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No longer at ease

Obi Okonkwo is a young man, about twenty-six years old, who returns to
Nigeria after studying in England at a university for four years. No Longer At
Ease, begins with a trial against Obi that takes place a while after his return,
and the novel then works its way backward to explain how Obi has come to
be charged with accepting a bribe.
The Umuofia Progressive Union (U.P.U) has given Obi a scholarship to
study law in England, a scholarship that Obi has to pay back upon his return.
And, thus, he leaves for England, stopping in Lagos on the way out. While in
England, several things happen to him. First, he changes his course of study
to English and abandons law. Secondly, he finds himself nostalgic for home,
writing poems about Nigeria. Finally, he meets a girl named Clara at a dance
in London but fails to make a good impression. However, the girl is Nigerian
also, and on Obi's boat ride back home, after nearly four years in England,
he meets Clara once again. This time, they begin a relationship.
Once back in Nigeria, Obi stays, once again, in Lagos with his friend Joseph,
trying to find a job and a place of his own. He also visits his own home
village of Umuofia. Obi is quickly given a post on the Scholarship Board of
the Civil Service and is also quickly introduced to the world of bribery, which
is a world he wholeheartedly rejects with a strong idealism at first. This is
indicated early on when a man offers Obi money in order for Obi to "pull
strings" for his little sister's scholarship. Obi is appalled and rejects the offer,
only later to be met at home by the little sister herself who offers Obi her
body in return for the scholarship favor. Again, Obi rejects this offer.
Although Obi begins his life in Nigeria in an honest way, events do not go as
he has planned. First, Clara tells him that she cannot marry him because
she is an osu, an outcast. Obi decides to ignore this and go against what

It is at this moment. It is at this point when Obi arranges an abortion.most of his fellow countrymen believe to be a major transgression of custom. given that he has to send money home and that he is in debt. When he arrives at home he sees that his mother is very ill. not without a certain degree of guilt. Obi. Still. Obi then receives a letter from his father telling him that he must go home.P. and the U. In fact. his economic hardship worsens. He has paid off all of his debts and can no longer be a part of the corruption. that he is caught. however. and has entered into a state of mental unrest. The truth. is that he was terribly saddened by her death. However. however. when he has taken his last bribe. Obi allows this acceptance of bribes to become habitual. . discusses this failure on Obi's behalf as a sign of his not having cared about his mother's death. Obi awakes from this unrest with a new sense of calm.U. he must wait until she is dead because if he marries Clara while she is alive. and it is at this point that he takes his first bribe. Obi's dying mother gives him an ultimatum: she tells him that if he insists on marrying Clara. his parents tell him he must not marry Clara because she is an osu. Obi then returns to work. He feels like a new man. He does not have the money and needs to borrow it. and he decides he will marry her anyway. afterwards hinting at the fact that she is pregnant. therefore returns back to Lagos and tells Clara all that has transpired. He does not go home for the funeral. feels terrible remorse and guilt. Complications arise out of the operation. when Obi decides he cannot stand it anymore. after which she refuses to see Obi. Clara becomes angry and breaks off the engagement. which brings us back to the beginning of the novel. And. she will kill herself. only to be notified that his mother has died. and Clara is hospitalized. He continues to take bribes until the end of the novel.

" and he works in an office whose ethics he finds repulsive. just as it does not matter now that his father is a convert to Christianity (a conversion that was once quite scandalous). Because he is educated. a course of study he eventually changed to English. and the conventions of a changing world. represented by the Umuofian Progressive Union. Green. Obi finds himself at the beginning of a generation of change. is a young man born in Ibo in the Eastern Nigerian village of Umuofia. Obi finds himself in a constant battle between traditions of the world into which he was born (that of the village and his traditional African roots).Obi Okonkwo The protagonist of the No Longer at Ease. Nevertheless. and finds himself in serious debt throughout the course of the novel. Still. his arrival is less than what he has expected. but he does not give in without guilt. white. at times longing for the warm weather of home and all the other nostalgic qualities his memory supplies him during long winters abroad. He must pay back his scholarship loan and is responsible for sending money home. Eventually. He stands firmly against the bribery that goes on and is opposed to his boss. and it will not matter. He was well educated and eventually sent to study law in England. He claims to want to marry her anyway because by the time he has children. At the end. the world will have changed. Obi loses his fiancée. Obi breaks under all of this pressure and gives in to the bribery he had stood against so idealistically. He stays in England for nearly four years. his mother. he even claims . Obi Okonkwo. a very old. he is given a "European post. caught between two worlds. and English colonial man named Mr. He is unable to marry the woman that he loves because she is considered an outcast.

