No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Chapter 19 | Summary

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Summary

Now that his guilt about his mother is over, Obi feels like a new man. In his diary he compares himself to a snake that has just shed its skin. He remembers his mother, Hannah Okonkwo, as "the woman who got things done." His father, Isaac Okonkwo, in contrast, is "not really a man of action but of thought." He thinks back to a story about his parents' wedding day. His mother was the one to cut the cake first, and this presaged her being in charge in the marriage. Then Obi remembers a better story about his mother.

His father was working as a catechist in a village called Aninta. There was a goat dedicated to Udo, one of the village's gods. This goat had the run of the village, eating from people's gardens and leaving its droppings in the church. Because the goat was sacred, it could not be shooed away or punished. One day the goat wandered into Hannah's kitchen, and she cut the goat's head off. The villagers were shocked. But, says the narrator, "the emasculation of the clan by the white man's religion" had been so successful that the fuss soon died down.

Obi now feels that he too has died. "Beyond death there are no ideals and no humbug, only reality," Obi thinks. The narrator says that idealists repeat the saying of the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes (c. 287–c. 212 BCE): "Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth." There is no such place to stand, says the narrator.

At work it is "again the season for scholarships." Obi is so busy that he now takes work home in the evenings. One evening, a "prosperous Lagos businessman" comes to see Obi at his house. He offers Obi £50 to help secure his son a scholarship for England. Obi says this is not possible. He only makes recommendations to the board. The man, misunderstanding, says that's all he's asking for, a recommendation. Obi recognizes the man's name; he knows that the man's son is already on the short list. He asks the man why he doesn't just pay for his son's education. "The scholarship is for poor people," says Obi. The man laughs at Obi's naivete. He leaves the money with Obi. Afterward, Obi covers up the man's money with his newspaper. "This is terrible!" Obi says to himself. It takes him a long time to fall asleep that night.

On another night he dances in his living room with a young woman who wants a scholarship. After she makes "a half-hearted show of resisting," he takes her to his bedroom. Later he thinks about telling Christopher the story, but he doesn't. Soon other people are visiting Obi to bribe him for scholarships. Obi has standards. He refuses to support the candidacy of any student who doesn't have good enough grades. "On that he was unshakable," the narrator notes. Now that he takes bribes, Obi soon pays off his bank draft and the loan from Sam Okoli.

One day, somebody brings Obi a bribe of £20. Obi realizes that he is sick of taking bribes. After the man leaves, Obi sits there, staring at the bribe money he doesn't even want. He hears a knock at the door. Feeling guilty, he stuffs the money in his pocket and dashes for the bedroom. Then he sees that the visitor has left his hat behind. Thinking it must be the visitor who is knocking, Obi answers the door. It is a police officer. Obi is searched, and marked bills are found in his pocket. A police van is called to take Obi away.

"Everybody wondered why," says the narrator. As at the beginning of Chapter 1, everyone is wondering why Obi took bribes. The "learned judge," the "British Council man," and the "men of Umuofia" are all puzzled. And "in spite of his certitude" Mr. Green does not know either.

Analysis

Obi has entered a different stage of mourning. At first he focused on his own unworthiness, a typical guilty feeling among survivors. He thought about the injuries he had done to his mother, such as "her palm bleeding where his rusty blade cut into it." (Obi had left his pencil-sharpening razor in his pocket, and Hannah had cut herself on it.) But now that the guilt is over, Obi is free to recall a more idealized image of his mother: young, fearless, and unafraid of going against tradition.

The story of the goat shows how Hannah had no remorse bucking tradition. This is unlike earlier portraits of her, in which her fondness for Ibo customs was contrasted with Isaac's stern Christian religiosity. Her act shocked the villagers, but they accepted it because they had become blasé about Ibo customs with the rising importance of Christianity. The narrator frames the rise of Christianity in Nigeria as a decline of African masculinity: "But so successful had been the emasculation of the clan by the white man's religion" that the furor over the goat soon died down. Christianity has an ambiguous role in this novel. Sometimes Obi sees it as a modernizing force, as when he tells Isaac that as Christians they should not be prejudiced against the osu caste. Isaac too sees Christianity as a modernizing force, as when he rejects the ritual with the kola nuts. For Isaac, also, becoming a Christian is a free act of rebellion against his father. But in the story of the goat, becoming a Christian starts to look like capitulating to "the white man."

In this chapter the narrator is a strong presence. For most of the novel the narrator sticks close to Obi's perspective. Thus, rather than commenting on things, the narrator more often gives Obi's views, thoughts, and perceptions. For example, the narrator often uses free indirect discourse to give Obi's thoughts. Free indirect discourse is a literary technique. Instead of quoting Obi's thoughts, the narrator says things such as, "He no longer felt guilt. He, too, had died." This technique, quoting thoughts and presenting them in free indirect discourse, keep the narrative focused on Obi. These techniques stay close to Obi's thoughts so that the narrator's own opinions are muted.

However, when the narrator begins exploring Obi's current state of apathy, the narrator seems to take over, giving their own opinion. The narrator describes Obi's earlier idealism by quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes: "Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth." But then the narrator delivers their own judgment. There is no Archimedean point from which to move the earth, says the narrator: "We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace." This could also be Obi, in free indirect discourse, but it is surely the narrator who says, "And that is not the only illusion we have..." The narrator trails off in ellipsis, suggesting that readers, too, suffer illusions. This would mean that readers, too, may learn lessons as harsh as Obi's.

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