“No Longer at Ease” is a very interesting novel written by Chinua Achebe. It is set in the 1960s at the time of African independence from European colonialism.
Chinua Achebe audaciously tackles questions of morality in this beautiful novel. Centered on the Umuofia native, Obi Okonkwo, Achebe develops a character who struggles with governmental corruption in the form of bribery, amongst other issues.
No Longer at Ease opens with Obi on trial for a rather unfortunate misdeed. The judge says:
“I cannot comprehend how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this.”
Achebe briefly exposes a defenseless and hopeless Obi before taking the reader to the starting point of Obi’s story. We’re given a description of Obi as a bright-eyed young man, returning to his hometown in Nigeria, upon completing his college education in England. He is hailed as heroic among the Umuofia villagers for being awarded the first opportunity, by the Umuofian Progressive Union, to travel abroad on scholarship to receive a “white-man” education and returning with a degree. Obi accomplishes what is considered among the villagers a seemingly impossible deed, and embodies an arrogant and smug persona. Within a few weeks of his return, Obi is given an honorable job with expectations to acquire and maintain financial security. However, Obi finds himself in unforeseen financial difficulties that leaves him questioning the notion of tradition versus progression within the Umuofia culture. Being brought up in a generation that will begin to use education as a tool against colonialism, Obi is faced with major decisions that will re-examine the principles that he was raised on.
In England he meets a Nigerian girl, Clara Okeke, studying at one of the colleges and immediately falls in love with her. Here, the first clash of his life occurs.
Their relationship is ill-fated from the start because the girl is an ‘osu’, an outcast, according to his Ibo culture and he’s therefore not supposed to marry her for it would bring great shame upon his family.
“Osu is like leprosy in the minds of our people. I beg of you, my son, not to bring the mark of shame and of leprosy into your family.”
“But all that is going to change. In ten years things will be quite different to what they are now.”
He also argues:
“I don’t think it matters. We are Christians.”
For if they are Christians how can old tribal religions have effect? Here we see a clash because even though Christianity is the dominant religion, the old ways still hold power. Obi quickly learns that power and money does not guarantee complete control in a culture filled with impenitent traditions concerning family and marriage.
“No Longer at Ease” continues the theme of Achebe’s first novel, “Things Fall Apart”. The clash between European culture and traditional culture has become entrenched during the long period of colonial rule.
Furthermore, Achebe depicts continuity between Ogbuefi Okonkwo, the protagonist of “Things Fall Apart” and his grandson, Obi Okonkwo in “No Longer at Ease”.
Both men are confrontational, speak their minds and have some self destructive tendencies. However, this aggressive streak manifests itself in different ways. Whereas Okonkwo is a man of action and violence, Obi is a man of words and thoughts to the exclusion of actions.
The portrait of modern Nigeria that Achebe paints in this novel is not a handsome one. Whereas in “Things Fall Apart” the tribe had been painted with grace, almost every figure Obi meets in this book is dishonest in some manner. Even the villagers who come to see Obi to help their children gain a university education are not above bribery, and even the children themselves are dishonest, the girls coming to offer sexual favours to ensure a place. As Mr Green, Obi’s boss in the civil service explains:
“The African is corrupt through and through.”
Obi tries to buck the system, to retain his dignity. He sends money home to his family, he repays debts instantly and in full, even if he has time in which to pay them.
Obi’s financial situation becomes desperate, and he is too proud to ask for money. He economizes:
“In future the water-heater must not be turned on. I will have cold baths. The fridge must be switched off at seven o’clock in the evening and on again at twelve noon.”
These absurd money saving exercises reveal a man being undone by his very nature. He must maintain his standing in the community, for the community paid for his university education to get him into the position he now holds and so he cannot be seen to disappoint, and yet at every turn this life is destroying him.
Achebe eloquently creates a character that is at a critical point in his life, where each major decision determines his fate. What happens when the life of a man of great promise and education, changes drastically because of misjudgments and poor decisions?
In No Longer at Ease, Achebe makes a mark within literature with his brilliant literary prose. I highly recommend this book to you all!
For the LSS Blog