No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Chapter 11 | Summary

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Summary

At work, the friendship between Obi and Miss Tomlinson progresses. Now, he calls her Marie instead of Miss Tomlinson. They gossip together about Mr. Green. Marie tells Obi that Mr. Green pays the school fees for his servant's son. Obi still dislikes Mr. Green, but he admits to himself that Mr. Green has some good qualities, such as his devotion to duty. Obi wonders what exactly Mr. Green loves about Africa. He might have been inspired to bring light to benighted, uncivilized Africa, as in Joseph Conrad's novel of Africa, Heart of Darkness. But Africa is too modern for Mr. Green now, Obi thinks. If Mr. Green had arrived in Nigeria in the 19th century, he could have been a missionary. If he had gotten here in the 1930s, he could have slapped Nigerian men, the way the school inspector did. But in Africa in the 1950s there is not much for a man like Mr. Green to do. Nonetheless, Mr. Green is optimistic about Africa, in contrast to the pessimistic character in Conrad's novel, Mr. Kurtz. Obi thinks about writing a novel "on the tragedy of the Greens of this century."

At work that morning, a package comes for Obi, from Clara. He feels anxious, thinking she returns the engagement ring. But the package contains £50 in cash. In a note, Clara says that he should go to the bank and pay back the overdraft. Her gift moves Obi to tears. Then he notices Marie watching him, and he says it's nothing.

Obi thinks about how to tell Clara to take her money back. He often rehearses conversations with her, but they never turn out as planned. When she visits him that evening, he admits that he hasn't paid the bank manager back yet. He doesn't see how he can possibly turn up with the cash, having just pleaded for a loan. Clara holds out her hand for the return of her cash, but he laughs and hugs her.

That night Obi, Clara, Obi's friend Christopher, and a girlfriend of Christopher's, Bisi, all go dancing. When they pull up to the nightclub, Obi agrees to let some street kids watch his car. When they finally leave, at two in the morning, they realize that the car door is unlocked. Obi had left Clara's money in the glove box, and now it's gone.

Analysis

Obi seems to be joking to himself about writing a tragedy about the Mr. Greens of today. The tragedy of Mr. Green and others like him, in Obi's analysis, seems to be their reduced opportunities to dominate Africans. They got here too late. Chinua Achebe picks a particular lineage of past colonists for Mr. Green. He does not compare Mr. Green to soldiers who conquered African countries or governors who ruled African colonies. Instead, he has Obi compare Mr. Green to missionaries and schoolmasters. This does not mean that Obi—or Chinua Achebe—thinks of missionaries and colonial schoolteachers as harmless. Instead, they come across, in Obi's thinking, as lesser bureaucrats. Such functionaries helped colonialism along, just as modern-day Mr. Green does. But they used to have a greater scope for punishing or dominating Africans. This implies that the missionaries behaved perhaps even worse than Mr. Jones, the school inspector who slapped a Nigerian headmaster.

Both Miss Tomlinson and Mr. Green have good aspects to their character. Miss Tomlinson is genuinely friendly and solicitous, even if the office friendship is a little shallow. Mr. Green charitably helps a servant's child get educated. Thus, Achebe does not depict colonists as monstrous on a personal level. This also adds to everyone's puzzlement at the end when Obi is convicted of taking a bribe. There are no outright villains to point to, only a system of subtle oppression and exploitation. Obi comments to himself on Mr. Green's reduced ability to do anything in Africa, in the second half of the 20th century. But it is Obi who is constrained, not Mr. Green. Obi is caught between the expectations of European colonizers, corrupt Nigerians, and conservative, traditional Ibo tribespeople.

The theft of Clara's money feels fateful. In practical terms, Obi is already far in debt, and Clara's £50 doesn't mean that much. What is more important is that the loss of the money comes about through efforts to make things better. Obi tries to make things better by borrowing the overdraft. Clara tries to make things better by sending Obi money. Obi tries to make things better by rehearsing a speech about giving her money back. In the end, he decides to keep it, but because he spent the day rehearsing, he didn't go to the bank. All Obi's efforts to improve his situation, and Clara's efforts too, make things worse. This adds to the sense of Obi's tragic destiny.

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