Obi is ill at ease in both of his cultural experiences—he lies in the middle. She is also willing to compromise. she is an outcast. The first one-on-one conversation she has with Obi was regarding Obi's seasickness (she had gone to his cabin. Clara Clara is another character in the novel that is struggling in the changing world of pre-independence Nigeria. She is burdened by the fact that she is an osu. and. This upsets Clara. and his situation. which means that because of her ancestral past. she does her shopping in the slums and is willing to genuinely give Obi money to save him from trouble. and it is . She is educated abroad. because she had seen that he was feeling ill). the truth remains that she is a difficult person. considering the title of the novel and Obi's predicament. Though Obi claims he does not care. She is strong-minded though not intellectual and finds herself bound to a tradition that seems unfair to both her and Obi. She is also willing to meet with friends of Obi's that she dislikes. on their voyage home. and has a career as a nurse. While she seems quite spoiled at times. which is that he must wait until she is dead. like Obi. or she will kill herself if he marries Clara while she (his mother) is alive. perhaps because she finds it difficult to let go of her past. a difficult place. his position of being caught between two shifting worlds. although she finds Obi's poetry boring. Somehow it is too late. However. becomes almost impossible." and this naming is a looming irony. he respects the ultimatum of his mother. even if he is unwilling to take it.to be finished with bribery. Obi's birth name is Obiajulu which means "the mind at last is at rest. It is for this reason that she cannot marry the man she wishes to marry. right before he is caught. She has a mind of her own and is often stubborn but shows herself to be quite caring. she is willing to listen to it. nevertheless.

who constantly support him in spite of his "strangeness. he had threatened to resign. Green finds it a problem that Africans ask for weeks off at a time for vacations. when he thought Nigerians would attain independence. Green is representative of the white. which makes it both ironic and fitting that he pays for the education of his steward's sons. who is an educated African in a European post. Green. European presence in Africa that resulted from the spread of England's empire and its colonial hold on Nigeria. but this "quality" is constantly being uprooted by reminders of his colonial attitude and superiority complex. He is an archetypal figure of patriarchic colonialism that finds it difficult to relinquish such a position. From the beginning Clara's romance with Obi was on unstable ground. and there are characters in the book such as his secretary. Mr. Green is a . who believes that the African is "corrupt through and through" and that it is the British who have brought Africans civilization and education. after which Clara is hospitalized because of complications during an abortion. He thus has a problematic relationship with Obi. Still he believes in education. During this time Clara refuses to see Obi." Miss Tomlinson. William Green The character of Mr. on turbulent and fluctuating grounds. Significantly.after this that they have their final break-up. Nevertheless. In fact. however. These contradictions are constantly arising out of the character of Mr. However. Mr. is also a white Englishperson living in Nigeria. this tradition was actually started by the very Europeans who held these high posts in civil service prior to the Africans themselves. Miss Tomlinson. He is an arrogant man. Symbolically we need only to look at where Clara and Obi first began their relationship: in the water. Green seems to be committed to Nigeria. The narrator tells the reader that Green works long and hard hours. Mr.

The book begins on a negative note: starting with Obi's trial. the voice of Achebe lingers in the backdrop through the words. is not as optimistic as Obi because he has Obi fail. while at the university in London. only several years before its eventual independence. however. He had written. Achebe. such as himself. is confronted with the issue of bribery. It is . when a figure like Green will remain a problem but eventually become obsolete. He believed that the "old Africans" at the top of civil service positions would have to be replaced by a younger generation of idealistic and educated university graduates. in return for favors and services. It seems that corruption runs rampant and that everyone in Nigeria from the "white man" to the Umuofian Progressive Union participates in "seeing" people about what they need done. Men offer money. From the moment he arrives at customs to the point at where he gives in to taking bribes himself. Achebe takes us through the path of how someone like Obi can come to take bribes. Obi Okonkwo.figure of an older world that is constantly present in the Nigeria of the late fifties. Themes The Corruptibility of Civil Servants One of Chinua Achebe's main socio-political criticisms in No Longer At Ease is that of corruption in Nigeria. a paper in which he theorized on what would change the corruption of high positions in Nigeria. He refuses to take bribes and also finds it necessary for himself to be a "pioneer" in Nigeria. From the moment the book begins the main character. which Achebe portrays. Obi believes that by not taking bribes he can make a difference. bringing down corruption in government and instigating change. and women offer their bodies. At first Obi is as critical as Achebe of bribery.

In other words. and that Obi. but he has been educated in England and often feels himself a stranger in his own country. By having Obi get caught. ultimately. Whether the book is a tragedy (an unresolved situation) in Obi's definition of the word or not is up to whether we believe that it is Achebe who is the greatest "pioneer" in the novel. This small fact molds the way others treat him and shapes what others expect of him. even amid an aura of repentance and guilt. Achebe further illustrates the hypocrisy of all who have participated in bribes and now throw stones at Obi. has failed at the task he set before himself. Still. Obi's position is a difficult one. but it does not definitely mean that he cannot still lead toward change. he has suffered under great financial distress. And. it is the author's critical voice that will lead others out of such corruption. . perhaps Achebe may be saying that this is not true. he has exerted himself because of the expectations others have placed on him. and he had decided to stop taking them. It may be that his beginning as a "pioneer" is a rough one. it tells us that. At the same time. The Influence of Education One of the most important aspects of Obi's life is that he was educated in England. at the same time. He has lost his love because of a rule of the past. Still.as if Achebe. although he got caught. He is born in Ibo. and he has lost his mother. All of this brings the protagonist of the novel to fall into what he once had believed was a terrible and corrupt act. by beginning in the end. Obi is still a pioneer because he has sworn to not do it again. if not by only making the world and younger generations of Nigerians aware of it. Obi always feels guilt at taking a bribe. the education he holds dear is also one for which he has felt guilt and one which has often made him a stranger in his own Nigeria. is saying that Obi was doomed from the start. one that has taken a curved path.

