No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Quotes

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1.

They are all corrupt.


Mr. Green, Chapter 1

Mr. Green is talking to other Europeans at his club about the bribery trial of Obi Okonkwo. Mr. Green urges his fellow club members to "face facts" about Africans. When Mr. Green says that "they" are all corrupt, he means Africans. This is clear from his earlier statement in the same scene: "The African is corrupt through and through."

Mr. Green's statement about how "they are all corrupt" echoes the words of the character Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's (1857–1924) Heart of Darkness (1899). In that novella Kurtz, the manager of a trading station on the Congo River, becomes convinced of the unredeemed, savage nature of all Africans. He writes a paper on the "International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs" and adds a postscript at the end: "Exterminate all the brutes!" In No Longer at Ease Obi compares Mr. Green to Kurtz. Obi also explicitly recalls Kurtz's phrase, "exterminate all the brutes."

2.

His full name was Obiajulu—'the mind at last is at rest.'


Narrator, Chapter 1

The narrator describes the main character, Obi Okonkwo. Obi belongs to the Ibo people of Nigeria, and he has a traditional Ibo name with a sentence-long meaning. The narrator explains that the name refers to the mind of Obi's father, Isaac Okonkwo. Obi is the first-born son, with four older sisters. As in many patriarchal societies, in Ibo culture boy children are particularly prized. Isaac's disappointment in his lack of sons before Obi is evident in the Ibo name of Obi's sister Charity. Her Ibo name means "a girl is also good," a name that suggests resignation and disappointment. So when Obi is born Isaac's mind is at rest.

But by the end of the novel Obiajulu has a different meaning. After his mother's death Obi gives up and feels peace. He slides into his doom as bribe-taker, a peaceful and indifferent one.

3.

I have tasted putrid flesh in the spoon.


Obi, Chapter 2

The words are a paraphrase from Murder in the Cathedral (1935), a play by British-American poet T.S. Eliot (1888–1965). Obi is driving through Lagos with Clara, having just returned from studying in England. He has been to Lagos once before, but he grew up in the village of Umuofia. He is not yet used to the city and is shocked by its putrid smells and the sight of the rotting corpses of dogs. He has just recalled the "callow, nostalgic" poem he wrote about Nigeria while in England. The poem described Nigeria as sweet and beautiful. But now Obi thinks Eliot's words about the "putrid flesh" would make a better description of Lagos.

4.

He said life was like a bowl of wormwood which one sips ... without end.


Obi, Chapter 5

Obi is talking to the chairman of the commission that is going to hire Obi. They are discussing a novel that ends in suicide. Obi calls this a "happy ending," meaning it is resolved and the suffering ends. Then Obi recalls "a Christian convert" he had talked to. This man had suffered "one calamity after another." He told Obi that life was like a bowl of wormwood one sips slowly, all one's life long.

Wormwood is the principal ingredient in the intoxicating liquor absinthe. But it can also be poisonous. The old man's point, and Obi's, is that life is a tragedy without end.

5.

Greatness is now in the things of the white man.


Ogbuefi Odogwu, Chapter 5

Ogbuefi Odogwu is speaking at the celebration for Obi's return from England. He is proud of Obi's accomplishments. But he remarks that what counted as an accomplishment with the people of Umuofia used to be very different. In ages past, greatness used to come with having many wives and having titles. But now "greatness has changed its tune." It lies in accomplishments such as education, the "things of the white man."

6.

We are not heathens.


Isaac Okonkwo, Chapter 6

Isaac Okonkwo, a convert to Christianity, refuses to tell Ibo folk tales. He justifies this with the statement "We are not heathens." This shows that Isaac has accepted the perspective of European colonizers, that African religions are "heathen," irrational, and uncivilized while Christianity is civilized.

Isaac's father, at the behest of a traditional Ibo priestess, had participated in the killing of Ikemefuna, Isaac's foster brother. Thus, Isaac has seen firsthand the cruelties countenanced by his father's religion. However, Isaac's stern Christian religiosity is similarly difficult for his son Obi to bear. Because Isaac won't permit the telling of Ibo folk tales, Obi is embarrassed at school by his ignorance of Ibo culture.

7.

All the same they must go. This no be them country.


Sam Okoli, Chapter 7

Sam Okoli, a cultured man and a government minister, is here speaking in pidgin (language that develops outside of Europe as a means of communication between Europeans and non-Europeans). He is relaxing with Obi and Clara, and so he has shifted momentarily to speaking in pidgin. It is 1956. Nigeria will not gain independence until 1960. All the same, Nigerians are already talking about independence. The "they" Sam Okoli refers to are the British.

8.

You know book, but this is no matter for book.


Joseph, Chapter 7

Obi has just told his friend Joseph the reason Clara feels she cannot marry him. Clara is a member of an Ibo caste called osu. An osu is not supposed to marry outside their caste, and they are considered inferior. Joseph thinks it is lucky that Obi learned the truth before getting married. "No harm is done yet," Joseph says.

But Obi finds that the restriction on marrying an osu is an outmoded and irrational belief. He tells Joseph that he still intends to marry Clara. At this point Joseph switches to English, so serious is the matter.

