No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Chapter 9 | Summary



At work Obi shares an office with Mr. Green's secretary, Miss Marie Tomlinson. At first he did not trust this European woman. He had assumed she was planted in the office "to spy on Africans." But after a few months at the office, he warms to her. One time, Clara visited him at the office, and afterward Miss Tomlinson exclaimed about Clara's beauty. Her compliments "seemed to have come straight from her heart."

One day at the office, a man named Mr. Mark comes to see Obi. He is taken aback by the presence of Miss Tomlinson, a European, and he speaks to Obi in Ibo. Mr. Mark has a sister who wants to apply for a scholarship. After some hemming and hawing, Mr. Mark clearly intends to offer a bribe. Obi turns him down, saying, "I don't think there is any point in continuing this discussion."

Afterward, Obi feels "strangely elated." It reminds him, for some reason, of the first time he had sex with a European woman in England. The woman had been impressed with him, saying it was like being attacked by a tiger. Now Obi recalls all the conventional wisdom about bribes. He has heard people speak of the danger of turning down a bribe. He has also heard people say the problem lies not in taking the bribe, but in failing to do the promised favor. But Obi has flouted all this conventional wisdom and come out victorious. His one worry involves money. He has a hard time living on his £47 salary after paying the union £20 every month, and he must also pay his brother John's school fees.

He goes home for lunch. A taxi pulls up; a woman he does not know has come to visit him: Elsie Mark, sister of the man who came to see him. She talks in a roundabout way, eventually hinting that she will perform sexual favors in return for consideration. She will also go see the other members of the Scholarship Board in their homes and make them the same offer. She tells Obi her story. Her brother studied in England for 12 years, failing one subject after another. Now, the family has no money left for her studies. Obi refuses to help, though he feels pained about it.

Clara arrives, and Obi introduces the two women. Clara asks Obi how the soup she made him tasted. Her question lets the other woman know that she is Obi's girlfriend. Elsie Mark says she needs to leave. Obi insists on giving her a ride, along with Clara. Afterward, he and Clara stop at Sam Okoli's house, but he is away. They go home, and Obi tells her about his day with the Mark siblings. Clara says that he acted too severely with Mr. Mark. She points out that offering money isn't as bad as offering one's body, the way Elsie Mark had. But, she says, teasing, he gave the girl a drink and ride home. Clara concludes that the world works this way.


Both Obi and Mr. Mark initially react to Miss Tomlinson in the same way: they shrink from the European "spy." This society that boldly runs on corruption has a flip side: fearing being denounced. Even Obi, who is not corrupt yet, initially feels this fear in the presence of a European, a woman who could betray him to the authorities. But Obi and Mr. Mark sit in different positions now. Obi has gotten used to Miss Tomlinson, and he pursues a trivial workplace friendship with her. Mr. Mark, by contrast, still fears her, and he resorts to speaking Ibo in her presence. This shared language has the potential to pull Obi in, to make him a coconspirator. But Obi refuses.

Obi seems puzzled by the way his feeling of elation reminds him of the first time he had sex with a European woman. With Mr. Mark, he has triumphed over another man, and so it's not surprising that he might associate this masculine triumph with a sexual conquest. But he does not just recall the first woman he slept with; he recalls the first European woman he slept with. In his civil-servant job Obi is now victorious in a European context, in a bureaucracy set up by Europeans. The memory of sex also shows how much pleasure Obi takes in his victory over Mr. Mark. His elation sets him up for a fall, and Achebe foreshadows this by having Obi immediately begin worrying about money as soon as he stops thinking about his triumph.

Elsie Mark's story adds a different dimension to the novel's depiction of bribery and corruption. She is in this position partly because her brother was coddled so. In a sexist society, a man can fail and fail at studying and still soak up the family's entire fortune. Logically, her older brother went to England first. But he may have enjoyed a certain primacy as a male. So, Elsie is reduced to offering sex in return for consideration.

Obi exulted in his victory over Mr. Mark, but his reaction to Elsie Mark takes a more somber tone. Clara hints at this when she teases Obi about giving the bribe-offering Elsie a drink and a ride. Possibly, Obi mutes his response rather than showing outrage because Elsie Mark has so little to offer and because Elsie Mark lays out the whole sad story. But Clara hints at something else: symbolically, because he gave Elsie Mark a drink and a ride, it's like he had sex with her and thus like he took her bribe. While Obi stopped short of sex, they had a kind of courtly date, at least in Clara's eyes.

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