The narrator introduces us to Jonathan Iwegbu, a man who considers himself very lucky after having survived the Nigerian Civil War, which has just ended. Not only has most of his family - his wife (Maria Iwegbu), and three of the four children - survived with him, but he has even managed to hold on to his old bicycle. Because of his luck, he embraces the way his neighbors now greet one another: "Happy Survival!"
Though he knows his bike is nowhere as valuable as his family is, keeping it was also a "miracle" of its own. He almost lost the bike during the war, when an army officer dressed in rags attempted to commandeer it. Sensing a “certain lack of grip and firmness in his manner,” Jonathan guessed that the officer might accept a bribe in exchange for the bike. After the army officer complied, Jonathan buried the bicycle for safe-keeping, in the same clearing where his son and other casualties from the camp were interred.
After the war, he retrieves it, still in good condition. Feeling blessed with this good luck, he muses, “Nothing puzzles God.” He returns to this sentiment time and again when contemplating his good fortune.
Using the bike to start a taxi service, he soon accumulates a “small fortune", which funds his return to his hometown, Enugu. There, he encounters another minor miracle: his house is still standing. Though it is small and hand-constructed from zinc, wood, and cardboard, it has survived relatively unscathed whereas most of the surrounding bigger buildings have been destroyed. Having returned so early, most of the wreckage is untouched. He collects what he needs to repair the house, and then hires a poor carpenter for the labor.
Soon enough, he moves his family back home, and they return to work. His children pick mangoes to sell to soldiers’ wives, while Maria makes breakfast cakes to sell to the neighbors. Jonathan himself opens a palm-wine bar for soldiers and other people with money. He occasionally visits the Coal Corporation, where he had worked before the war, but it shows no signs of reopening.
After days standing in line to turn in his rebel currency, Jonathan receives 20 pounds from the government Treasury. This payment - which is "like Christmas for him and many others" - is known as an ex-gratia award, or an award given not out of legal obligation, but as a gift. Because few can pronounce the term, it is known as egg-rasher.
Jonathan is very nervous about losing the money, after having seen a robbery victim collapse in desperation when he discovered his award had been pick-pocketed. To protect his own gift, Jonathan balls the bills in his fist and stuffs his hand in his pocket, keeping his eyes down to avoid running into anyone on his way home.
He remains anxious during the rest of the day, and has trouble falling asleep that night. Soon after he finally drifted off, he wakes to the sound of someone knocking at his door. It is extremely late. He asks who knocks, and the man identifies himself as thief with "him [sic] people."
Maria immediately screams for help, and Jonathan and the children soon join her, calling to both the neighbors and the police. They stop after a few moments, to hear only silence. The thief leader then mockingly offers to help, leading his thief chorus into even louder cries for help. Jonathan realizes there are least five other men with the leader.
Having proven his point - nobody will come to help the family - the thief leader mockingly asks if he should now call for soldiers. Jonathan tells them not to bother.
The thief leader then asks for 100 pounds, and insists they will not hurt the family. He wants "no Civil War again," only a "Civil Peace."
Swearing he only has 20 pounds to his name, Jonathan offers it to them. Some of the group insists he must be lying, and insist they search the house. The leader silences them and accepts the 20 pounds.
The next morning, neighbors visit to express their sympathy. They find the family already hard at work preparing for the day - Jonathan strapping a wine jug to his bike, Maria cooking breakfast cakes, and his son cleaning old wine bottles. It is as if nothing had happened.
Jonathan tells his neighbors that the loss of the egg-rasher money was nothing to him, as he had lost much more than that in the war. He ends by saying, “Nothing puzzles God.”
The story's opening operates on a contrast. At the same time that it introduces the reader to Jonathan’s constructive outlook, it obliquely references the extent of the war's devastation.
Jonathan not only considers himself lucky, but has an almost dazed optimism in his manner and attitude. Everywhere he looks, he sees not cause for mourning but rather opportunity and fortune. Consider when he returns home to Enugu. Instead of lamenting the devastation of his hometown, he celebrates his own little victory and gets to work.
