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 most of his fellow countrymen believe to be a major transgression of custom, and he decides he will marry her anyway. Still, his economic hardship worsens, given that he has to send money home and that he is in debt. Obi then receives a letter from his father telling him that he must go home. When he arrives at home he sees that his mother is very ill. And, his parents tell him he must not marry Clara because she is an osu. In fact, Obi's dying mother gives him an ultimatum: she tells him that if he insists on marrying Clara, he must wait until she is dead because if he marries Clara while she is alive, she will kill herself.
Obi, therefore returns back to Lagos and tells Clara all that has transpired. Clara becomes angry and breaks off the engagement, afterwards hinting at the fact that she is pregnant. It is at this point when Obi arranges an abortion. He does not have the money and needs to borrow it. Complications arise out of the operation, and Clara is hospitalized, after which she refuses to see Obi.
Obi then returns to work, only to be notified that his mother has died. He does not go home for the funeral, and the U.P.U. discusses this failure on Obi's behalf as a sign of his not having cared about his mother's death. The truth, however, is that he was terribly saddened by her death, feels terrible remorse and guilt, and has entered into a state of mental unrest. However, Obi awakes from this unrest with a new sense of calm. He feels like a new man, and it is at this point that he takes his first bribe, not without a certain degree of guilt.
Obi allows this acceptance of bribes to become habitual. He continues to take bribes until the end of the novel, when Obi decides he cannot stand it anymore. He has paid off all of his debts and can no longer be a part of the corruption. It is at this moment, however, when he has taken his last bribe, that he is caught, which brings us back to the beginning of the novel.
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Obi Okonkwo - The novel's protagonist, Obi Okonkwo, is a young man who has returned to Nigeria after having studied in England. The fact that he went to England to study and has returned puts him a peculiar position, one in which he will have to face the issues of a man torn between his own country and what he has learned in the hands of those who have colonized his country (the English). The novel follows his idealistic beginnings to his unfortunate end, an end in which he is put on trial for taking a bribe.
Clara Okeke - Obi's fiancée, Clara is a young Nigerian woman whom Obi met, originally, at a dance in London and later on the boat ride back to Nigeria. Clara is not intellectual but strong-minded. She has also studied abroad and has become a nurse. The main conflict with Clara is that she is an osu, which means she is an outcast that is not allowed to marry Obi. This fact causes the main struggle between Clara and Obi regarding their relationship and their marriage.
Isaac Okonkwo - Obi's father, Isaac Okonkwo, is a Christian. He had left home at an early age, against the will of his father, because he wanted to join the other Christians. Isaac's Christianity is the most important aspect of his life, and it colors most everything he does and says.
Hannah Okonkwo - Obi's mother, Hannah, is another woman of strong-will in the novel, with whom Obi has a special relationship. It is Obi's mother that refuses to allow him to marry Clara by threat of her own suicide. However, it was also Hannah that shared folk stories with Obi—stories that he could share at school and for which he loved her. They also have a special bond of blood, according to a story in which his mother cuts herself with a blade from his pocket.
Joseph Okeke - A friend of Obi's and a clerk in the Survey Department, Joseph is an important character because of his actions. He gives Obi a place to stay and an ear to listen whenever Obi needs one. However, it is Joseph who tells the Umuofia Progressive Union about Clara being an osu. Still, Joseph may be doing this because he believes it best for Obi not to marry Clara. And, later, he acts as a friend, once again, when he brings Obi beer to help entertain the people who attend the funeral gathering.
Christopher - Another friend of Obi's, Christopher, unlike Joseph is educated. He is very much like Obi in terms of education, but Christopher is very different in attitude. He is more pragmatic than Obi and less of an idealist. He believes he knows how to live in the Nigerian world of the late 1950s, and he thinks he understands the balance he must possess in order to live in between two very different cultures.
William Green - Obi's boss at the Civil Service, Mr. Green is an old Englishman, accustomed to the ways of colonialism and the mindset of such. He believes that the English brought education and civility to Africa. He also believes that the African is, by nature, corrupt and even implies an inherent laziness in Africans. Nevertheless, he pays for the school fees of his steward's sons. We are told that he works very hard for the country and that he is not all together a "bad man," as Miss Tomlinson (Mr. Green's secretary) likes to remind Obi.
Mr. Omo - The administrative assistant at Obi's office, Mr. Omo, is what Obi calls an "old African." Accustomed to the rule of the English, Mr. Omo is submissive to his boss Mr. Green and respectful of "old ways." He has worked for the Civil Service for thirty years and has a son studying law in England. His physical description is also unappealing—he is said to have black teeth from cigarettes and kola nuts, and one of those teeth were missing from the front.
Miss Marie Tomlinson - Mr. Green's secretary, Marie, is kind to Obi. Marie often claims what a strange man Mr. Green is and, on other occasions, defends the same Mr. Green. She, like Mr. Green, represents the presence of the English in Nigeria.
Sam Okoli - The Minister of State, Sam Okoli is a good looking and popular politician. He becomes friends with both Obi and Clara, through Clara's connection to him. It is from Sam that Obi borrows the money for Clara's abortion.
