No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Back in England, Obi had once presented a paper to a student group, explaining that the old generation of corrupt Nigerian civil servants would have to die off before things could change. Now, within a month of returning to Nigeria, he meets two corrupt old officials. Obi meets the first one at a job interview, and he meets the second one while riding a bus.

At a board hearing where he is vetted for a job, he meets the first corrupt official. He discusses modern novels with the chairman of the commission, an Englishman. They discuss a novel that ends with the suicide of a police officer. Obi calls this a "happy ending" because the novel resolves. He says that real tragedy, in contrast to literary tragedy, "is never resolved." It just goes on and on. Then an African official who had been sleeping through the meeting wakes up and asks Obi whether he wants the job so he can enrich himself with bribes. Obi loses his temper at the illogic of the question, since a person who intended to take bribes would never announce it. The chairman smooths things over and tells Obi they will call him.

Back at Joseph's house, Joseph thinks Obi shouldn't have lost his temper. Obi scoffs at Joseph's "colonial mentality." Joseph replies that he is older and wiser than Obi. Then Joseph announces that he is getting married. They discuss the bride-price, which the new bride-price law has failed to decrease. Obi says that he will never pay a bride-price.

Obi returns to Umuofia, his hometown, for a visit. On his way, he meets the second corrupt official. Obi rides in a "mammy wagon," an open-sided truck used to transport passengers. Two policemen stop the truck. The driver's assistant begins to bribe one of the policemen, as expected, when the policeman notices Obi looking at him. Not knowing whether Obi is with the government, the policeman makes a big show of refusing the bribe. Meanwhile, the other policeman takes down the driver's license and finds fault with the state of his truck. The driver becomes very annoyed with Obi. They are allowed to drive on, but the driver soon stops and sends his assistant back down the road on foot, to complete the bribe. When the trip resumes, two passengers sing a song in Ibo, which Obi translates to himself. The puzzling song concerns a man killing his in-law or being killed by his in-law, a grave offense to tribal morality. Obi decides that the song tells about "the world turned upside down."

When he arrives in Umuofia, Obi is celebrated and fussed over. A "'pleasure' car" is sent to drive him the 50 miles from Onitsha to Umuofia. People line up on the last two miles of the Onitsha-Umuofia road to cheer Obi, including five bands who serenade him.

A party is held at the house of Obi's father, Isaac Okonkwo. Some criticize Isaac because Christianity has turned his head and made him blind. As the party begins, Isaac argues with an old man about rainmaking, a tribal custom Isaac is too modern and too Christian for. The old man says to Isaac, in utter disbelief, "Perhaps you will also tell me that some men cannot send thunder to their enemies?"

Obi feels glad to be back. He missed Umuofia while in England. The villagers marvel that he sailed for 16 days on a "white man's ship." They say that, because Obi has traveled so far, they must perform a ritual with kola nuts. Isaac objects, saying, "This is a Christian house." They may eat kola nuts but must not sacrifice them to idols. But Isaac relents; he brings out kola nuts. One of the villagers, Ogbuefi Odogwu, blesses the kola nuts "in the name of Jesu Kristi."

A carpenter, Matthew Ogbonna, remarks that it is good that Obi returns from England without a white wife. Obi and Matthew confirm that they have seen Africans "go to the white man's country [and] marry their women." Odogwu says that Obi is a "son of Iguedo," one of the nine villages of Umuofia. The sons of Iguedo do not shift from black to white on a whim, says Odogwu. Obi feels proud.

Odogwu then singles out Obi for further praise, saying that Obi is the grandson of Ogbuefi Okonkwo, who "faced the white man single-handed and died in the fight." (This is the story of Things Fall Apart (1958), the first novel in Chinua Achebe's (1930–2013) African trilogy.) Odogwu says that Obi is "Ogbuefi Okonkwo come back ... exact, perfect." Isaac is offended by this un-Christian talk of the dead returning. Odogwu talks about other great sons of the region. But "today greatness has changed its tune." The things honored in the past, such as having many wives, are no longer the mark of greatness. "Greatness is now in the things of white men," says Odogwu. Then he claims that one cannot cultivate greatness deliberately. Greatness chooses where to show up.

Analysis

At the beginning of the chapter, readers see Obi's views on corruption: he thinks the old generation of Nigerians must die out so that corruption will come to an end. This view seems quite bold, sweeping, and pitiless. But Obi's experiences in Nigeria now show the weakness of his view. As a strategy, Obi's view amounts to doing nothing but waiting. Unfortunately, the old Nigerians have not died yet, and corruption is hardly limited to the old. The young fee-collector Obi runs into at customs is also corrupt. The situation on the bus also reveals the instability and fearfulness of a society that runs on corruption. Everyone fears a stranger in this situation, because they do not know who might turn them over to the police. This fear will be borne out in Obi's case, when he is arrested at the end of the novel.

The discussion of "the modern novel" between Obi and the chairman of the commission is said to range "from Graham Greene to [Amos] Tutuola." This is a short range, even for a discussion of the modern novel in 1956. Instead of being wildly disparate, the novels are close in publication date and close in subject matter. The novel by British novelist Graham Greene (1904–91) they discuss is The Heart of the Matter (1948), a novel about a British commissioner of police who comes to grief in West Africa, in British Sierra Leone. The novel they discuss at the other end of the range is Nigerian author Amos Tutuola's (1920–97) The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town (1952). This was the first Nigerian novel to attain international recognition. In a way, Obi and the commissioner do not discuss "the modern novel" so much as the modern African novel or the modern Nigerian novel.

It might seem strange to include Greene's novel of a corrupt police commissioner in a list of African novels, and it is true that Obi does not use the phrase "African novel." But European novels about the colonies loom large in No Longer at Ease. One is the novella Heart of Darkness (1899), by English novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), which Obi thinks about later in this novel. Another is British novelist Evelyn Waugh's (1903–66) A Handful of Dust (1934), which Obi mentions here in Chapter 5. Both of these novels are about the terrifying barbarity their European protagonists encounter in the colonies: Conrad's novel is set in Africa and Waugh's in South America. Clearly, author Chinua Achebe sees fictional depictions of colonialism as part of the heritage of the African novel. In an interview in The Paris Review (1994) Achebe says that as a historian, "No important story can fail to tell us something of value to us."

Another important aspect of Obi's discussion of literature in Chapter 5 is his comment on tragedy. The Heart of the Matter ends with its main character, Scobie, committing suicide over his inability to choose between love of God and love of a woman. Obi, surprisingly, calls this a "happy ending." In contrast, says Obi, "Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever." No Longer at Ease is a model of "real tragedy," by Obi's definition. This novel is circular, repeatedly returning readers to the moment of Obi's judgment without showing that judgment. Thus, in a way, Obi's story is "never resolved," just as Obi says real tragedy never is. Additionally, here in Chapter 5 Obi is compared to his grandfather, Ogbuefi Okonkwo, protagonist of Things Fall Apart, the first novel in author Chinua Achebe's African trilogy. That novel ends with Ogbuefi Okonkwo's suicide, just like the "happy ending" of The Heart of the Matter. Because Obi is described as "Ogbuefi Okonkwo come back ... exact, perfect," that means Ogbuefi Okonkwo's tragedy continues, hopelessly unresolved, in the tragedy of Obi.

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