When Amos Tutuola’s “The Complete Gentleman” closes, the Nigerian folklorist had taken the reader on an adventure into a mysterious world with talking skulls and juju magic to save a captured young lady. As with so much other “weird” fiction, readers had journeyed to discover a world that is so hard to truly define that even the genre’s masters have a hard time qualifying it. For their The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer quote the genre’s grandfather H.P. Lovecraft’s definition that the weird “represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane” (VanderMeer xv). In The Complete Gentleman, however, it is the reader’s pursuit of the world that takes center stage, and Tutuola is able to navigate them through the story’s mysterious, supernatural world by providing a capable, magical protagonist that can transform it into new shapes so its substance and lesson may be laid bare.
Transformation is a central theme to The Complete Gentleman and is worked through every element and character in the story. It opens as a beautiful, “complete” gentleman confidently walks a market, his sturdy, strong body adorned in rich fashion. A young lady working the market is so charmed by his presence that she follows him as if in a trance, only to find herself nearing a mysterious woods and watches in increasing terror as he removes his body parts one by one until he is no more than a rolling skull, hardly “complete” in any sense of the word, leading her to his home. By the time the lady’s spell has been broken, its shackles have transformed and she finds herself under the new spell of the beautiful cowrie shells that immobilize her and render her unable to speak. Just as the gentleman has transformed, the familiar world is transformed into an unknown one and we are left almost mesmerized and lost within it. Luckily, our guide through this strange land would soon appear.
The lady’s father, desperate to save her, hires the aptly named ‘Father of gods who can do anything in this world,’ a man more than equipped to handle the task. Where many weird stories follow characters thrown into new worlds they don’t understand, Tutuola’s hero comes with knowledge and skillset to win against the mystical forces that oppose him. This is important because while he doesn’t grasp the full extent of the skulls and the woods he tracks them to, he knows the general rules of the universe, its internal logic, that the lady was lacking. Using his juju magic to transform, the Father of gods becomes a lizard to sneak around and find the lady, air to hide from pursuers when discovered, and a crow to fly them away when they are being pursued. The Father of gods’ knowledge of the mystical nature of the world led both the lady, and the reader, out of the woods of uncertainty.
While both the gentleman and the “Father of gods” use supernatural means to transform themselves, their methods and goals are the polar opposite of each other. The gentleman uses his beauty and wealth to passively get what he wants, projecting an image on a being that lacks deeper substance. He is a small thing that projects size, and the lady rejects him with “When the lady saw that she remained with only Skull, she began to say that her father had been telling her to marry a man, but she did not listen to or believe him” (Tutuola 334). Once he has charmed the lady, the cowrie shells, just another representation of wealth, are used to keep her continually placated and paralyzed. In contrast, the Father of gods is a substantive person who uses his knowledge to help the lady, using his practical ability to become smaller things. He is clever and resourceful and earns his reward through actively working. And for his efforts to save her from the fake “gentleman”, the Father of gods marries the lady.
In The Complete Gentleman, the lady is the reader’s avatar in the attempt to attain the “maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane” that H.P. Lovecraft writes about. What separates his work from Tutuola’s, however, is that we were given the means to transform our perspective so that we can accept it as given, even if we don’t fully understand it. In doing so, we can see that the real point of the story is to exhibit an idea that applies to the world that we can understand: those that become strong by acting within the world, that explore its mysteries, can become a Complete Gentleman, and the world will reward them for it.
Tutuola, Amos. The Complete Gentleman. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange And Dark Stories. Ed. Ann & Jeff Vandermeer. First ed. New York: Corvus, 2012. 333-337. Print.
Vandermeer, Ann & Jeff. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange And Dark Stories. First ed. NY: Corvus, 2012. Print.