"Jonathan Iwegbu counted himself extra-ordinarily lucky."
This sentence both opens "Civil Peace" and introduces one of its major themes: positive thinking. The story is centered around the thematic conflict between Jonathan's optimism and the war-torn world in which he is trying to make a new life. This first line establishes the protagonist's positivity, which helps him successfully navigate post-war Nigeria despite the significant losses he has suffered. As someone who believed in the instructive power of writing, Chinua Achebe likely meant Jonathan to act as a model for his fellow countrymen ("Africa and Her Writers" 617). Either way, he makes Jonathan's personality extremely clear from the beginning.
"He had come out of the war with five inestimable blessings--his head, his wife Maria's head and the heads of three out of their four children."
An early sentence, this passage reflects the thematic conflict of the story, between Jonathan's optimism and war-torn world around him. He succeeds largely because he is able to focus only on the former. The sentence structure here focuses on the surviving family members, and introduces the death of Jonathan's son only indirectly. Though the death of Jonathan's son represents his most devastating loss, it remains relatively hidden throughout "Civil Peace". It is only mentioned once more, almost incidentally, when the narrator describes the place Jonathan buried his bike. However, the survival of the remaining family members is mentioned several more times, highlighting the story's emphasis on "blessings" instead of losses. The horrors of the Civil War remain a dark undercurrent, but never overwhelm Jonathan's constructive and hopeful approach to life. In this way, he is a model, both for other individuals and for struggling governments.
"That night he buried it in the little clearing in the bush where the dead of the camp, including his own youngest son, were buried."
The only explicit reference to Jonathan's deceased child in "Civil Peace" is buried in an anecdote about the near-theft of a bicycle. This passage is taken from that anecdote. Instead of emphasizing grief, the language is active, detailing the decision Jonathan makes in order to move forward. The death here is not, as might be expected, an anecdote of its own, but simply serves as a marker in the scenery of another story, one about progress rather than reflection. This approach is representative of the way violence is portrayed throughout "Civil Peace"; it serves a subtext, always present but rarely directly referenced. And further, it establishes the reason Jonathan prefers a perspective of that sort: it allows him to succeed.
"Nothing puzzles God."
Jonathan first uses this phrase, but the narrator adopts and repeats it several times throughout the story. Ultimately, its centrality reflects how well it captures the story's primary conflict, between Jonathan's optimism and the war-torn world in which he lives. Jonathan ultimately succeeds because he is able to ignore matters over which he has very little control, and focus instead on what is in his power.
In one interview, Achebe spoke of the role of God and evil in Ibo society in Southeastern Nigeria, explaining that "the Ibo do not struggle against the fact of imperfection, but believe that it is their duty to make the world a better place through their work. Evil is to be expected and recognized--this is the only way to proceed in the world" (Sanderson 27). Taken in this context, the quote reflects not only Jonathan's temperament but also a cultural perspective that prizes hard work and optimism.
"Of courses the doors and windows were missing and five sheets off the roof. But what was that?"
This quote demonstrates Jonathan's positive outlook. His overwhelming joy at finding his house standing in the aftermath of the war outshines the significant damage it incurred, or the destruction the rest of his hometown has suffered. The paragraph leading up to this sentence describes at length Jonathan's genuine gratitude and happiness. When the damage to his home is finally referenced, it is spoken of quickly, and immediately put into a larger context: "But what was that?" The story remains realistic by acknowledging the negative, but then emphasizes the positive, ultimately promoting resilience in the face of adversity.
"As the weeks lengthened and still nobody could say what was what Jonathan discontinued his weekly visits altogether and faced his palm-wine bar."
This is another passage that reveals Jonathan's positive outlook, and suggests how it leads him to success. Instead of relying on the government like the desperate miners waiting outside the national Coal Corporation's offices, Jonathan embraces his own hard work and abilities. Authority, in this instance represented by the government-owned coal mine, proves unreliable in the post-war period; the mine is closed indefinitely, and information is not forthcoming. Faced with this reality, Jonathan decides to invest all his time into his own private venture: the palm-wine bar he opened for soldiers. By taking responsibility for his and his family's survival, he avoids the fate of the homeless and starving miners. Overall, the story suggests that we must generally look out for ourselves in difficult periods, as both the government and our community can fall apart in the face of severe trauma.
"He had to be extra careful because he had seen a man a couple of days earlier collapse into near-madness in an instant before that oceanic crowd because no sooner had he got his twenty pounds than some heartless ruffian picked it off him."
This passage is from an important moment in the story, one that poses a stark contrast to Jonathan's worldview. First, Jonathan shows extreme care, revealing that his optimism is hardly naive. He knows how dangerous and volatile post-war Nigeria can be. Moreover, the man's behavior here stands as counterpoint to Jonathan's behavior later in the story when he himself is robbed. Jonathan accepts the theft, and he and his family immediately fall back into their routine of hard work, whereas this man fell into a public "near-madness". Where Jonathan is a survivor, the agonized man is a "victim". Because Jonathan maintains this outlook, he is able to find some success is a dangerous world.
"My frien... we don try our best for call dem but I tink say dem all done sleep-o... So wetin we go do now? Sometaim you wan call soja? Or you wan make we call dem for you? Soja better pass police. No be so?"
Here, the thief leader mockingly offers to call over some soldiers to protect Jonathan and his family. The mocking tone, in the midst of such a tense situation, reveals perhaps the most depressing aspect of post-war Nigeria: the disappearance of community. In particular, this passage reveals how unreliable the soldiers and police are. However, in its context, the passage reminds the family that nobody is going to step forward to help them. Everyone has learned to look out for himself.
This passage also gives some indication of who the thieves might be. The English here is substantially different from that used by Jonathan and the narrator. Clearly, Jonathan has more education than these men, which could explain why they have resorted to such crime. Finally, the language could be intended to have a comedic effect, undercutting the violence of the situation with the ridiculousness of broken language ("Civil Peace" 20).
"No Civil War again. This time na Civil Peace. No be so?"
This passage, spoken by the thief leader, not only gives the story its title but also underlines its central irony. The aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War is neither peaceful nor civil. The threat of violence lurks throughout, despite Jonathan's positive outlook: a man is robbed of his money outside a government building, and thieves roam residential neighborhoods robbing and potentially assaulting families. The barrier between Jonathan and the violence of the Civil War is thin, both literally and figuratively - the thief's knocking threatens to tear down the door, and Jonathan finds his family completely unprotected by society. In this way the 'Civil Peace' is not completely different from the Civil War. All of the story's questions about personal responsibility are framed by the danger implied in this ironic phrase.
"'I count it as nothing,' he told sympathizers, his eyes on the rope he was tying. 'What is egg-rasher? Did I depend on it last week? Or is it greater than other things that went with the war? I say, let egg-rasher perish in the flames! Let it go where everything else has gone. Nothing puzzles God.'"
In this final moment of the story, Jonathan reveals the same persistence that is already helping him rebuild his life post-war. After being robbed in the middle of the night, Jonathan rises and moves forward, rather than reflecting on his poor fortune the night before. Even as he speaks to his neighbors, he keeps working.
And yet the passage reveals that his optimism is not naive. On the contrary, it references the pain of war. He implies that he lost much greater things in the war; the reader can infer this means his youngest son. He clearly knows what it is to lose - he says the egg-rasher can now go "where everything else has gone". And yet he will not pretend to knowledge of good and bad fortune that only God can have. Instead, he moves forward.
Civil Peace Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Civil Peace is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
King was in solitary confinement at the time he wrote the letter. He responded in newspaper margins because that was all he had to write on. He was given paper when he was released from solitary confinement.