No Longer at Ease | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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No Longer at Ease | Themes


Modernity and Tradition

In No Longer at Ease, Obi is a modern, educated Nigerian, eager to see both government corruption and religious superstition come to an end. He has rejected both the traditional Ibo religion of his village and the Christianity of his father, Isaac Okonkwo. Sometimes Christianity is on the side of modernity in No Longer at Ease. For example, when Obi's mother, Hannah Okonkwo, was young, a goat sacred to Ibo religion ran rampant in the village. Hannah, as the wife of a Christian catechist, did not feel bound to Ibo tradition, and she cut the goat's head off. This made a shocking act of sacrilege from the Ibo point of view and a minor inconvenience from Hannah's point of view. When Obi visits home, his father refuses to allow a traditional ceremony with kola nuts, saying, "This is a Christian house."

However, for Obi, Christianity is also part of the drag weight the past puts on the present. When he visits home for the first time, he contemplates telling his father he now embraces atheism. Christianity arrived in Nigeria with the British colonizers. In the early 20th century, most Nigerians adhered to traditional religions. But British colonial policy encouraged Nigerians to identify as either Muslim or Christian. By the time of independence in 1960, roughly half of the population identified as Muslim and half as Christian. Only a small number still officially identified as adherents of traditional religions. Thus, the theme of tradition and modernity in the novel is not as simple as European modernity versus African tradition. Christianity is a modernizing force in Isaac's generation but an anti-modern force in Obi's generation.

Having been educated in England, Obi returns to Nigeria feeling "no longer at ease" with either Ibo customs or Christian ones. But the two poems that best capture Obi's situation, poems the novel refers to, are Christian ones. The first is the poem that gives the novel its title and epigraph, "The Journey of the Magi" by British-American poet T.S. Eliot (1888–1965). Eliot wrote the poem after his conversion to the Church of England in 1927. The poem describes how the wise men who go to see the newborn Jesus return to their homeland feeling alienated, "no longer at ease." This encapsulates Obi's own feeling on returning to Nigeria. Obi's own favorite poem is A.E. Housman's (1859–1936) "Easter Hymn" (posthumous). Although the poem has Christian themes, it is divided between faith and skepticism. Obi too is divided, between a Christian modernity and even more contemporary African future.

Idealism and Corruption

In No Longer at Ease, Obi returns to Nigeria full of idealistic hope. He believes that corruption will gradually die out, though he has no better plan for accomplishing this than waiting for the older generation of Nigerian civil servants to die. Even so, this view is idealistic. It implies that corruption is on its way out. Obi is not the only one who thinks this way. At a meeting of the Umuofia Progressive Union, the vice president comments that because Obi is educated (he "know book"), it is unnecessary for Obi to pay a bribe to get a job. The vice president, like Obi, believes that corruption is part of the old way of Nigerian colonial life. Now there is a meritocracy, based on education, which renders corruption pointless.

Obi is also idealistic in thinking he can escape the burden of submission to white colonizers. At a job interview, an African official asks Obi whether he wants the job so he can enrich himself with bribes. Obi finds the question illogical, and he loses his temper. Later, when he tells his friend Joseph about it, Joseph thinks that Obi shouldn't have lost his temper. But Obi scoffs at Joseph's "colonial mentality." Obi believes that he does not have to submit to Europeans or their African followers. That is part of the older, colonial Nigeria, Obi thinks, and he is part of the new Nigeria, soon to be independent.

By the end of the novel, experience has beaten all the idealism out of Obi. Wracked by grief over his mother and by the end of his relationship with Clara, Obi no longer cares about his former ideals. The narrator describes Obi's youthful idealism with reference to the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes (c. 287–c. 212 BCE), who said, "Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth." But according to the narrator, there is no Archimedean point from which to move the earth. "We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace," says the narrator. Because Obi was educated outside Nigeria, he perhaps believed he had a standpoint outside Nigeria from which to change. But Obi finds that he has to take his place within Nigerian society and within its systems of domination and corruption.

Nigerian Independence and Neocolonialism

No Longer at Ease uses the story line of Obi's tragic downfall to comment on the tragedy of Nigeria. Hobbled by decades of colonial rule, the new Nigeria in this novel is not really in a position to enjoy the independence it is in the process of winning from the United Kingdom. When the novel was written in the mid-20th century, Europe had been plundering Africa for centuries and installing corrupt rulers who surrounded themselves with corrupt local officials. Naturally, the achievements of newly independent colonies are marred by this long history of damage. The ongoing damage that lasts after the colonizers leave is summed up with the term neocolonialism. Neocolonialism refers to the continuation of colonial rule by other means after independence has been formally achieved.

The novel is set in 1956. Nigeria did not become independent of the United Kingdom until 1960. Author Chinua Achebe did not write a novel of ideas, in which characters have long debates about Nigerian independence. Expressions of political sentiment abound, but they are brief, as when Sam Okoli says, "I respect the white man although we want them to go." So to see this theme of neocolonialism in the novel, one has to examine the framing of Obi's story.

At the beginning of the novel, various people shake their heads over Obi's moral failings. They express bafflement. By the end of the novel, readers see that all these same disapproving people had some part in the pressures on Obi. His boss, the villagers, and his family all put Obi in an impossible situation. Obi's poverty, a poverty caused in part by the demands of upholding his social status as a car-owning civil servant, forms a significant part of his pressure. The very people shaking their heads over Obi's crime also belong to the same social orders that oppress Obi. This is not the same as saying it is their fault, but it puts Obi's actions in another light.

It is the same with neocolonialism and newly won independence for African colonies in the 20th century. Like Obi with his education and new job, the newly independent nations seem to have made it at last. But centuries of exploitation and corrupt rule leave their mark, as does ongoing economic domination by the former colonial powers. So, when wars, assassinations, corruption, and scandals break out, Western observers can shake their heads about Africa, just as people do about Obi. Mr. Green makes this parallel clear. He thinks Obi has abused the system of local leave. When he scolds Obi for what he sees as corrupt practices, he makes an analogy with Nigerian self-rule: "And you tell me you want to govern yourselves."

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