Reverend James Smith, a strict and intolerant man, replaces Mr. Brown. He demands the utmost obedience to the letter of the Bible and disapproves of Mr. Brown’s tolerant and unorthodox policies. The more zealous converts are relieved to be free of Mr. Brown’s policy of restraint. One such convert, Enoch, dares to unmask an
They then gather in front of the church to confront Reverend Smith and his fellow Christians. They tell the Christians that they only wish to destroy the church in order to cleanse their village of Enoch’s horrible sin. Smith replies that he will stand his ground. He forbids them to touch the church, but his interpreter alters Smith’s statement for fear that the unvarnished truth will be too harsh and that he will suffer as the messenger of bad news. He tells the
Okonkwo is almost happy again, despite the fact that his clan did not agree to kill the Christians or drive them away. Even so, he and the rest of the villagers are on their guard, and for the next two days they arm themselves with guns and machetes. The District Commissioner returns from his tour and requests that the leaders of Umuofia meet with him. They go, taking only their machetes because guns would be “unseemly.” The commissioner talks to them in condescending terms and says that they should discuss the church’s burning “as friends.”
No sooner have they put their machetes on the floor than a group of soldiers surprises them. They are handcuffed and thrown in jail for several days, where they suffer insults and physical abuse. A kind of bail is set at two hundred bags of cowries. The court messengers tell the people of Umuofia that they must pay a fine of two hundred and fifty bags of cowries or their leaders will be hanged—by upping the price these messengers will make a profit as intermediaries. The town crier announces an emergency village meeting. Even Ezinma returns home from her twenty-eight-day visit to her future in-laws. The next morning they decide to collect the cowries necessary to pay the fine.
Reverend Smith causes a great deal of conflict between the church and the clan with his refusal to understand and respect traditional Igbo culture. Mr. Brown, by contrast, is far more lenient with the converts’ retention of some of their old beliefs and doesn’t draw as clear a line between the converts and the Igbo community. Smith, however, demands a complete rejection of the converts’ old religious beliefs. The text ironically comments that he “sees things as black and white.” While on the one hand this comment refers simply to an inability to grasp the gradations in a given situation, it also refers, of course, to race relations and colonial power.
Interestingly, Achebe has named Smith’s predecessor “Brown,” as if to suggest that the latter’s practice of compromise and benevolence is in some way related to his ability to see the shades between the poles of black and white. Smith, by contrast, is a stereotypical European colonialist, as the generic quality of his name reflects. His inability to practice mutual respect and tolerance incites a dangerous zealous fervor in some of the more eager converts, such as Enoch. Smith’s attitude encourages Enoch to insult traditional Igbo culture.
That Enoch is the son of the snake-priest makes his suspected killing of the sacred python all the more dire a transgression. Enoch’s conversion and alleged attack on the python emblematize the transition from the old order to the new. The old religion, with its insistence on deism and animal worship, is overturned from within by one. In its place comes the new religion, which, for all its protestations of love and harmony, brandishes a fiery logic and fierce resolve to convert the Igbo at any cost.
Enoch figures as a double for Okonkwo, although they espouse different beliefs. They are similar in temperament, and each man rebels against the practices and legacies of his father. Like Okonkwo, Enoch feels above all others in his tradition. He also feels contempt for them—he imagines that every sermon is “preached for the benefit of his enemies,” and, in the middle of church, he gives knowing looks whenever he feels that his superiority has been affirmed. Most important, in his blind and unthinking adherence to Christianity, Enoch allows his violent desires to take over, just as Okonkwo is prone to do.
The language barrier between the colonists and the villagers enables a crucial misunderstanding to take place. Unawareness of his interpreter’s attempt to appease the villagers, Smith considers the burning of the church an open show of disrespect for the church and his authority. The power that the interpreter holds highlights the weaknesses and vulnerability created by the language gap, reinforcing Mr. Brown’s belief that reading and writing are essential skills for the villagers if they hope to maintain their autonomy. This miscommunication reminds us of Parrot’s trickiness in Ekwefi’s story about Tortoise.
Okonkwo’s desire to respond violently to the Christian church is not completely motivated by a desire to preserve his clan’s cultural traditions. He has been fantasizing for many years about making a big splash with his return to his village, but the church has changed things so much that his return fails to incite the interest that he has anticipated. He has also hoped that his daughters’ marriages would help to bring him some reflected glory but, again, his daughters’ suitors did not cause Umuofia to notice him. The opportunity to once again be a warrior represents Okonkwo’s last chance to recapture some of his former glory. His motivations for wanting revenge, including his humiliation in the jail, are deeply personal.