No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Chapter 14 | Summary

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Summary

Obi is still at home in Umuofia. In the evening, he talks to Isaac Okonkwo, his father, about his impending marriage to Clara. Now Obi realizes that Isaac was being tactical when he gave in about the singing. He saves his big fight for the engagement. Isaac asks Obi about Clara and who her people are. Her last name is Okeke, and she is from Mbaino. Isaac says that she can't be the daughter of Josiah Okeke, a teacher from Mbaino. When Obi confirms that this is true, Isaac laughs. He finds the idea of marriage to an osu preposterous. Obi argues that he and Isaac are Christians, meaning that they are modern people who should not give in to prejudice. Isaac says that even Christians recognize the inferiority of lepers. In the end Isaac is not fully persuaded, but Obi thinks he has made some inroads. Going to bed, he feels elated because this is the first time he has had a real conversation with his father in many years.

The next day, Obi talks to his mother, Hannah Okonkwo. She tells him about a dream of termites eating her bed. The day after that dream, a letter came with the news that Obi planned to marry an osu. Now she tells Obi that he must wait to marry until after she dies. If he marries this osu while she, Hannah, is still alive, she will kill herself.

Obi does not argue with his mother. He retreats to his room and refuses to see visitors, who take it very ill that the big successful man is shunning them. When his father comes to talk to him that evening, Obi says that he will return to Lagos early. Isaac tells him about his childhood. He left home at an early age, converted by Christian missionaries. His father, an Ibo traditionalist, cursed him for converting. Isaac says, "I went through fire to become a Christian." He feels that Obi cannot understand this kind of sacrifice.

At this point, Isaac stops talking. But the narrator tells the rest of the story of Isaac's childhood. Before his conversion, when he still lived at home, his family had a foster child named Ikemefuna. Then an oracle decreed that the boy, Ikemefuna, must die. Isaac's father obeyed the oracle and killed the boy, using a machete. The death was scandalous, even though urged by an oracle. The "elders said it was a great wrong" to kill "a child that called him father."

Analysis

In this chapter, the expectations set up in the previous chapter reverse. Isaac Okonkwo, the Christian patriarch, turns out to be approachable, precisely because of his dedication to the word. He and Obi analyze and argue. They don't agree, but they do share the same arena of combat: debate. Thus, even though Isaac seems far from giving in, Obi feels heartened by his conversation with his father. In the previous chapter, Hannah appears as frail but also as tender for Ibo traditions. Thus, it is shocking when Hannah becomes Obi's implacable opponent. She deals a blow—a deathbed curse, essentially—that Isaac could not have even thought of.

Isaac and Obi also have something else in common, besides their devotion to the word. Both men turned against the traditional ways of their fathers. For Isaac, this meant going against the traditional Ibo way of life led by his father, Ogbuefi Okonkwo, and converting to Christianity. This was the story of Things Fall Apart, the first novel in author Chinua Achebe's African trilogy. In turn Obi defects from Isaac's Christian faith—though Isaac does not know this yet—and also goes further still in leaving Ibo customs behind. Finally, the chain of rebellion stretches even further back, since Ogbuefi Okonkwo was also a fighter. He "faced the white man single-handed and died in the fight," as Ogbuefi Odogwu says in Chapter 5. The reminder of the events of the earlier novel also casts a new light on Odogwu's statement that Obi is "Ogbuefi Okonkwo come back ... exact, perfect." Perhaps Obi will be just as uncompromising in his defense of his principles as his grandfather Ogbuefi Okonkwo was.

The story of Ikemefuna adds to the novel's theme of the clash between tradition and modernity. The boy Ikemefuna had been given to the village by another clan, in recompense for a crime one of their clan committed. So Ogbuefi Okonkwo took Ikemefuna in as a matter of custom. But then a priestess, Chielo, decreed that Ikemefuna must be killed, and Ogbuefi Okonkwo took part in the killing. So, part of what Isaac rejected was this irrational submission to the decrees of a tribal religion.

The ethical meaning of the killing of Ikemefuna is ambiguous. It was decreed on religious grounds, but the killing of kin also goes against Ibo custom. Although Ikemefuna was not a blood relative, he was like family. As the elders said, it was wrong for Ogbuefi Okonkwo to kill "a child that called him father." This is also the message of the Ibo song Obi hears on the bus in Chapter 5: a man kills a relative. Back then Obi decided the song is about "the world turned upside down." Now it is clear the world of the Okonkwo family was turned upside down in just this way, long ago, when Obi's grandfather killed a quasi-relative.

The story also may allude to the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac (Heb. 11:17), where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Here, a religious figure commands that a quasi-son be killed, only in this version, the killing isn't stopped.

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