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Analysis of Major Characters
Obi Okonkwo - The protagonist of the No Longer at Ease, Obi Okonkwo, is a young man born in Ibo in the Eastern Nigerian village of Umuofia. He was well educated and eventually sent to study law in England, a course of study he eventually changed to English. He stays in England for nearly four years, at times longing for the warm weather of home and all the other nostalgic qualities his memory supplies him during long winters abroad. Nevertheless, his arrival is less than what he has expected.
Because he is educated, he is given a "European post," and he works in an office whose ethics he finds repulsive. He stands firmly against the bribery that goes on and is opposed to his boss, a very old, white, and English colonial man named Mr. Green. 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), represented by the Umuofian Progressive Union, and the conventions of a changing world.
Obi finds himself at the beginning of a generation of change, caught between two worlds. He is unable to marry the woman that he loves because she is considered an outcast. He claims to want to marry her anyway because by the time he has children, the world will have changed, and it will not matter, just as it does not matter now that his father is a convert to Christianity (a conversion that was once quite scandalous). Still, Obi loses his fiancée, his mother, and finds himself in serious debt throughout the course of the novel. He must pay back his scholarship loan and is responsible for sending money home. Eventually, Obi breaks under all of this pressure and gives in to the bribery he had stood against so idealistically, but he does not give in without guilt. At the end, he even claims to be finished with bribery, right before he is caught. Somehow it is too late, and his situation, his position of being caught between two shifting worlds, becomes almost impossible.
Obi's birth name is Obiajulu which means "the mind at last is at rest," and this naming is a looming irony, considering the title of the novel and Obi's predicament. Obi is ill at ease in both of his cultural experiences—he lies in the middle, a difficult place.
Clara - Clara is another character in the novel that is struggling in the changing world of pre-independence Nigeria. She is educated abroad, like Obi, and has a career as a nurse. She has a mind of her own and is often stubborn but shows herself to be quite caring, nevertheless. The first one-on-one conversation she has with Obi was regarding Obi's seasickness (she had gone to his cabin, on their voyage home, because she had seen that he was feeling ill). She is also willing to compromise, and, although she finds Obi's poetry boring, she is willing to listen to it. She is also willing to meet with friends of Obi's that she dislikes. While she seems quite spoiled at times, she does her shopping in the slums and is willing to genuinely give Obi money to save him from trouble, even if he is unwilling to take it. However, the truth remains that she is a difficult person, perhaps because she finds it difficult to let go of her past.
She is strong-minded though not intellectual and finds herself bound to a tradition that seems unfair to both her and Obi. She is burdened by the fact that she is an osu, which means that because of her ancestral past, she is an outcast. It is for this reason that she cannot marry the man she wishes to marry. Though Obi claims he does not care, he respects the ultimatum of his mother, which is that he must wait until she is dead, or she will kill herself if he marries Clara while she (his mother) is alive. This upsets Clara, and it is after this that they have their final break-up, after which Clara is hospitalized because of complications during an abortion. During this time Clara refuses to see Obi.
From the beginning Clara's romance with Obi was on unstable ground. Symbolically we need only to look at where Clara and Obi first began their relationship: in the water, on turbulent and fluctuating grounds.
William Green - The character of Mr. Green is representative of the white, European presence in Africa that resulted from the spread of England's empire and its colonial hold on Nigeria. He is an arrogant man, who believes that the African is "corrupt through and through" and that it is the British who have brought Africans civilization and education. Nevertheless, Mr. Green seems to be committed to Nigeria, and there are characters in the book such as his secretary, Miss Tomlinson, who constantly support him in spite of his "strangeness." Miss Tomlinson, however, is also a white Englishperson living in Nigeria. The narrator tells the reader that Green works long and hard hours, but this "quality" is constantly being uprooted by reminders of his colonial attitude and superiority complex. He thus has a problematic relationship with Obi, who is an educated African in a European post. Still he believes in education, which makes it both ironic and fitting that he pays for the education of his steward's sons.
Mr. Green finds it a problem that Africans ask for weeks off at a time for vacations. However, this tradition was actually started by the very Europeans who held these high posts in civil service prior to the Africans themselves. These contradictions are constantly arising out of the character of Mr. Green. He is an archetypal figure of patriarchic colonialism that finds it difficult to relinquish such a position. In fact, when he thought Nigerians would attain independence, he had threatened to resign. Significantly, Mr. Green is a figure of an older world that is constantly present in the Nigeria of the late fifties, which Achebe portrays, only several years before its eventual independence, when a figure like Green will remain a problem but eventually become obsolete.
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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
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. From the moment the book begins the main character, Obi Okonkwo, is confronted with the issue of bribery. From the moment he arrives at customs to the point at where he gives in to taking bribes himself, the voice of Achebe lingers in the backdrop through the words.