And yet this attitude is not about ego. Instead, the religious language - "blessing" and "miracle" are used a lot - suggests how his attitude is actually shaped by humility. Jonathan seems to understand that he is at the mercy of circumstances bigger than his control, and thus revels in his seeming good fortune. He rarely celebrates his own cleverness or skill, but rather recognizes everything down to his survival as a special gift. In his mind, he is given not only life, but also his bicycle, his house, and later, the egg-rasher money. His key phrase - "Nothing puzzles God" - reflects his ability to move forward without being consumed by darkness. Jonathan's piety and resolve play a large role in his resilience at the end.
Achebe certainly sees this optimism as remarkable, considering how much cause there is to be potentially pessimistic. The greeting Jonathan and his neighbors use - "Happy Survival!" - evokes the extent of the tragedy they have survived: the Nigerian Civil War which raged from 1967 to 1970. Though Jonathan's exact role in the conflict is not discussed in the story, it is clear from context that he is Igbo, the people who had fought for independence from Nigeria but were defeated in 1970. During the animosities, the Igbo were heavily persecuted by the forces seeking to reunite Nigeria. (See the Additional Content section of this ClassicNote for more detail on the war.) So Jonathan's family would have most certainly been immersed by the war, the men possibly enlisted to fight as 'rebels', or all surviving as refugees. In other words, their entire world had been ripped apart.
Achebe personalizes Jonathan's tragedy through details that surface despite Jonathan's optimistic outlook. For instance, his delight that three of his four children had survived indirectly alludes to the death of his fourth child. Further, during the war, he used that child's burial ground to hide his bicycle. The anecdote is presented as a victory, hardly mentioning any remorse for or reflection over the boy's demise. Jonathan celebrates the success of his plan, ironically revealing the level of dehumanization his people have suffered. His child's resting place has become a repository, to some extent suggesting that he has come to view human remains simply as objects in the face of such devastation.
Another way Achebe evokes the horrors of the war is through his language. Saying that the Iwegbu family had “come out of the war” with their “heads,” Achebe employs a synecdoche which raises the specter of decapitation and other violence. The body is viewed as a collection of pieces, again implying a sense of dehumanization. This wording is repeated several times throughout "Civil Peace" to continually remind us of the war's violence and chaos.
Perhaps one of the saddest implications is that the war has destroyed Jonathan's sense of community. He is almost entirely focused on himself and his family; almost never in the story does he wonder how his actions will benefit or affect anyone else. The story does not judge him for this quality - how could it, given the war he had just survived? - but does imply that years of misery had taught people to look out only for themselves. It is yet another way that the war has dehumanized its victims. That idea is echoed, of course, when nobody tries to help the family when they are accosted by thieves.
And certainly, Jonathan and other Igbo cannot rely on authority for any guidance. The story's first representative of authority - the disheveled army officer - establishes this distrust. Not only is the man potentially just trying to steal the bike (claiming it is for military purposes), but he is easily satiated with a bribe. His only bargaining chip is his authority (and presumably his weapon). And of course, he is ostensibly Jonathan's representative, on the 'rebel' side. Authority is considered unreliable in "Civil Peace" - this is clear when Jonathan chooses not to call for soldiers when accosted. He knows they cannot be trusted to help. It is no surprise that people have had to turn to themselves, when their own communities are decimated, the opposing army wants to persecute them, and their own army will gladly exploit them.
(Along these lines, one interesting possibility, detailed in The Short Stories for Students, is that the thieves might well be former soldiers. This would explain the machine gun they own, as well as their group efficiency. If one accepts this interpretation, then authority is actually presented not only as inefficient, but also as dangerous.)
Of course, Jonathan is not only fortunate, but also focused and efficient. As mentioned above, he sees in his decimated town not cause for grief, but opportunity. Instead of viewing the wreckage as remains of a former life, he sees them as materials for his home's future. His philosophy is reflected best of all in that phrase - "Nothing puzzles God" - which implies that God does not concern Himself with trying to understand the world. In the same way, Jonathan leaves the past behind, works with what he is given, and exploits whatever is available to his family's benefit.
