No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Chapter 3 | Summary



Chapter 3 focuses on the story of Clara and Obi, beginning with when they first met, years ago in London. Obi sees Clara at a dance and is smitten, but she is bored by him. They dance together one time, and then she ditches him. Eighteen months later, they meet again, returning to Nigeria on the same cargo ship. Along with Clara are a dozen other passengers, including an older African woman, Mrs. Wright, and a young Englishman, Macmillan. Clara is not excited to see Obi again.

On the second day of the voyage, Obi dines with some other passengers, including Macmillan, a Mr. Jones, and a Stephen Udom. Clara is at the table, ignoring him. Obi is gradually overcome by seasickness and returns to his cabin. Clara brings him some medicine. She says that she has enough for all the passengers, implying that she is not doing him any special favor. But he notices that she speaks to him in Ibo for the first time, and this creates a bond between them.

The next day, Obi befriends Macmillan, who falls on the deck of the ship. They talk about Ibo names, which often have long meanings. They discover that they are both 25 years old, and they wonder how old Clara is. The next day, the boat stops at the Madeiras. A dinghy pulls up, and some native boys dive for coins that the passengers throw. Clara, Obi, and Macmillan go ashore together, where they drink wine. Heading back to the ship that evening, Obi holds Clara's left hand, and Macmillan holds her right. On board the ship Clara and Obi are alone briefly. He kisses her and says he loves her. She says he will soon forget about it, but she kisses him back "violently." Their moment of passion ends when Mrs. Wright comes along, complaining of indigestion and insomnia.


For a brief moment Obi and Macmillan symbolically share Clara romantically, each of them holding one of her hands. In a way, it is like Obi is holding hands with Macmillan, through the medium of Clara. Obi's friendship with Macmillan grows quickly, and it is the happiest such relationship with a European in the whole novel. Perhaps Obi can still bond with Europeans at this point because he has not yet been pushed around by his European boss, Mr. Green, or hauled before a European judge.

However, the things that separate Obi and Macmillan are also present in this chapter. When the cargo ship comes to port in the Madeiras, young boys dive for coins thrown by the passengers. A Nigerian passenger, Stephen Udom, also tosses a coin, but the boys don't react. They don't dive for pennies, they explain, and everyone laughs. To be a big shot and make street urchins scramble to entertain you, you have to have more money, like the Europeans.

Mr. Jones, an employee of the United Africa Company, also underlines the differences between Europe and Africa. Achebe does not make Mr. Jones's race clear as he comments on the "waste" of water. Obi sees that Mr. Jones's comment is true: "A microscopic fraction of the Atlantic would turn the Sahara into a grassland." Then the narrator or Obi adds this sardonic comment: "So much for the best of all possible worlds." This is an allusion to the satirical novel Candide (1759), by French writer and philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778). In that novel, the naive young Candide has been taught, by his tutor Pangloss, that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." Immediately after Pangloss teaches him that, a series of tragic events befalls Candide. Thus, Obi's gloomy thoughts foreshadow the terrible turn his life is about to take.

As if randomly, the narrator describes a minister of education talking to Clara aboard the ship about the "difference between language and dialect." The narrator does not record what the minister says, but even the topic itself is one that resonates with English-speaking African novelists such as Chinua Achebe. Some of the dialogue in No Longer at Ease is in dialect, but Achebe chose to write most of the novel in a higher diction, one fitting the university-educated Obi and his milieu.

Linguists have often defined the difference between a language and a dialect as a matter of parts and a whole. The language is the bigger whole, and it may contain within it dialects spoken by smaller groups of people. It is a question of who can understand whom. Speakers of standard English can understand Cockney, and vice versa, so therefore Cockney is a dialect of English. But speakers of Swedish and German can't understand each other, so these are considered separate languages. However, the distinction is vexing and slippery. The Russian linguist Max Weinreich (1894–1969), a specialist in Yiddish, said, "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." This means it is a political rather than a technical or linguistic question.

In the conversation between Clara and the "officer from Ibadan," we don't learn the officer's name or race or nationality. But since it is 1956 and Nigeria is not yet independent, the military officer is probably European. Clara, since she is a poor Nigerian woman from an Ibo village, is probably used to code-switching, using different informal linguistic systems, depending on whom she is speaking to.

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