We will discuss one short story in this article as a representative study for the illustration of some of the features of a short story. We will identify the theme, the setting, the tone and discuss characterization. Remember that I said that short stories are so short that you can start and finish one within a few minutes. This one, I read for the first time in fifteen minutes, gave it to my daughter who read it within almost the same time because it has only 22 pages from pages 48-69 of a collection of twelve short stories published in one hundred and twenty three pages. You can see that even with twelve stories the volume is smaller than his famous novelsThings Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savanah. This will give you an idea of how short the short story is.
Please, get all the texts we will analyse in this module and read them very well for a better understanding of the works as we discuss them. I deliberately included texts that you can get easily from the market and the ones you can read and enjoy the story.
Background of the Author/Work
Chinua Achebe does not need much introduction. He is from Ogidi in the present Anambra State of Nigeria. Achebe is known primarily as a novelist though he is also a poet. His novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958is considered one of the most important African novels.
He has written relatively few short stories in his career, but his collection Girls at War and Other Stories like his novels, has received overwhelming positive reviews from critics. This his story, “Vengeful Creditor” first appeared in 1971 in the inaugural issue of Okike: A Nigerian Journal of New Writing, founded by Achebe, and it was later reprinted in his collection of stories, Girls at War and Other Storiesfrom which we chose the short story for study in this article.
The main theme of the short story is betrayal. Mr. and MrsEmenike promise to send their maid, Veronica, to school but did not eventually. They therefore betray the trust both Vero and her mother had in them before Vero left the village to live with them. She was made to understand that the condition for sending her to school is the growth and maturity of Goddy, (the baby she is to take care of for them). Unfortunately, in her own estimation, Goddy is not growing as fast as she wants so he feels betrayed. She feels that sending her to school was a debt they owe her but unfortunately, the ‘debt’ could not be paid until the boy she is looking after is no longer there. In her naivety, she tries to poison the boy hoping that they would send her to school if the boy dies. It boomerangs and she is sent home instead.
In the subject matter Achebe presents an impoverished young girl whose hope of going to school was dashed and in frustration, tries to poison the baby she is looking after because the baby, Goddy “wasn’t growing fast enough” for her to go to school. The story focuses on the gap between the wealthy and the poor in the tumultuous environment of a haphazardly modernizing African country. The overt political issue at stake is the government’s institution of free primary education for children, a policy the well-to-do Emenikes resent because it means that they will have difficulty keeping their servants.
In order to obtain a nurse for their baby, Mr. Emenike promises an impoverished girl that she will eventually be able to go to school – her only chance at obtaining a better life for herself. She agrees and follows him to the city to take care of his baby. Gradually, it dawns on Vero that she may not realize her dream of going to school because “more weeks passed and little Goddy was beginning to say a few words but still no one spoke about Vero going to school”(63). As it becomes clear that the Emenikes are not going to make good on their promise, the maid, Veronica, becomes increasingly resentful and acts out her frustration on the Emenikes and their child by giving a red ink to the baby hoping that the baby might die and she would be free to go to school.
“Vengeful Creditor” opens as Mrs. Emenike, an educated and well-to-do Nigerian woman, is coming out of a supermarket. She is irritated at the decline in the standards of service in the store ever since the government instituted free primary education. She complains that her household servants have been quitting lately, returning to their native villages to go to school.
She wonders how “a working woman with a seven-month-old baby” is expected to cope. The newspaper has published many letters written by highly educated people who are critical of the government’s policy. The Emenikes are representative of these critics: he is a mid-level bureaucrat, while she is a social welfare officer. They oppose the programme and are affected by it directly when several of their servants quit because they want to go to school. The defection of their baby-nurse makes Mrs. Emenike particularly angry.
However, since more than twice as many children have enrolled in school as the government had anticipated, financing for the scheme becomes a problem and after a single school term, the programme is suspended.
In an impoverished village, one of the people who is “broken-hearted” at the suspension of free education is Veronica, a ten-year-old girl whose widowed mother, Martha, is struggling to care for four children. Martha is educated, having attended a missionary school, but the death of her carpenter husband has left her a destitute. She therefore allows her daughter Vero to be taken to the city by Mr. Emenike to cater for his baby but with a promise that she will go to school.
Vero takes care of the baby but with each passing day, herhope of going to school grows dimmer as the baby, in her estimation is not growing fast. She therefore decides to poison the boy to make way for her to go to school. Her action boomerangs as she is treated like a criminal by both her foster parents and her mother.
The story is set in an unnamed independent African country. However, the names of the characters and some transliterated expressions show that it is set in Igboland, South-East of Nigeria. The fact that Chinua Achebe is from Anambra State lends credence to that fact.
The characters are developed within the limitations of time and space available to the author. There are few major characters while the minor characters are presented and disposed of appropriately.An interesting aspect of characterization in this short story is the delineation of characters through language. The characters who have acquired higher Western education speak Standard English while the illiterate and semi-literate ones communicate in pidgin.
The language is simple and direct. There is minimal use of imagery or symbolism.Language is used appropriately to convey the hilarious mood that pervades the story. The issue presented in the story is a serious one but is treated in a comic tone that suits the satiric mode of the story. “Vengeful Creditor” in particular is noted for its satirical qualities in depicting “women and their aspirations, blighted … by the society and the circumstances that surround them.” () The atmosphere of sadness is also present in Vero’s melancholic attitude at home with Goddy. It shows the young girl’s thoughts and her feelings really well when the family she was working for denied her the education that they promised.
“Vengeful Creditor” is about the young girl whose hope of going to school was raised and dashed by the inconsistencies of the Government that initiated free education programme and aborted it almost immediately. It contains a lot of humour while commenting one politics and the social aspect of going to find a child to look after your own child. Amazingly, all these are presented in just a few pages, filled with a resounding message.
In this short story, Chinua Achebe presents the sad tale of a young girl who was denied an opportunity for education. This is a short story which is a sub-genre of prose fiction. You can read it in a few minutes. It is humourous and interesting so make sure that you read it for a fuller understanding of the story. The language is simple and the subject matter, contemporary.