how a man of "his education and promise" could take a bribe. and what he has never learned. At the same time. what he has come to understand. is the fact that Obi's generation uses its education as a tool. but it is time for the white man to go. the white man has brought many things to Africa. It is important to remember that the only way to survive in a world where two cultures have met is to allow a certain amount of mixture to be used in a positive regard. given a car. . yes. the only thing his "education" did not teach him was how not to get caught. paradoxically. For instance. says this cheekily since many who have accused him and who also hold high positions are guilty of similar transgressions. He has forgotten how to act in his home or simply does not agree with its ways: he wears a short-sleeved shirt and sees nothing wrong with it. His education has brought him status and has placed him in a position where others expect the most and best of him. he is given a reception by the Umuofian Progressive Union at which he makes several mistakes. even if his education is something that the colonizer gave him. instead of the kind of heavy English that the Umuofians admire in the president of the Union. and respect. the Minister of State and also an educated man. Sam Okoli. Of course.Upon his return from England. when Obi first arrives. verbalizes the position of the populace by saying that. however. Ironically. for it is hot. In other words. Obi is secured a position in the civil service. in the end. a man like Obi can use his education to take his country back into his own hands. No one can understand. aside from the contradictions mentioned above. against colonialism. Another important aspect of education. he seems to be making constant mistakes because of what he has learned to be like. Achebe. and he speaks casually in English. money.

even though his family and his countrymen are opposed to it. The struggle of language is just one of the many examples of how African tradition and English culture collide in this novel. Obi possesses the more liberal. despite her history. Obi is in love with his native tongue." belief that he may marry anyone he wishes. Obi loves his family dearly. he is tied to his mother a symbolic traditional root … his blood. and it holds a place in his heart. there are also the more subtle presences of Europeans at lounges and restaurants throughout Nigeria serving English food and importing European beers. that he will not rebel against his roots because of things he has learned elsewhere. as is evidenced by the scene about the radiogram between Obi and the Minister of State. Green. even though he wishes to marry Clara in the end. and since his family is symbolic of his roots. however. the struggle exists. and even "European. at times. however. At the same time. He even begins to feel a certain degree of guilt. and it is obvious that Achebe has a strong negative opinion about colonialism as a whole. It is this struggle between tradition and European ways that is evidenced throughout and that is further amplified by the European presence of characters like Mr. Motifs . for studying English and not being in Nigeria with other Ibo people.Tradition versus Progression While Obi is in England he misses his home. And. And. Nevertheless. this "English" has become a part of him. it can be said that he loves his roots dearly. he is also comfortable with the English language. and writes nostalgic poetry about Lagos and the sun and the trees of his homeland. Nevertheless. Some of these colonial importations and introductions are good. longs for his family. Green. This is not to say. one that he cannot erase when he arrives back in Nigeria. aside from the obvious Mr.

and he obtained "knowledge" in the form of the other causing one of the basic problems throughout No Longer At Ease. a calling and remembrance of home and yet. he writes these poems in English. Obi struggles between two tongues (Ibo and English) just as he does between two cultures. all of this poetry and song represents his desire for home and his heart's need for it. which is that of the young man living under the end of a long colonial reign. some of which Obi also dissects using the English language but not without the Ibo pulling at his heart. Proverbs If allusions to English literature are what are constantly driving us toward England. Symbols . While he is in Nigeria. He has studied poetry in England. there are many songs sung in his presence. He was born into one language. like Obi. is using the tools of colonialism for his own purposes. it is the constant allusion to proverbs that drives us back to Africa. making the novel specifically and strategically African. When Obi is away at school his poetry is a kind of pull toward Nigeria. Language The issue of language is omnipresent in the novel and is simply one of the many issues that arise out of a colonial society. but poetry also links him to home—these poetic contradictions are all appropriate to the novel's ultimate struggle. It is as though.Songs and Poetry Throughout the novel there are songs and poetry that mean different things at different moments in time. he is making the European form of the novel his own. Achebe peppers his novel with proverb after proverb. Achebe. however.

Green stands for Europe in Obi's struggle between tradition and European ways. Mr. It is a generation that has more "fear" of the British than the younger generation. (to the British) older generation of Nigerian. Green is symbolic of the European presence in Nigeria. which longs for independence and freedom. Green Mr. The Umuofian Progressive Union If Mr. as Obi points out. as he is the epitome of the "paternal colonizer. Omo Omo stands for what Obi calls the "old African. then the UPU stands for the stubborn traditional ways of the past. He is very much the kind of Englishman who believes in the good of empires and thinks he can. . tell people how to live their lives." which is representative of a more submissive." who has brought some good but mostly arrogance.Mr.

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