No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Chapter 13 | Summary

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Summary

Obi has two weeks' vacation coming to him, from February 10 to February 24, 1957. He will head to his hometown, Umuofia, on February 11. Meanwhile, Clara comes to spend the night. When they go to bed, Clara says that she has something to tell him, and she starts to cry. She says that they should break off their engagement. Obi humbly says that he understands. Then he asks why. She gives him two reasons. First, she does not want to come between Obi and his family. She declines to explain the second reason, but Obi says it for her. She doesn't want to marry someone who can't pay his bills. She starts to cry, and he kisses her. She says that he should apologize for what he said, and he does. This gives their discussion an inconclusive ending; after his apology, they stop talking about breaking off the engagement.

The next day, Obi heads to Umuofia, stopping first in Benin. He has two weeks of vacation, but he will only spend one week in Umuofia. People in his hometown expect him to celebrate by sharing his good fortune with them, and Obi can't afford this. He has exactly £34, nine shillings, and three pence. He needs to pay John's school fees, which are just over £16.

When he arrives in Umuofia, his mother, Hannah Okonkwo, is resting in her room. She has just returned from the hospital the week before. Obi compares his mother's and his father's rooms. His father, Isaac Okonkwo, has made his room a shrine to the written word, "or better still, the printed word." The "writing of the white man" never fades, Isaac believes. Obi's mother has a very different room, full of mementos, sweets, and kola nuts.

The sight of Hannah in her bed—"all bone and skin like a bat wing"—makes tears well up in Obi's eyes. But she tells him that she is well now, compared to the week before when she was in the hospital.

That evening, some young women who have been singing at a funeral stop by. They stand in the yard to serenade Obi. Even before they sing, Isaac is upset by their presence and wants to drive them away. But Obi prevails, and Isaac gives up the fight and retreats to his room. Hannah sits by the window. She likes music "even ... heathen music." The young women sing a song about how one cannot buy a kinsman: "The letter said / That money cannot buy a kinsman."

Analysis

This is the second time that Obi has listened to a traditional song about kin. In Chapter 5, while Obi rides on the mammy wagon, he listens to two passengers sing a song in Ibo about a man killing his in-law or being killed by his in-law, a grave offense to tribal morality. In this chapter Obi listens to an Ibo song that contrasts family ties and money. If money cannot buy a kinsman, this means that they are in separate spheres. Love and money shouldn't affect each other. But in Obi's life they clearly do. He is burdened by paying for his parents' upkeep, his mother's hospitalization, and his brother's school fees. Love and money also become entangled in Obi's relationship with Clara. His difficulty paying his debts has left him feeling unmarriageable. Clara doesn't confirm that this is so, but it seems possible that this was her unstated reason for breaking off their engagement.

The people of Umuofia band together to help each other. This can be seen in the charitable actions of the Umuofia Progressive Union. But such communal togetherness has its burdensome side. If people of Umuofia share the bad times, they also expect to share one another's good fortune. And they will not hesitate to complain, as they did about the refreshments served by the president. The standards of generosity Obi is expected to meet are high, so high he cuts his trip short. If there was any chance the people of Umuofia were going to understand Obi's financial worries, that chance evaporated when Obi angrily refused the grace period.

There is a sharp contrast between Obi's mother and father. His father, Isaac Okonkwo, is dedicated to the "white man's" written word, while his mother, Hannah Okonkwo, is associated in this chapter with Ibo song. This contrast sets up the surprising action in Chapter 14. Obi has come to Umuofia to confront his father about marrying Clara. The portrayal of Obi's parents in this chapter makes readers expect the father to be the implacable enemy and the mother, frail and sentimental, to be harmless to Obi. But it is Hannah's strong link to Ibo tradition that makes her oppose Obi's marriage, and even in her weakness she finds a powerful way to strike out at Obi in Chapter 14.

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