No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The novel begins in the 1950s in Nigeria, in the capital city of Lagos. Obi Okonkwo is on trial—for what, the novel does not say right away. The judgment will be announced today. One of Obi's lawyers, Mr. Adeyemi, runs late because of car trouble, and the judge admonishes him. Obi seems indifferent to the proceedings. Then the judge tells Obi he does not understand how "a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this." To his dismay, Obi feels tears well up in his eyes. Readers learn now that Obi's mother, Hannah Okonkwo, has recently died and that his girlfriend, Clara, has left him.

The focus switches to a country club where Obi's boss, Mr. Green, plays tennis. Green, white and British, looks just like the people he converses with at the club. Officially, the club is open to Africans, but the only Africans there work as the waitstaff. People talk about why Obi "did it." Mr. Green opines that Africans are "corrupt through and through." Mr. Green also says Africans have had to deal with "the worst climate in the world" and "every disease imaginable." So, a Western education might not be much use to Africans, says Mr. Green. At this point readers learn Obi's alleged crime: taking a bribe.

The novel's focus switches to elsewhere in Lagos, to an "emergency meeting" of the Umuofia Progressive Union. Umuofia is Obi's hometown, and the Umuofia Progressive Union dedicates itself to the prosperity of Umuofians in Lagos and elsewhere. The union paid £800 for Obi's education in England. Now they meet to discuss Obi's trial for bribery.

The union members express unhappiness with Obi, who has gotten in trouble "because of a useless girl." The president of the union feels upset that Obi got in trouble over such a small bribe, a mere £20. But they resolve to support Obi, reasoning that "the fox must be chased away [from the henhouse] first." By this, they mean that they should band together with Obi against their common enemy, the British.

Five years ago, the union members collected money for a scholarship for Obi. He was expected to pay the scholarship money back, after studying law in England and returning to become a lawyer. But Obi studied English literature at the university, a display of "self-will." The union found this disappointing but hoped he could still get a civil-service position.

Obi had been an excellent student and "a village celebrity" as a child. An incident that occurred during World War II (1939–45) comprised the sole bad mark on his record as a young student: Obi wrote a letter to German chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and was caned (beaten with a cane) for this rebellious act.

The scene switches to a feast in Umuofia years ago. Villagers celebrate Obi's departure from Umuofia to Lagos, on his way to study in England. The Reverend Samuel Ikedi speaks of Obi's journey as the fulfillment of a prophecy. Then Mary, a friend of Obi's mother, is asked to lead the group in prayer. She gives a long, proverb-filled speech about Obi's life so far and his destiny of studying in England. Obi wears a school uniform to the celebration. Afterward, Obi's father, Isaac Okonkwo, gives a short speech. Well-to-do by Umuofia standards, Isaac served as the catechist for the Church Missionary Society.

Then the pastor, Mr. Ikedi, gives a long speech. He decries the current state of things, in which people cannot go to a neighbor's wedding unless they have a paper inscribed with the letters "RSVP," which Mr. Ikedi says stand for "Rice and Stew Very Plenty." He tells Obi that in times past he would have been expected to fight in wars and come back bearing human heads as trophies. But now, the Umuofian people, as converts to Christianity, do things differently. Mr. Ikedi warns of others who have gone to study in England and have instead become ensnared in "the sweet things of the flesh." Some in England have even married white women, says Mr. Ikedi. The feast ends with a song, and villagers give Obi small presents of money.

Analysis

Instead of telling readers what Obi is accused of, the narrator initially focuses more on characters' reactions to the trial. Mr. Green and the other Europeans at the club think Obi presents an example of the treachery of Africans. They are "corrupt through and through," says Mr. Green. At the other club, the Umuofia Progressive Union, the Ibo men from Obi's village also sit in judgment over Obi. They think he is in trouble "because of a useless girl." No one at the union believes in Obi's innocence, and their decision to side with him against the British serves purely practical purposes.

Obi's reactions seem the most puzzling of all. One would expect a man on trial to care about the trial's outcome, but Obi seems indifferent. The narrator says something peculiar: "Mercifully he had recently lost his mother, and Clara had gone out of his life." Perhaps it is merciful that his mother did not live to see her son shamed, and likewise the girlfriend is spared this. But in the novel's final chapter, it becomes clear that events have beaten Obi into a state of apparent indifference. His financial troubles, his girlfriend's botched abortion, and above all his mother's death have left him in the detached, clear-eyed, yet miserable state of the hero at the end of a tragedy. His indifference foreshadows his final condition and the inevitable fall to come.

Tragedy is a genre of literature that presents, in a somber way, the downfall of a heroic main character. While predominately a branch of drama, by extension, other forms, such as novels, can also be considered tragedies. Obi thinks of all he has gone through at the end of the book: "Beyond death there are no ideals and no humbug, only reality." Thus, here at the beginning of the novel, his mother's death and girlfriend's absence appear "merciful," in that they have steeled him to feel indifference at his own trial. But he would not even be on trial if his mother's death and the loss of his girlfriend hadn't already crushed him. And his indifference cannot hold up to the judge's mention of his education and promise. Obi regrets that those things came to nothing.

When the novel moves backward in time to the celebration of Obi's departure, it remains focused on other people's reactions to Obi's destiny. The Umuofians who were so disappointed in Obi after the trial are seen years before, excitedly sending Obi off to England. Author Chinua Achebe makes clear what a sacrifice the villagers make. At the party, the villagers press little gifts of money into Obi's hand—shillings and pennies. As Achebe says, these are "substantial presents" in a village where people "toiled from year to year to wrest a meager living from an unwilling and exhausted soil."

The scene at the trial ends before the judge pronounces his judgment. However, it is clear from the Europeans' and the Umuofians' reactions that Obi was found guilty. Nonetheless, the withholding of the judgment scene adds to the novel's circular structure. The novel ends with Obi about to go on trial, but the trial itself, in Chapter 1, never ends: the judge never says, "Obi, you're guilty; court is adjourned." In this way, readers remain suspended, wondering what happens to Obi.

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