“We are sending you to learn book. Enjoyment can wait. Do not be in a hurry to rush into the pleasures of the world.”
Mr. Ikedi’s warning to Obi at the beginning of the novel (when he is about to leave for England) is only one of many warnings Obi receives. All of the warnings concern Obi’s becoming entranced by the pleasures of the world and forgetting his commitments and his morals. The warnings act as foreshadowing, as Obi indeed slips away from his heritage and his history and almost wholly embraces the world of the white man. Obi’s negative character traits are enhanced by his experiences in England and Lagos; this is exemplified in his treatment of his mother and Clara, as well as his tone-deafness to some of his encounters with Nigerians. Finally, his inability to heed the warnings leads to financial insolvency and to the taking of bribes. Perhaps if Obi had considered his elders’ words as worthy of his time he may have avoided some of the tragedies of his young life.
“That was Obi’s mistake Number One. Everybody expected a young man from England to be impressively turned-out.”
For the many warnings regarding his present and future conduct that he receives, Obi experiences as many moments of letting down the Umuofia Progressive Union and, more generally, his people. This first example Achebe provides seems to be minor –that he is not dressed very well when he attends a Union meeting after his return –but it speaks volumes as to Obi’s character and the fundamental disconnect between Obi and his patrons. He does not choose the job they’d like him to have, has trouble paying them back, chooses a girl they do not approve of, and dishonors them by accepting bribes and then getting caught. Regardless of whether or not some of those demands are unfair for Obi, he is not honoring of them and demonstrates the difficulty in adhering to their traditional views while engaging with the outside world.
“Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever. Conventional tragedy is too easy. The hero dies and we feel a purging of the emotions. A real tragedy takes place in a corner, in an untidy spot, to quote W.H. Auden.”
Obi’s theory on tragedy may ring true for some novels and some characters, but it is rather naïve and does not, ironically, account for his grandfather’s own tragic suicide. It also does not account for some of the tragedies that befall some of the people closest to him, such as Clara. Clara certainly has her flaws, but her abortion is an unequivocal tragedy that is sudden and cruel. The procedure and her subsequent break from Obi and Lagos is not something that is mundane and continues over time; it is a rupture and a break. Obi speaks as one who does not appreciate nuance or variance.
"Greatness is now in the things of the white man."
Although colonialism is not explicitly discussed in the novel, it clearly permeates all aspects of life for Nigerians. Odogwu gives voice to the reality that the white men who have taken over Nigeria are the ones who represent progress and modernity; they are the ones with the resources to do “great” things. Odogwu laments the lack of true greatness in his own people, but the important thing to note is that he does not seem to blame that fact on the Nigerians but on the system that has rendered them impotent in their own country. The things that they once considered great are now diminished. Odogwu realizes this and this is the reason for the compromising with the new system, as evinced in the village sending their sons to be educated in Europe.
"In that short question he said in effect that Obi’s mission-house upbringing and European education had made him a stranger in his country –the most painful thing one could say to Obi."
Although Obi may not like to hear this, it is a perfect encapsulation of his plight: he is not really part of Nigeria or Europe. He is in a liminal state, caught between two worlds. His education and his living situation, job, and companions are fully of the white man's world. He loves English literature and speaks English most of the time. However, he is still connected to Umuofia and his heritage, occasionally preferring Nigerian food and remembering with fondness his childhood. This situation is one of the central conflicts in the text, and can be said to contribute to Obi's passivity and indecisiveness – he is paralyzed by his in-between-ness.
"It was clear he loved Africa, but only Africa of a kind: the Africa of Charles, the messenger, the Africa of his gardenboy and steward boy. He must have come originally with an ideal –to bring light into the heart of darkness..."
Mr. Green is a symbol of the colonizer, of the Englishman-in-Africa. His beliefs are typical of the paternalistic views of the English, who believe that they have a right to take over another country and utilize its resources and reorganize its government. Such things are done in the name of civilizing a backwards people, and bringing them prosperity and progress. Obviously, it is also rooted in ignorance, pride, and self-interest, and those who carry out the mission are often cruel, callous, and blind to the reality of their gross injustice. Mr. Green, like so many others, thinks he has a fondness for the place where he lives and works, but as Obi realizes, it is a false version of Nigeria, and one that derives from the need to fashion reality into something pleasing so as not to prick one's conscience.
"Mr. Okonkwo believed utterly and completely in the things of the white man. And the symbol of white man’s power was the written word, or better still, the printed word."
Mr. Okonkwo has almost completely embraced the world of the colonizer, as demonstrated in his Christianity and his love of the written word. These distance him from his fellow Nigerians and bring him somewhat closer to his son, who is similar in that embrace. This is simultaneously understandable as well as lamentable. There are always members of the colonized who are attracted to the world of the colonizer, and indulge in some of the same beliefs and behaviors. That is not to say Isaac is deliberately harming his community, and he still seems to be somewhat well-received, but there are clear tensions in the ways the other villagers perceive him, and he was in conflict with his own father years before. That is indeed what makes it lamentable -that he, like Obi, is very much a man of thought and cares more for the world of the English than his own.
"Obi wanted to rush out of his car and shout: “Stop. Let’s go and get married now,” but he couldn’t and didn’t. The doctor’s car drove away."
One of the most conspicuous characteristics of Obi is his passivity, his inability to act. He seems to float through life, occasionally annoyed or worried, as with money and Clara's affections, but when it comes to major, life-changing events, he does not ever seem to marshal enough courage or will to go after them. He does not defend Clara to his mother, cannot keep his spending under control, and here, waits too long to go after Clara even though he felt a prick of conscience after he saw her drive away. Obi seems to lack passion for anything, and is thwarted by his own ambivalence.
"What would be the point of going to Umuofia? She would have been buried by the time he got there anyway."
Obi's decision not to return to Umuofia for his mother's funeral -- his beloved mother, to whom he claimed to be very close -- is a low point for the protagonist. He consistently exhibits poor judgment and passivity, and this is perhaps the worst example. He appears here fully estranged from his old life -- from his mother, from his family, from his village, from his obligations, from his traditions and lineage.
" Everybody wondered why. The learned judge, as we have seen, could not comprehend how an educated young man and so on and so forth."
This statement at the very end of the book brings the novel full circle, as it is expressed at the very beginning of the novel as well. It evinces the problems inherent in the system in which Obi is. The elders of his community and the Europeans collude in their establishment of European education, employment, and lifestyle as being things to aspire to, but the reality is that all are hollow and false within the system of colonialism. Obi's own negative character traits are exacerbated by this system, and he becomes even more prideful, passive, and morally dubious. Thus, it is easy for the reader to understand why Obi does what he does, but it is not understandable to those who placed him in such a situation.
No Longer at Ease Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for No Longer at Ease is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I think we can sympathize with Clara. She is ultimately a sympathetic character, especially after her abortion. We want her to catch a break in life, away from men who treat her badly. She leaves Pbi and Lagos after her abortion.
As a boy growing up in Umuofia, Obi believed Lagos to be exciting.... the big city, with lots of lights and cars. This belief was a far different vision that the one he experienced when he visited Lagos.