Obi Okonkwo is in the court at his trial, listening idly to the judge. He shows very little interest until the judge wonders aloud how a young man with so much promise could have done this. Weeks earlier a similar statement had left Obi unmoved, as he had lost his mother and Clara left, but now unwanted tears leap to his eyes.
Mr. Green, Obi's boss, plays tennis with a British Council man and observes that he can believe why the young man did it, because all Africans are corrupt. It is no wonder given their climate and proclivity for disease.
In Lagos, the Umuofia Progressive Union holds an emergency meeting to try to figure out what to do. They were the ones who had sponsored Obi's education, and paid his legal fees for this trial. Now they are meeting again because the case was lost. They think the boy is foolish, but he is one of them and it is silly that he should go to prison for a bribe of twenty pounds. One man blames the boy's lack of experience and says bribes are common everywhere.
Obi had received the scholarship five years ago. The Union has scholarships for young men of promise; they were sent to England for their studies. It was hoped Obi would be a lawyer to help them in cases against neighbors, but he did not and received another civil post. When he came back, he was a type of celebrity. His going away had caused a big commotion. His parents gave a reception with a large feast, and the pastor gave a speech. He turned to Obi and told him not to be beguiled by the white man's country, and to wait for enjoyment; rather, he should work hard and ignore the pleasures of the world for a time.
Obi has been in England for four years. England is where he first realized Nigeria was more than a name to him. He remembers as a boy in Umuofia hearing a soldier talk about Lagos and its bright lights and motorcars.
He first went to Lagos on his way over to England, where he spent time with Joseph Okeke, a clerk in the survey department and a fellow countryman. Joseph met Obi when he arrived and talked on and on about dancing and girls and the city. The second day Obi took a walk because Joseph had a girl at his place; the girl was scintillating but left a bad taste in his mouth.
Years later, just back from England, Obi waited for Clara while she gives her seamstress fabric. They were in a slum in Lagos, which was a part of the city that Obi never knew existed. He thought that this is the real Lagos.
He and Clara drove through the dirty, noisy streets. He almost hit a wayward cyclist.
Obi lived in Ikoyi, another part of Lagos. He asked Clara why she is moody. She responded that Obi needed to leave her alone. He knew why she was mad –she asked him to go to the movies with her but he did not like the violent films she does and had declined. She retorted to him that she lets him read his poems to her, so he ought to come to the films. She had also gone to a lunch with him and a friend of his, Christopher, whom she did not like. The men debated young men versus old men in politics, with Obi supporting the idea of more jobs being given to young men straight from university. He claimed they are less prone to bribes.
Obi and Clara did not fall in love at first sight. He tried to talk to her at a dance and she brushed him off. He then saw her eighteen months later on the ship returning to Nigeria. She was talking to an elderly woman and an administrative officer named Macmillan. Obi said hello and that they had met before, but she did not seem pleased.
The next day Obi watched the sea, pleased that he was not seasick. At dinner, Clara sat one seat away but did not speak to him.
In the evening the sea became wild and a storm broke. Clara knocked on his cabin door and gave him some pills for sickness, as she was a nurse. He had planned to be cool to her but could not, and wondering if her speaking in Ibo meant intimacy.
On deck the next day Macmillan came by, but slipped and fell on the deck. Obi helped him up and the men became friends. They discussed how beautiful Clara was.
The ship arrived at the Madeira Islands and anchored at sunset. Macmillan, Obi, and Clara went onshore together, walked around, and drank wine. Macmillan left to write letters and Obi and Clara passionately kissed. She said she would hate herself in the morning, but kissed him anyway.
When Obi first came back to Nigeria after his years away, there was a big reception arranged for him by the Umuofia Progressive Union. Obi remembered his first mistake was not being dressed properly.
The Secretary of the Union read an address and spoke of how proud they were to have Obi back. He spoke of the scholarship program, and how the beneficiaries were to pay it back. People clapped for the Secretary and were impressed by his English. Obi, by contrast, spoke rather blandly.
The chairman asked Obi if he found a job, and Obi replied that he had an interview coming up. The vice president wondered if maybe Obi should have spoken to someone beforehand, and the president says white men do not take bribes. The others are unconvinced.
Joseph took Obi out afterward. Obi did not want to drink but Joseph insisted. Obi watched an old white lady totter about the room and sit in her corner. He wondered why the hotel the Union put him up in was not very luxurious and told Joseph he was going to come stay with him. Joseph was pleased.
They talked of the Nigerian people and Joseph reminded Obi of the time when he had written a letter to Hitler during the war. Obi laughed and mused that he did not know what came over him.
Later a handsome and boyish man, the eligible bachelor the Hon. Sam Okoli, arrives at the club. Obi thinks he can make out Clara in the man's car.
Obi had presented his theory about young men needing to replace corrupt old men in the Nigerian public service in London, and it was now also borne out by his interview. He sat before one European and three Africans and ended up talking with the Englishman about Graham Greene and the nature of tragedy. The man annoyed him with his viewpoint, and then because he asked Obi if he wanted the job so he could take bribes. Obi said it was a ridiculous question because even if he did he would not tell the board that.
Later Joseph told him he was foolish for saying that. The two men talked about marriage, for Joseph had just bought a wife. Obi scoffed that he would never pay for a wife. While waiting for the results of the interview, Obi visited his hometown of Umuofia. He traveled first class on a mammy wagon. He sat near the driver and a young woman and her baby. Loud traders sang bawdy songs in the back.