9.

'E no be like dat ... Him na gentleman. No fit take bribe.


Joseph, Chapter 8

Joseph speaks to an unnamed friend or acquaintance about Obi. The other, on learning Obi works for the Scholarship Board, says Obi must be the man to bribe. Joseph angrily replies, in pidgin, that Obi is not like that; Obi is a gentleman and does not take bribes.

But because of the structure of the novel, readers already know that Obi has been tried and convicted of taking bribes. Thus Joseph's statement is an instance of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the spectators of a play or readers of a book know more than the characters do.

10.

Don't you dare interfere in my affairs again.


Obi, Chapter 8

Obi speaks to the president of the Umuofia Progressive Union. He has just asked for a grace period before paying back his scholarship, which was not a gift but a loan. He spoke in the ornate and flowery way he knows the union members like. The president and the union members seem receptive, but then the president has things to say about Obi's impending marriage to Clara. The president wants to interfere because Clara belongs to the inferior osu caste. Obi is furious. His flowery language is gone, and so is his servile attitude. It is possible he could have smoothed things over, but his anger gets the best of him.

11.

Na so this world be.


Clara, Chapter 9

Clara and Obi have been talking about Mr. Mark and his sister, Elsie Mark. Both of them attempted to bribe Obi. Mr. Mark did it with money, and Elsie Mark offered sexual favors. Clara's comment, in pidgin, shows that corruption is only to be expected. The narrator immediately adds Obi's perspective on this comment: "Obi wondered."

Obi has been working at his job for six months now. At the beginning he might have disagreed with Clara's statement outright; he had seemed so certain that the new generation would bring an end to corruption. At the midway point of his first year on the job, Obi now feels uncertain about whether the world is irredeemably corrupt.

12.

They were the good servants who had found perfect freedom.


Narrator, Chapter 11

This is a sunny period of Obi's life. He and Clara are happy. He gets along with Miss Tomlinson at work. He has had to borrow £50 from the bank, but this still seems like a temporary problem. Clara has loaned him £50, and she, Obi, Christopher, and Bisi have gone out dancing.

The narrator is describing the many ways of dancing the high life, a style of recreational dancing popular in West Africa in the 1950s. There are three groups of dancers that night. The first are the Europeans, who are awkward. The second are the lovers, who dance close and don't move much. The third are the "ecstatic dancers." They dance solo, and they discover freedom in perfect submission to the music. Thus they are "servants" of the music.

The idea that freedom is found in submission to the social order has been attributed to German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Another German philosopher, Friedrich Engels (1820–95), wrote, "To [Hegel], freedom is the insight into necessity." And indeed Hegel did write, in Logic, that freedom was the "truth of necessity."

These statements have been interpreted to mean that freedom lies in submitting to the social order. When the social order is just, such submission is not painful. Like the dancer and the music, such servitude feels like harmony, not oppression. But Obi will not be able to attain this unity within the society in which he lives.

13.

When a man curses his own child it is a terrible thing.


Isaac Okonkwo, Chapter 14

Obi has come to Umuofia to talk to his parents about his intention to marry Clara. They stand against it because Clara belongs to the osu caste. After Obi and Isaac Okonkwo argue about it, they come to something like a truce. In this truce Isaac talks to Obi about his own childhood. Isaac's father had been angered when Isaac converted to Christianity. In retaliation his father, Ogbuefi Okonkwo (Obi's grandfather), placed a curse on Isaac.

14.

Take this matter of twenty pounds ... which ... was the root cause of all his troubles.


Narrator, Chapter 17

Twenty pounds is the sum Obi is meant to pay every month to the Umuofia Progressive Union, to repay his scholarship. The "crisis in Obi's life" has caused him to reexamine his actions, the narrator says. At this point Obi's mother is still alive, and so the "crisis" consists of his broken engagement, Clara's abortion and complications, and his money troubles. Reexamining his life, he decides that the payments are "sheer humbug," and he chooses to stop making them.

Obi's slow-moving disaster unfolds over a year. It is not easy to identify the root cause. And Obi is not very good at self-analysis here. On the one hand, his financial woes go deeper than £20 a month. On the other, he might have at least gotten a grace period if he hadn't been so hotheaded. It would be more accurate to say that on a personal level, Obi's modern way of thinking and his touchy pride are the root causes. On a social and economic level the root causes of his problems are the clash between tradition and modernity, as well as the system of colonialism.

15.

People would say that Mr. So-and-so was a gentleman.


Narrator, Chapter 19

People are talking about Obi when they say "Mr. So-and-so." He is a gentleman in that, when he takes a bribe, he follows through and actually does the favor. "He would take money, but he would do his stuff," as people say about Obi. This upright behavior in a bribe-taker becomes a "big advertisement," making Obi a very popular official to bribe for scholarships. Thus, it is Obi's final shred of ethical behavior that helps seal his fate. The statement that Obi is a "gentleman" echoes Joseph's description of Obi in Chapter 8, when he had claimed Obi did not take bribes and was a gentleman.

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