(1962), a collection of thirteen short stories by Achebe. This collection was enlarged and published as Girls at War (1972) (reprinted in 1973 and revised and republished in 1977). From the latest edition Achebe removed “Polar Undergraduate” and “In a Village Church” and added “Sugar Baby, ” first published in Okike, No. 3 (1972).
Achebe's short stories fall into three general classes. First are those that dramatize a conflict between traditional and modern values, such as “The Sacrificial Egg, ” “Dead Man's Path, ” and “Marriage Is a Private Affair.” Second are those stories that display the nature of custom and religious belief without attempting to probe or explain their meaning. A third grouping includes the stories that deal with aspects of the Nigerian Civil War, one of which gives the enlarged volume its title.
All of the stories are ironic in tone and reveal different levels of irony. “The Madman” tells the story of Nwibe, a man who through hard work has achieved wealth in the form of a successful farm, several wives, and many children. Proud and ambitious, he aspires to the highest titles in his clan. His ambition is thwarted, however, when, as he bathes in a local river, a madman steals his clothes. In his pursuit of the madman he inadvertently offends the local deity. His quest is ruined, and Nwibe, not the man who has stolen his clothes, is seen as a madman. “Such a man” writes Achebe, “is marked forever” (10). Nwibe is seen, through the eyes of the man who has stolen his clothing, as embodying all those who have oppressed him, who have denied him the right to live his life as he pleases. Ironically, the opposition between sanity and insanity remains ambiguous, as do answers to such questions as what is just behavior and what is fit punishment.
A lighter irony informs “Uncle Ben's Choice.” Told retrospectively by the eponymous hero, the story tells of one of the most important events of Ben's life. The time is New Year's Eve, 1919. Ben returns home after a lavish party at the club in Umbra to find his bed occupied by a woman of compelling pulchritude. Ben climbs in but then flees his bed and his home when he finds that he is in bed with Mami Wota, the Lady of the River Niger. If he stays with her, she will give him wealth but deny him children. What is wealth without children, the story asks? It provides an answer: Mami Wota becomes the lover of an English trader on the Niger who achieves