At first Obi is as critical as Achebe of bribery. He refuses to take bribes and also finds it necessary for himself to be a "pioneer" in Nigeria, bringing down corruption in government and instigating change. 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, and women offer their bodies, in return for favors and services. Obi believes that by not taking bribes he can make a difference. He had written, while at the university in London, a paper in which he theorized on what would change the corruption of high positions in Nigeria. 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, such as himself.
Achebe, however, is not as optimistic as Obi because he has Obi fail. Achebe takes us through the path of how someone like Obi can come to take bribes. The book begins on a negative note: starting with Obi's trial. It is as if Achebe, by beginning in the end, is saying that Obi was doomed from the start. Obi's position is a difficult one. He is born in Ibo, but he has been educated in England and often feels himself a stranger in his own country. He has lost his love because of a rule of the past, he has suffered under great financial distress, he has exerted himself because of the expectations others have placed on him, 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. Still, Obi always feels guilt at taking a bribe, and he had decided to stop taking them. By having Obi get caught, 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. And, at the same time, it tells us that, although he got caught, Obi is still a pioneer because he has sworn to not do it again. It may be that his beginning as a "pioneer" is a rough one, one that has taken a curved path, but it does not definitely mean that he cannot still lead toward change. Still, perhaps Achebe may be saying that this is not true, and that Obi, ultimately, has failed at the task he set before himself.
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. In other words, it is the author's critical voice that will lead others out of such corruption, if not by only making the world and younger generations of Nigerians aware of it.
The Influence of Education - One of the most important aspects of Obi's life is that he was educated in England. This small fact molds the way others treat him and shapes what others expect of him. At the same time, 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.
Upon his return from England, Obi is secured a position in the civil service, given a car, money, and respect. At the same time, however, he seems to be making constant mistakes because of what he has learned to be like, what he has come to understand, and what he has never learned. For instance, when Obi first arrives, he is given a reception by the Umuofian Progressive Union at which he makes several mistakes. 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, for it is hot, and he speaks casually in English, instead of the kind of heavy English that the Umuofians admire in the president of the Union. His education has brought him status and has placed him in a position where others expect the most and best of him. No one can understand, in the end, how a man of "his education and promise" could take a bribe. Of course, Achebe, says this cheekily since many who have accused him and who also hold high positions are guilty of similar transgressions. Ironically, the only thing his "education" did not teach him was how not to get caught.
Another important aspect of education, aside from the contradictions mentioned above, is the fact that Obi's generation uses its education as a tool, paradoxically, against colonialism. Sam Okoli, the Minister of State and also an educated man, verbalizes the position of the populace by saying that, yes, the white man has brought many things to Africa, but it is time for the white man to go. In other words, a man like Obi can use his education to take his country back into his own hands, even if his education is something that the colonizer gave him. 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.
Tradition versus Progression - While Obi is in England he misses his home, longs for his family, and writes nostalgic poetry about Lagos and the sun and the trees of his homeland. He even begins to feel a certain degree of guilt, at times, for studying English and not being in Nigeria with other Ibo people. Nevertheless, this "English" has become a part of him, one that he cannot erase when he arrives back in Nigeria.
Obi is in love with his native tongue, and it holds a place in his heart. At the same time, however, he is also comfortable with the English language. The struggle of language is just one of the many examples of how African tradition and English culture collide in this novel. Obi loves his family dearly, and since his family is symbolic of his roots, it can be said that he loves his roots dearly. This is not to say, however, that he will not rebel against his roots because of things he has learned elsewhere. Obi possesses the more liberal, and even "European," belief that he may marry anyone he wishes, even though his family and his countrymen are opposed to it. And, even though he wishes to marry Clara in the end, despite her history, he is tied to his mother a symbolic traditional root … his blood.
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. Green. And, aside from the obvious Mr. Green, there are also the more subtle presences of Europeans at lounges and restaurants throughout Nigeria serving English food and importing European beers. Some of these colonial importations and introductions are good, as is evidenced by the scene about the radiogram between Obi and the Minister of State. Nevertheless, the struggle exists, and it is obvious that Achebe has a strong negative opinion about colonialism as a whole.
Songs and Poetry - Throughout the novel there are songs and poetry that mean different things at different moments in time. When Obi is away at school his poetry is a kind of pull toward Nigeria, a calling and remembrance of home and yet, he writes these poems in English. While he is in Nigeria, there are many songs sung in his presence, some of which Obi also dissects using the English language but not without the Ibo pulling at his heart. It is as though, however, all of this poetry and song represents his desire for home and his heart's need for it. He has studied poetry in England, but poetry also links him to home—these poetic contradictions are all appropriate to the novel's ultimate struggle, which is that of the young man living under the end of a long colonial reign.
Proverbs - If allusions to English literature are what are constantly driving us toward England, it is the constant allusion to proverbs that drives us back to Africa. Achebe peppers his novel with proverb after proverb, making the novel specifically and strategically African. Achebe, like Obi, is using the tools of colonialism for his own purposes; he is making the European form of the novel his own.
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. Obi struggles between two tongues (Ibo and English) just as he does between two cultures. He was born into one language, and he obtained "knowledge" in the form of the other causing one of the basic problems throughout No Longer At Ease.