And this attitude serves him well. He repairs his home quickly, and then establishes a seemingly efficient set of businesses. Jonathan has clearly instilled his work ethic and perspective in his children, who pick their mangoes in the military cemetery, willing to overlook the humanist implications for the sake of a small profit.The family's entrepreneurial spirit is commendable, and not universal. Achebe tells us of other men who spend their days simply waiting for the Coal Corporation to reopen. Homeless, destitute, and helpless, these men stand in stark contrast to Jonathan, who began to plan his recovery as soon as the war was over. As someone who believed in the instructive power of writing, Chinua Achebe likely meant Jonathan to act as a model for his fellow countrymen, someone whom the men outside the Corporation would do well to imitate ("Africa and Her Writers" 617).
Indeed, Jonathan realizes the importance of vigilance and forethought. Consider the man he sees outside the Treasury, who “collapse[d] into near madness” in public, after having been pick-pocketed. This character serves as Jonathan's foil - he represents the very carelessness that Jonathan swears to avoid. In Jonathan's mind, this man did not only suffer poor fortune, but also allowed himself to be robbed. That is, Jonathan recognizes the centrality of luck or fortune, but also knows that he must capitalize on that luck. His panicked walk home from the Treasury could almost be comic for being so heavily planned if the scene were not infused with so much desperation.
(This moment also foreshadows the story's climax. In the same way the man was robbed and then publicly shamed, the family will be robbed within sight of all its neighbors. This unstable, dangerous society produces witness who are not shocked but instead “remark quietly on the victim’s carelessness,” similar to how the neighbors later ignore the Iwegbu cries for help. What distinguishes this foreshadowing scene to the climax is how Jonathan reacts to the robbery, as detailed below.)
There is also a cultural component to Jonathan's resilience. Through his character, Achebe praises the Igbo people in general. In one interview, Achebe talked of the role of God and evil in Ibo (another way of writing Igbo) 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). This is a concise summation of Jonathan's worldview, and suggests the reason he is able to persevere.
Such resilience is particularly important in this story, since in the post-war period, the government is either unwilling or unable to offer any support. The Nigerian Coal Corporation reflects this, as it was a state-run monopoly that after the war can offer no safety or stability to its people. And yet so many people have so little that they wait all day at its gates, hoping to be rescued with even a small job. When considered in contrast to the government, Jonathan serves as a symbolic potential that a government after a conflict might have. If that government simply focuses on moving forward and rebuilding itself (as Jonathan does with his family), then perhaps recovery can be more effectively realized. Unfortunately, this Nigerian government does not seem poised to offer such assistance.
And what little help the government can offer - through the meager 20 pound egg-rasher money - is delivered poorly, as Jonathan's experience at the Treasury shows. The narrator references “five days of endless scuffles in queues and counter queues” to suggest how inefficiently the government operates. This works as another contrast to Jonathan and his family, who prize efficiency for their success.
Of course, the government's minimal assistance might reflect its deliberate disinterest in the Igbo people who lived in the state's Southeastern region. The name of the 20 pound award is a good example. As described in the Summary, the actual name for the egg-rasher money is the ex-gratia award, meaning an award given not out of legal obligation, but as a gift. The phrasing implies a superior attitude to the people who receive it. While Achebe does not comment much on the political realities of post-war Nigeria, it is a fact that Nigeria viewed this region as rebellious - their independence as Biafra had caused the war. Thus, one can ask whether the government simply does not care to offer any substantial report to the region.
It is an unstable, dangerous world that Jonathan manages with amazing optimism. This central thematic conflict is manifest in the story's climax, when the thieves accost the family. Quite remarkably, the story is structured in two parts. The first half, before the thieves appear, introduces the family, their world, and the aforementioned central thematic conflict. The second half reflects almost everything established about that world through the climactic encounter.
Symbolically serving as a microcosm for that uncertainty, the thieves threaten great violence that is neither directly visible nor quite realized. In the same way danger might always be around the corner in post-war Nigeria, these thieves literally stand on the other side of Jonathan's door. Similarly, the family hears their machine gun, but never sees it.
