of him. Jane tries to move Olunde inside as Pilkings gives the order to carry Elesin. Elesin continues to shout at the white men until they gag him. With another low bellow, Elesin breaks away from his captors and runs until he sees Olunde. At this point, he stops dead. The constables catch up and try to hold him, but Jane screams at them to let him go. Pilkings gives the order and the constables let Elesin go. Elesin collapses at Olunde's feet. Olunde looks at Elesin and says that he doesn't have a father anymore. He calls Elesin an "eater of leftovers" and walks away.
Olunde's reaction to seeing his father shows that Elesin's inability to die is something that dishonors him immensely to everyone, even family—and even a family member that is supposedly “Westernized.” Saying that Elesin eats leftovers now is a way for Olunde to show Elesin how unimportant and dishonorable he is (it’s also a callback to the women insulting Amusa by saying that he eats the English’s leftovers). The fact that Jane is successful in getting the constables to let go of Elesin shows that she has some degree of power, but she is still extremely limited in situations like this.
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