No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Obi's ship arrives at Lagos in October. Since cargo ships have an irregular schedule, no one waits at the docks to greet them. Obi makes his way through customs, which takes three times as long as it had in England and requires five times as many customs officers. A boy collecting a tax from Obi offers to reduce the tax, as an underhanded and illegal favor. Obi, offended, mentions the police, and the boy runs off. "Dear old Nigeria," Obi remarks about the incident.

The Lagos branch of the Umuofia Progressive Union throws a party for Obi's return. Everyone except Obi dresses up. This is "mistake Number One" on Obi's part. As a man educated in England, he should dress the part. The secretary of the Umuofia Progressive Union gives a long-winded speech full of fine phrases, which is frequently interrupted by cheers and applause. He reminds everyone that the scholarship is meant to be repaid so that other students from Umuofia can study in England.

When it is Obi's turn, he speaks plainly and briefly. The audience finds him "most unimpressive." He says the point of educating Nigerians now is so they can serve the new nation, not so they can get comfortable salaries. His unimpressive speech is "mistake Number Two." Later, the chairman of the union asks Obi if he has a job yet. Obi says that he has an interview on Monday. The vice president says that Obi is educated (he "know book") and that therefore it is unnecessary to offer a bribe. The president points out that the prospective employers are white men, implying that they don't take bribes. The vice president says white men "eat bribe" (take bribes) even more than black men.

Obi and an old friend from school, Joseph, dine at a nice restaurant frequented by Europeans. All evening Obi tries to get simpler, plainer refreshment and accommodations: just half a beer, just some Nigerian home cooking, just a shared bed in Joseph's house rather than a hotel room in the city. Still, they eat a meal in the restaurant. At first Joseph thinks the place is owned by Syrians. But the restaurant turns out to be English-owned. There is a grumpy old white "manageress," an Englishwoman, who dotes on her parrot. Obi talks about destiny and the progress of the Nigerian people. He and Joseph reminisce about school days. Joseph remembers Obi as a star pupil. He also remembers when Obi got in trouble for writing a letter to Adolf Hitler. Obi was caned as a punishment.

After the meal, they go to the restaurant's lounge. Joseph wants more beer, but Obi refuses. A fancy car, a De Soto, pulls up, and out comes a handsome young man. It is Sam Okoli, the minister of state. Everyone looks at Okoli except Obi, who glimpses Clara in the minister's car. He tells Joseph that he knows the woman in the car from his time in England. Joseph admires Obi's prowess as a lover.

Analysis

When Obi is in England, he feels homesick for Nigeria. But when he returns to Nigeria, it is a different place from the one he imagined while in England. This contradiction between the remembered and the real Nigeria comes up in Chapter 10, when Obi finds a poem he wrote about Nigeria while in England. But now, in Chapter 4, the novel presents the opposite phenomenon: the England imagined by the men and women of Umuofia is different from the real one Obi lived in. For the villagers, an English education means delivering flowery, high-sounding speeches and wearing an impressive European suit. But Obi disappoints them. Like a wealthy man dressing down, the educated Obi speaks plainly and briefly. The people of Umuofia cannot help being disappointed in Obi. This parallels the end of the novel, when everyone looks at Obi with disappointment and incomprehension. Repetition is a literary device in which a writer unifies a work by repeating certain elements. By repeating the scene of people looking at Obi with disappointment, author Chinua Achebe gives readers the impression of reading a purposely written, interconnected, unified literary work. A similar incomprehension dogs Obi's visit with Joseph. A certain level of sophistication and luxury is expected of the returning, foreign-educated Obi. But Obi simply wants to enjoy the plain, down-home Nigeria he missed while in England. The discussion about Syrians also points to a reality of colonial life: a colonized nation is open to other exploiters. "They own everything in Lagos," Joseph says about the Syrians. But unlike the English, the Syrians do not come to Nigeria as a conquering nation. Instead they are individuals—shopkeepers and restaurateurs and tradespeople—who manage to inch their way up in a hierarchical colonial society.

The story of Obi's letter to Hitler marks him as a freethinker and a rebel. Neither he nor the narrator explains why Obi wrote to Hitler. Now, Obi recalls the incident in baffled wonder at why he did it: "What was Hitler to me or I to Hitler?" he asks himself. In asking the question this way, Obi echoes the language of the play Hamlet (written 1599–1601), by English writer William Shakespeare (1564–1616). In that play, Hamlet recalls seeing an actor recite a speech about Hecuba, a woman in ancient Greece. Hamlet expresses wonder that this present-day actor could get himself so worked up about a woman of ancient Greece: "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?" This literary allusion emphasizes Obi's education. He expresses his experiences through references to his English education.

But Obi's version of the question has a different answer. "What was Hitler to me or I to Hitler?" can be answered this way: Hitler was the enemy of Obi's enemy, England, the oppressive colonial power. It seems extremely unlikely that Obi, rational and ethically upright by nature, could have been attracted to the racist ideas of Nazism. But he rebelled against the English colonizers by symbolically not taking their part in their war. Obi, the colonized subject, resembles a servant expected to tremble in fear at his master's impending bankruptcy trial. In a way, Obi's real question could be, "What was England to me or I to England?" He tested it out by making an overture to England's enemy, and he receives punishment for it.

In 1950 Martinican poet, playwright, and politician Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) published Discourse on Colonialism, an essay about the European colonization of Africa. Césaire showed a similarity between Hitler's actions in Europe and the actions of European colonizers in Africa. Because of the parallel between Nazi violence and colonial violence, Césaire argued that Hitler represents the culmination of European civilization rather than an exception to it. Césaire's book proved influential in in the decolonization movement, so author Chinua Achebe may have been thinking about it when he had Obi write to Hitler.

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