The driver was pulled over by policemen and Obi tried to meddle, which made the driver have to pay a higher bribe to the officers. The driver refused to talk to Obi after that.
He sat and mused, listening to the words of the traders' songs and wondering why Clara said he could not tell people about her yet. After all, she did talk about wanting to marry him.
When Obi had first returned from England, it was "almost a festival" (54). A car came to pick him up, and before they left he visited the lively Onitsha marketplace. All along the road to the village music-makers played for Obi. It looked like it might rain, and some wanted it to so Isaac Okonkwo, Obi's father, might realize Christianity had made him blind.
Obi had longed for Nigeria when he was in London. He loved talking to Ibo-speaking people there, and felt ashamed when he encountered an African of another tribe and had to speak English; he did not want people to assume he "had no language of one's own" (57).
Hundreds of people came to the reception. He was asked about how far the white man’s country was. Mr. Okonkwo and an old man argued about kola nuts; Mr. Okonkwo said they would eat them, but not sacrifice them to idols.
Obi was not Christian but knew a bit about it. He did not like how in Christian sermons the audience could not reply.
The men said they were glad Obi did not bring back a white wife, and that he was still a son of Umuofia, not one of the "empty men who become white when they see white, and black when they see black" (61). Some men even said he was his grandfather, returned. Odogwu said there were no great African men anymore, and "Greatness is now in the things of white men" (62).
Achebe makes it clear from the beginning that he intends his reader to have to do a bit of work putting together the pieces of the story; he begins in the present day at Obi’s bribery trial and then jumps back in time to various points in his history. This non-chronological telling, as one contemporary reviewer wrote, “is rather erratic to start with, but is soon beautifully perfected.” Achebe starts with Obi’s failure and then works backward to see just how a young man with so much promise could arrive there.
In these first five chapters, we learn why Obi was able to travel to England –he was given a prestigious scholarship from the Umuofia Progressive Union with the hope that he would bring honor to his kinsmen as well as return to be a lawyer who could help the Union with cases. In one of many disappointing moments for the Union, Obi decides not to be a lawyer but to attain a degree in English and then a job as a civil servant in the scholarship division. One of the main themes of the novel, then, is the tension between the village of Umuofia’s pride in Obi and the sense that he has strayed from their culture and community.
This is also observed in the first of many unheeded warnings Obi receives regarding his future, here delivered by a pastor on the eve of his departure. Mr. Ikedi cautions, “We are sending you to learn book. Enjoyment can wait. Do not be in a hurry to rush into the pleasures of the world” (13). Subsequent chapters reveal the contrast between this warning and Obi’s actions. Similarly, at the end of his going-away reception, Achebe writes of the gifts Obi received, noting they were “substantial presents in a village where money was so rare, where men and women toiled from year to year to wrest a meager living from an unwilling and exhausted soil” (13). In a later chapter Achebe writes of Obi’s recognition that the Union men have little money either but scraped together enough to give him the scholarship. Both of these moments set up a contrast between the sacrifices made for Obi, and his witless squandering of vastly larger sums of money.
The account of Obi’s return from England also provides insights into his character and foreshadows his eventual downfall. His first mistake, as he notes, is that “Everybody expected a young man from England to be impressively turned out” (36), but he was not. His second mistake was his unimpressive speech to the Union; it was as if he was not even grateful for his scholarship and his opportunity. Other examples of Obi’s shortsightedness include an episode from his past – his letter to Hitler – and one from his return visit to Umuofia. In the latter, his lack of understanding about his own Nigerian culture places him in an uncomfortable situation when his attempted intervention on behalf of the mammy-wagon driver leads to greater problems.
A few of the reasons for Obi’s louche life are introduced in these chapters: his friends, Joseph and Christopher, and Clara. The young men are unsurprisingly interested in girls and leisure, with Christopher throughout the text offering smug and amoral opinions on matters ranging from bribery (it is not morally wrong) to abortion (the young women he accidentally impregnates need to take care of the situation themselves). As for Clara, it is difficult to know what to make of her, as Achebe does not provide much information about her except as viewed through Obi’s eyes. More about her background, such as her status as a member of a low caste because of her grandfather’s religious role and her possibility of engaging in prostitution, becomes clear later in the novel and make her more sympathetic, but from the first she is depicted as moody, callous, and complicated.
Of course, the larger reason for Obi’s lack of a moral center derives not from the company he keeps but from the legacy of the English in Nigeria. More will be discussed in later analyses, but the tension between colonizer/colonized, white/black, and past/future is introduced by the conversation at Obi’s reception. There is also a divide between the Christians, like Obi’s father Isaac, and those who adhere to traditional African religion. The men discuss “greatness”, with one of the older men comparing Obi to his grandfather (a comparison that does not stand, unfortunately), and commenting, “Today greatness has changed its tune…Greatness is now in the things of the white man. And so we too have changed our tune” (62). It is an ambivalent statement, as Odogwu clearly acknowledges the changes brought about by the white man and his acceptance that the younger generation of Nigerians will need to be a part of the white man’s world, but that that does not mean they will be great like their ancestors. These are prescient words, as Obi turns out to not be “great” at all.