In "Civil Peace", government authority cannot be relied upon, neither during the war nor the post-war period. As a result, individuals and families must look out for themselves.
The first reference to authority occurs when Jonathan recalls the disheveled military officer who threatened to commandeer his bicycle and then accepted a bribe. Later, after the declaration of peace, the government-owned Coal Corporation remains closed. His subsequent visit to the Treasury is marked by inefficiency: “endless scuffles in queues and counter queues”. Finally, the police and night watchmen fail to help the family during the robbery, and the idea of seeking help from a soldier is presented as laughable. The Short Stories for Students guide suggests that the thieves, who are well-armed and function as a group, could be former soldiers (13). In the story authority is at best inefficient and untrustworthy, and at worst a source of real fear and danger.
Power of positive thinking
Overall, "Civil Peace" implicitly praises the power of positive thinking through Jonathan's success. Jonathan’s optimism is introduced in the very first sentence of the story, when it is revealed that he considers himself as extra-ordinarily lucky. Few would describe a man who lost his son in a civil war as lucky, but Jonathan continues to deeply appreciate the “blessings” he has received, among them the lives of his other family members, his resurrected bicycle, his damaged but still standing “little zinc house”, and the ex-gratia money. Though he has suffered immeasurable losses in the war, his ability to set aside the past and hope for the future allows him to successfully manage the difficult post-war landscape. Figures in the story who despair, like the man robbed in front of the Treasury, are portrayed as helpless.
If one part of Jonathan’s success can be attributed to his positive outlook, the other can be attributed to his strong work-ethic. The Iwegbu family works consistently to improve its position despite significant setbacks. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Jonathan recovers his bicycle and uses it to start a small taxi service. Once he returns to Enugu, he opens a bar for soldiers while his wife and children sell breakfast cakes and mangoes. Even after being robbed by armed men, the family wakes the next morning ready to continue their work: Jonathan straps a palm-wine container to his bike, his wife fries cakes, and his son cleans out empty wine bottles. Overall, the story suggests through the Iwegbu's resilience that recovery - for both individuals and implicitly for a government or society - is possible with the right attitude and work ethic.
Though rarely referenced directly, an undercurrent of violence runs through "Civil Peace". This violence is hidden and never fully described or witnessed. Overall, the's story use of violence parallels the way Jonathan has learned to ignore the violence of the past in order to move forward.
This theme is ever-present. The death of Jonathan’s son is only briefly alluded to, and Jonathan is able to bury and recover his bicycle from the burial ground, seemingly without much emotional grief. Later, in the capital, Jonathan’s surviving children pick fruit by a cemetery, another oblique reminder of the war's carnage. And finally, the violence of the climactic robbery always remains unseen, reminding the family and the reader that ever-present, impending violence can often be as threatening as explicit and direct violence can be.
War is everywhere in "Civil Peace", which is set in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967, which devastated the country’s infrastructure and economy, particularly the Southeastern region near Enugu, where the story unfolds.
The destruction of the war permeates the narrative. Jonathan is elated when he finds his home still standing, remarking that a neighboring building was reduced to rubble. In other words, he has learned to accept destruction as a given. Homeless men gather outside an unopened mine hoping for work, and cooking what little food they have in small metal tins. Their situation has been reduced to one of helplessness. Finally, the desperation and violence that drives the thieves is a direct outgrowth of the war. They are the symbols of the ironically titled "Civil Peace", which implies a continuation of the tensions that defined the war period. Though Jonathan's optimism often softens the story's tone, the story nevertheless presents a world that has been torn apart.
God is invoked regularly throughout the story, mostly in the way others might refer to fate. Both in terms of positive and negative situations, Jonathan's religious sensibility is reflected by his refrain: “Nothing puzzles God”.
Jonathan repeatedly refers to positive outcomes - like the survival of his home and family - as “blessings” or “miracles”. Likewise, he believes that "Nothing puzzles God" in bad situations, like with the Coal Corporation's closing or with the climactic robbery. By imbuing God with the power to understand, Jonathan frees himself from agonizing about the seemingly random experiences of the Civil War and its aftermath. He may not understand, but God does. This allows him to use his energy constructively in the present instead of wallowing in the seemingly inscrutable past.
Legacy of colonialism
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.
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.