The importance of relying only on oneself is reflected in the cries for help. Nobody responds to the family's cries, and the thieves threateningly mock them by crying out themselves. The implication is that everyone cries only for himself; and in moments of tragedy, we are all responsible for our own doom or salvation. Both community and authority are useless.
And more poignantly, the thief leader indicates the story's ultimate irony by speaking the title phrase: "Civil Peace." It is ironic because the period is neither civil nor peaceful; the presence of the thieves is evidence of that. The title also plays on the greater irony of the common phrase 'Civil War,' usually a country's most horrific war precisely because it relies on anything but civility. But most simply, the phrase merely shows up how the war's violence and upheaval has bled into the peace, blurring any strict distinction.
The extended dialogue between Jonathan and the thief leader only underscores how split any sense of community is. Whereas Jonathan speaks clearly, with a strong sense of grammar, the thieves are clearly uneducated. Their call-and-response chorus has a musical, theatrical quality that hearkens back to tribal ritual, evoking an Igbo past that Jonathan has long traded for the more 'civilized' town life. They are of the same people, yet fundamentally unconnected.
As a group, these thieves reflect the very tumult that Jonathan gives praise to God for having survived. They represent the forces of death and destruction, those which make each man meaningless, threatening always a potential demise that Jonathan has next to no control over. In the largest sense, they are the same forces of hatred and fear that caused the war, and leave humans always unsettled, a reflection of what other civilizations might call the tragic force. They are everything we wish to avoid, and that someone like Jonathan hopes to counter with his resilience. But no matter how hard he tries, those forces can show up at any time.
Most remarkable of all is the family's resilience in the face of the robbery. If the thieves represent the same forces that Jonathan faced during the war, then he reacts to their disappearance in the same way he acted after it: he gets back to work. They lament nothing, and instead rededicate themselves to a notable efficiency in which each family member is preparing for business. As the neighbors saunter over, Jonathan responds in an entirely different way than the man as the Treasury did. Whereas that man showed a public “extremity of agony”, Jonathan refuses to express concern. His attitude - as established at the beginning of the story - is that nobody has control over his fate, so it is best to simply make do with what he has.
In his final address, Jonathan expresses once again the central conflict of the story, that between grief and persistence. He alludes to his greater grief at the end, mentioning that he lost greater things than the egg-rasher money during the war (presumably his son), and hence considers that loss negligible. Though it admits no pain, the phrase does indicate that Jonathan has not forgotten about his son's death, but instead has learned from it. In other words, his greater optimism is not naive but informed, a survival tool. He will not let himself be deterred by trying to understand tragedy, but instead will see what is left and praise his fortune for that. After all, "Nothing puzzles God."
Additionally, it is worth noting that Achebe is able to capture the story's contrasts and ironies in large part through his notable and unique writing style. Most of Achebe's work is praised for its matter-of-fact style, in which the narrator seems to merely recount facts, rather than emotionally comment on them. He does not empathize through language - as one might do when recounting a war scene by describing the brutality of a body. Instead, Achebe's style is almost journalistic, which adds both a distance and a certain heaviness when he recounts horrible events or memories. Throughout this story, Achebe's style neither explicitly approves of Jonathan's approach to life, nor emotionally justifies it through the description of that troubled life. Instead, it leaves the judgment and empathy to the reader.
Finally, some readers might know that many of Chinua Achebe’s novels deal directly and extensively with the legacy of European colonialism in Africa. This theme is muted in "Civil Peace", but can still be detected. Reference is made to British products like Biro pens or Bournvita drinks. Elsewhere, Achebe attributes some responsibility for the Civil War itself to a colonial legacy which created borders without considering human geography and robbed Africans of the opportunity to practice self-rule (“Nigeria’s promise, Africa’s hope”). In this way, "Civil Peace" shows a society struggling with the long-lasting effects of British colonialism and imperialism, even if it it does not explicitly comment on that situation.