The novel begins in the present with Obi at his trial for bribery, and then works backward to tell how he arrived there. For the sake of clarity, the short summary will talk about his life chronologically.
Obi grew up in the village of Umuofia, Nigeria. He had a happy childhood with his multiple siblings and parents. His father converted to Christianity, and his mother did so to appease him, but Obi was never very religious. He was very close to his mother.
As a young man, the Umuofia Progressive Union awarded him a scholarship to study in England. They hoped he would be a lawyer but he chose to study English instead. Before he left everyone gave him a party and the village pastor warned him to keep to his studies and stay out of trouble.
On the ship back from England to Nigeria after his studies were completed, Obi met a bewitching girl named Clara. She was cold to him but they eventually kissed.
Obi arrived in Lagos and was shown around by another young man named Joseph. The Union feted him, although he felt like he kept making mistakes like not dressing well or speaking well. He interviewed for a job and when asked if he would accept a bribe, replied indignantly to the chairman of the committee that it was not a useful question.
He traveled to Umuofia before the results of his interview came in. The village gave him a huge reception and was immensely proud of him. Some of the older men warned him to be careful in the white man's world and spoke of the lack of greatness of current Nigerian men.
Obi's mind was mostly on Clara, whom he had started dating and planned to marry. She was very secretive and he did not know why he was not able to tell people about them.
Obi received a job in the senior service in the scholarship office. He did not care for his boss, an Englishman named Mr. Green, who expressed negative opinions of Nigerians, but he soon became friends with Miss Tomlinson, the secretary.
Obi spent most of his time with Clara and his friends, such as the louche Christopher, Joseph, and a high-ranking Nigerian politician, the Hon. Sam Okoli. He found himself in a great deal of money trouble, as he continually received bills and could not find a way to pay for them. Once Clara gave him a mysterious fifty pounds to help him out, but he decided not to use it and it was accidentally stolen from his car.
He had asked the Union for an extension on his debt (the initial scholarship to England had to be repaid), but they expressed hesitation about the rumors of whom he was dating. It seemed that Clara, as she had tearfully broken it to Obi, was an ‘osu’, meaning a member of a cursed family whose ancestor was given to the gods. No Nigerian found her an acceptable choice for Obi to marry, but he stubbornly insisted he would marry her. He raged at the Union and told them to butt out of his life. Unfortunately, his pride, then, kept him from getting the extension on his debt and it continued to snowball. An opportunity came up for him to accept a bribe but he chose not to.
Obi's mother grew ill and he traveled to visit her. There his father privately asked about Clara and expressed his reservations, but Obi tried to tell him that because he was a Christian he could not care about Clara's osu status. His mother, however, told him firmly that he could only marry her after she died, and if he married her beforehand she would kill herself.
Shocked, Obi said nothing but cut his trip short and returned to Lagos. When he told Clara what had happened she gave him her ring and called off the engagement. Unfortunately, she was pregnant, and the two had to seek out an abortion for her. Abortions were criminal and they could only get one from a doctor who charged a high fee.
Obi dropped Clara off and she and the doctor left, but he felt bad and tried to go after them. His searches for Clara finally led him to the hospital, where it turned out she had complications from the surgery. All in all, she was in the hospital for five weeks. She would not speak to Obi, and left Lagos.
Obi also learned his mother had died. He decided not to go to the funeral since it would be a long trip and she was already dead. He cried for a bit but his grief passed quickly. Nigerians, including many from the Union, came to him in Lagos to mourn with him.
When scholarship season started up again, Obi's defenses were down because of Clara's departure and his mother's death. He accepted a bribe and then began taking more and more. When he finally decided to stop, he was apprehended and arrested.
He loses his case. Everyone wonders why a young man with such promise would take a bribe.