Chinua Achebe’s 1966 short story, entitled “Uncle Ben’s Choice,” is an enjoyable one that reads as pleasantly as a folk tale. The Nigerian writer has cleverly buried in the story a moral that educates its readers of the conflicting views between his personal native customs and those enforced by European colonialism. The Igbo culture, from which Achebe hails, focuses on the importance of family; the Nigerians, likewise, place a high degree of significance upon the worth and value of their children. The theme of “Uncle Ben’s Choice” focuses on an examination of how these African values of community have overcome the avarice and other enticements of the city that come along with the establishment of British colonial authority in Africa. Achebe’s usage of first person narration to develop character and the careful utilization of plot are the main contributors that reinforce this theme.
Achebe’s use of first-person narrative formulates the inclusion of exaggeration, nostalgia, lighthearted jolliness, and unruly humor which are typical of a traditional African folk tale. The opening paragraph of the story, for instance, uses these techniques to set up the tone and presents the reader with an abundance of information that will be necessary for the future analysis of the theme. The author writes in the first sentence that the year is “nineteen hundred and nineteen” which immediately tells the readers that the story takes place during the age of British colonialism (3). Jolly Ben works as a clerk in a trading company earning a salary of “two pounds ten,” which is an exceptionally great salary, according to the author (3). Achebe wants us to know that Jolly Ben could afford to live a fast-paced, exuberantly prosperous lifestyle like those of his colleagues, but he has specifically chosen not to. This is important to the theme of the story because it introduces the reader to this idea that African values are based on a different system than those of the European colonists. The Nigerian, represented by Uncle Ben, finds happiness in riches unseen. The author clearly intends for him to be a man who surpasses the temptations of life with a simplistic love of inner peace and happiness. This recurrence of broken innocence in relation to the values of traditional African peoples is further enhanced as the narration continues to augment the thickening plot.
The end of Uncle Ben’s innocence, however, occurs when the protagonist momentarily loses his guard. Jolly Ben engages in what seemed to be a harmless conversation with a young European woman named Margaret. The author makes a point to state that Jolly Ben “did not see her in time to hide” when Margaret walks past him, thus begins her attempt to “convert [Ben] to Roman Catholic[ism]” (4). The narrator then describes how Uncle Ben “stopped all that foolishness”, insinuating how ridiculous it was for the colonialists to try to force the Africans to adopt their beliefs and honor their worldly riches.
It is shortly after this moment in the story, at one fateful New Year’s Eve party, that Jolly Ben’s life-long labor to live in an enduring state of innocence is put to an abrupt halt.
Our loveable hero “[has] one roasted chicken and a tin of Guinea Gold," faithfully rides his bicycle home and retires to bed, where he finds a woman lying next to him (5). It is stated that Ben, alarmed by the texture of her strange hair, which was "soft like the hair of a European," jumps out of the bed, asking the lady to reveal her identity and threatening her with fire (5). Jolly Ben waits until he realizes that it is a European woman until he gets upset and demands her swift absence. According to the author, this is because a European woman could only have evil intentions (4). The tale of Uncle “Jolly” Ben quickly ends, and in line with Achebe’s theme, it does so in typical oral storytelling fashion that reinforces the differentiating values between the tribe and the Colonists.
The lesson concludes with the story of the British doctor, J.M. Stuart-Young, and Mami Wota. Stuart-Young’s character adds great significance because he, unlike Jolly Ben, acted against traditional Nigerian wisdom. Achebe writes of the doctor that, “he became the richest man in the whole country. But [Mami Wota] did not allow him to marry. When he died…all his wealth went to outsiders.God forbid" (7). Ben,however, resists the temptation to sleep with the Mami Wota, and thereby gives up the possibility of riches and material possessions so he can one day raise a family. The European doctor, however, dies a lonely man with no heirs to carry on his family name. This, according to Igbo culture, is far worse than living without wealth.
It should be noted that “Uncle Ben’s Choice” was taken from an oral tradition; this, consequently, heightens the focus of the intrinsic value of the Nigerian children because it was intended to be told orally. As such, especially in comparison to non-African folk tales, Achebe’s work should encourage the teaching to future generations of the lonely fate in store to those who cherish riches over family lineage.
Achebe, Chinua. “Uncle Ben’s Choice.” The Seagull Reader: Stories. Ed. Joseph Kelly. New York, NH: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 3-7.