No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

Obi is still in Umuofia on his homecoming visit, which is clouded by the state of his frail, sick mother, Hannah Okonkwo. His father has also aged; Obi's family clearly suffer from impoverishment and even undernourishment. Though his father served the church for 30 years, he has only a miserably small pension.

Obi and his father stay up late talking. Isaac tells God he may now let "thy servant depart." He means he can die now that Obi has returned. Then he says they will go to church together the next day. Obi wonders what his father would say if he told him, "Father, I no longer believe in your God." He recalls a similar impulse coming over him in England weeks ago; then, he wondered about calling an MP a hypocrite to his face. He does not tell his father he has become atheist. "Sometimes a lie was kinder than the truth," he thinks.

At a family reading of Scripture, Obi observes his mother, who always sits apart and does not participate in the reading. He wonders if, left to her own devices and without the influence of his father, she would have preferred to tell folk tales. His father, as a Christian, forbids such tales. This led to Obi's embarrassment at school as a boy. During an oral lesson, pupils were expected to tell folk tales in the Ibo language. To his shame, Obi did not know any because such tales were forbidden at home. Out of earshot of Isaac, his mother teaches him a folk tale he later repeats at school, adding his own embellishment.

One night during this visit to Umuofia, Obi tells his father that he will pay the school tuition for his younger brother John. Later that night, unable to sleep, Obi thinks about his parents' poverty. He wonders if he can spare £10 a month to give them. But he also has to pay back £20 to the Umuofia scholarship fund. He thinks about Clara. She didn't want him to tell his parents about their engagement, and he wonders why. His mother would be happy to see him married.

Analysis

No Longer at Ease shares many features of the type of novel called the bildungsroman. This is a German word meaning "novel of education." A bildungsroman describes how a young person is educated and makes their way in the world. Classics of the genre include German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's (1749–1832) Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795–96) and Irish writer James Joyce's (1882–1941) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Like these novels, No Longer at Ease focuses on its young main character's education, mental and spiritual formation, career, and choices about marriage.

The story of Obi also shares something with Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914–15) by Irish author James Joyce. In that novel, Stephen renounces the Christian faith his family raises him to believe, along with loyalty to the nation. Stephen declares, "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church." Similarly, Obi wonders what would happen if he said, "Father, I no longer believe in your God." In contrast with the rebellious Stephen, Obi keeps such pronouncements to himself.

Obi has gone to England to learn, and now it seems as though learning has made everything strange to him. He is capable of analyzing things, yet this is not a comfortable or easy act. Just as he sees that atheism is unspeakable and unthinkable in his father's house in Umuofia, Obi also saw through English society. He remembers an incident when he had a similar desire to shout out the unspeakable. A "smooth" member of Parliament was lecturing to African students, and Obi wanted to shout, "Go away, you are all bloody hypocrites!" Obi's imagined rebellion is like Alice's near the end of British author Lewis Carroll's (1832–98) children's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). In that book, independent-minded, plucky young Alice shouts at the assembled royals, "You're nothing but a pack of cards!" In Alice's case her shouting of the truth exposes and destroys the "house of cards" that is the Wonderland social order. But Obi lives in the real world of colonial Africa, where the social order cannot be so easily overthrown.

On this homecoming visit, Obi's father comes across as stern and his mother as more tender and forgiving. Obi's father is the one who permits only Christian stories in the Okonkwo household, thus leaving Obi woefully unprepared to join in the tale-telling at school. It is his mother's connection to Ibo tradition that makes her the more forgiving parent, willing to bend or break the father's harsh religious rules. All this will be overturned on Obi's next visit to Umuofia, when he comes to talk about his engagement to Clara. Then it is precisely Obi's mother's attachment to Ibo tradition that makes her such a pitiless opponent of Obi.

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