No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Symbols


Hannah's Dream

Hannah Okonkwo's dream symbolizes the damage that modern customs do to traditional ways of life. When Obi visits his home in February, his mother, Hannah, tells him about a dream she had. She is lying on a bed, on a white bedspread. She feels "something creepy" on her skin, and when she looks down she sees that "a swarm of white termites" have eaten away the bed and the cloth. She tells Obi this dream just before she announces what is effectively a deathbed curse: if Obi marries Clara, she will kill herself. Because of a traditional Ibo custom, a custom the modern Obi rejects, Hannah does not want Obi to marry Clara. Thus, the dream is about how Obi's embrace of modern, European values is eating away the ground underneath Hannah, leaving her unsupported.

The color white does not seem to stand for the white race in the dream, since it is part of what supports Hannah (the white bedspread) and also part of what attacks her support (the white termites). Hannah does not seem to be having a racially coded dream, where "white" stands for something bad or alien, at least in terms of race. Instead it is a dream of feeling ungrounded, of having the traditional supporting structures of life torn away under the pressures of modernization.


In No Longer at Ease, cars symbolize success, modernity, and European values. For the most part, they symbolize the pleasures of these aspects of 20th-century Nigerian life. Thus, when Joseph demonstrates to Obi the wonders of modernized Lagos, he explains that all you have to do is "wave your hand and a pleasure car stops for you." A "pleasure car" is perhaps a private or personal one, in contrast to a "mammy wagon," the bus for poor people in Nigeria. When Obi returns home to be celebrated in Umuofia, he does so in proper style, in a pleasure car. When Sam Okoli, the government minister, first shows up, he has an impressive luxury car, and Clara rides in the back. As Obi's fortunes rise, he is assigned a car, and soon he is the one driving Clara around.

Not having a car is also significant in No Longer at Ease. A naive young man whose backpack announces he is a "FUTURE MINISTER" has nothing but a bicycle. One of the first times Obi confronts Nigerian corruption, he rides in a "mammy wagon," the conveyance for poor, carless people. In the mammy wagon, passengers and drivers alike are hostage to a system of bribes and checkpoints.

Obi's car also proves instrumental in his downfall. The car's annual insurance fee prompts Obi's personal, financial crisis. Then someone steals Clara's money from the car's glove box, and later Obi drives around Lagos, desperately and fruitlessly trying to stop Clara from having an abortion. It is as though all the tragedies in Obi's life connect to his car. The car becomes loaded with these connections to tragedy precisely because it had seemed to save Obi. The car is assigned to Obi along with his government post. It was a symbol of success in European terms, so it becomes a symbol also of the ways colonized life holds Obi down.

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