2006-2010 Literary Analysis

An Odyssey Through Ulysses

“It will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”
-James Joyce

2006-2010 Literary Analysis

A Barthesian Analysis of Dead Men’s Path

French critic Roland Barthes made perhaps his greatest contribution to structuralist literary theory by way of the Five Codes, which seek to find the plurality of meaning found in texts. The hermeneutic code refers to the gradual release of information by the author that pose questions to the reader, who then must read further to illuminate these mysteries. Similarly, the proairetic code acts to build suspense in a reader whose expectation of specific action will be set according the revelation of new information via the hermeneutic code. Simply put, the hermeneutic code answers mental questions posed by the reader, whereas the proairetc code sets the reader’s expectations of forthcoming action. These two irreversible codes rely on temporality and only become clear on a complete reading of the text. The remaining three codes are reversible, meaning that they do not rely on temporality and can be experienced independent of the narrative’s chronology. The semantic code refers to any element of a text that provides additional meaning within the parameters of the text by way of connotation. The symbolic code is a “deeper” structural concept that arranges semantic meanings through antitheses or mediation within a binary opposition. The cultural code pertains to narrative elements that refer to a body of knowledge outside of the text. Applying these codes to any text show the unfathomable depth of language and meaning at play in a piece of literature. To wit, following Barthes’s method of analysis on just the title and first paragraph of Chinua Achebe’s short story, “Dead Man’s Path,” a tale describing a progressive young educator in colonial Africa illustrates how fruitful Barthes method of analysis is, and from analyzing these two elements alone, a reader can form a deeper understanding of the text as a whole.

“Dead Men’s Path”

The title invites the reader to ask several questions: Where does the path lead? Who walks upon it? Dead men? Or do men die as a result of walking on this path? Is the path strictly reserved for the feet of men, or can women also walk upon it? These questions are all in turn answered within the narrative: the path connects the shrine of village nearby the school to the village’s burial grounds. The villagers themselves use the path occasionally, but as the village priest of Ani explains, “Our dead relatives depart by it and our ancestors visit us by it. But most important, it is the path of children coming in to be born.” Michael’s attention is initially called to the path when he witnesses a woman using the path after he and his wife went to great lengths to beautify the school. In addition to engaging the hermeneutic code, the short story’s title also engages the semantic and symbolic codes, for this walkway represents more than a simple footpath to the villagers. On the semantic level, it literally represents the lifeline of the village by which the young come and the dead go. To Michael however, the path represents the traditional and non-progressive attitudes that he must overcome. Thus, the path employs the symbolic code by creating a dichotomy between modernity (represented by Michael) and tradition (represented by the villagers). It further engages the symbolic code by juxtaposing life and death against each other, for dead men have no need for a footpath. As one can see, Barthes’s method of analysis yields much fodder for discussion. To continue, let us review each of the sentences in the first paragraph of Achebe’s story.

Michael Obi’s hopes were fulfilled much earlier than he had expected.

The first sentence invites the reader to ask who is Michael Obi, and what are his hopes? His name, Anglicized and African simultaneously, suggests that he may live during a period of colonial rule in Africa, a suspicion confirmed in the second and third sentences, which establish—along with his hopes of being a headmaster—Michael’s location in space and time as a young man near the Ndume Central School in January 1949, thus situating the character in time and space via history and geography, components of the cultural code. The fulfillment of Michael’s hopes also employs the proairetic code in that it intimates to the reader that if he or she continues, he or she will learn what Michael’s hopes are and how they have been fulfilled. That Michael’s “hopes” were fulfilled as opposed to his “prayers” may also hint at his attitudes toward religion, which come into play later in the story. Thus, the first sentence of the story also engages the semantic code as well.   

He was appointed headmaster of Ndume Central School in January 1949.

As mentioned previously, the second sentence locates Michael via the cultural code by referring to a specific place and time, and with just a few words, the reader’s understanding of Michael’s world comes into much sharper focus. Achebe can rely on the reader to create a picture of the place in his or her head without having to describe it in further detail. Semantically, the term “headmaster” is somewhat ironic in that the woman who first calls Michael’s attention to the pathway flouts his extremely limited power. That Michael’s role of headmaster over the students is not depicted at all within the story underlines the emptiness of his position. Indeed, Michael’s position of “headmaster” falls beneath several others, including that of the white supervisor sent to inspect Michael’s progress at the school. The sentence also sets the reader’s expectations (engaging the proairetic code) by suggesting that the school will perhaps figure into the story’s conflict in some way or another. On the hermeneutic level, the second sentence answers one of the questions brought forth by the first sentence, I.E. what Michael Obi’s ostensible hopes are, but it also poses several more questions which must now be answered: why was Michael Obi appointed for the position? Who appointed him? What kind of school is this? Will Michael Obi be successful in his new position of headmaster?

It had always been an unprogressive school, so the Mission authorities decided to send a young and energetic man to run it.     The next sentence answers more of the reader’s questions created by the first and second sentences: Michael was chosen by the Mission authorities to run the school, which is struggling due to its clinging to tradition. It also further describes Michael as “young” and “energetic,” which help the reader create a mental image of Michael in his or her head. The Mission’s decision to send someone such as Michael may not seem like the best idea to the reader, which helps build suspense within the story according to the proairetic code; did the Mission make the right decision? The word “authority” holds deeper meaning within the text because Michael’s authority is thwarted by the village, and his attempts to quell them are unsuccessful. Symbolically, “unprogressive,” “Mission authorities,” and “young” suggest the main binary oppositions around which the story revolves: youth/age; modernity/tradition; educated/non-educated; and colonial culture/indigenous culture. 

Obi accepted this responsibility with enthusiasm.

    While not as fruitful with new information or ideas as the previous sentences, the fourth sentence further personifies Michael as someone who is passionate about his job. On the semantic level, one should compare Michael’s enthusiastic acceptance of the responsibility of running the school with his “outspoken…condemnation” of the “less-educated ones.” Michael’s inability to accept views differing from his ultimately leads to his undoing at the end of the story. One question that may come to mind at this point is why Michael so passionately accepts this responsibility, which the following sentence addresses:

He had many wonderful ideas and this was an opportunity to put them into practice.

    Michael’s motives for accepting the position are now clear; he hopes to use his power at the school to implement his “wonderful” ideas, but now the reader wonders to himself or herself: what are Michael’s ideas? How will he implement them? Will he be successful? This sentence also sets the reader’s expectations that Michael will somehow or another try to implement these ideas, and his success or failure will somehow figure into the story’s events. The word “practice” connotes additional meaning in the story because the village’s practices regarding the pathway bisecting the school forms the story’s central conflict.

He had had sound secondary school education which designated him a “pivotal teacher” in the official records and set him apart from the other headmasters in the mission field.

He was outspoken in his condemnation of the narrow views of these older and often less-educated ones.

Achebe, Chinua. “Dead Men’s Path.”

Ironstone, Paul. Cara Leitch, Annabel Onyango, and Courtney Unruh. “Roland Barthes: Understanding Text.”