With great subtlety and economy, No Longer at Ease creates an intricate psychological portrait of a modern African nowhere man. Outwardly, Obi Okonkwo appears a model of success and uplift, a local boy from the bush who rises into the elite to lead a glamorous life in the city with an enviable post in the senior civil service. But by probing, almost systematically, into the thought and behavior of his protagonist, Chinua Achebe reveals the weak foundations on which Obi’s character rests. Like a sapling unable to take nourishment from depleted soil, Obi is on his own with few resources on which he can draw. Yet it is not enough to pity this character, or scorn his bad judgment. Beneath Obi’s tragedy lies a more complex one, the tragedy of a society so vitiated by decades of foreign domination that its best and brightest are as strangers in their own land.
Achebe provides enough clues for the reader to discern that a great deal of Obi’s later difficulties stem from his . . . Read More
In the first half of the twentieth century, the empires of Europe controlled most of the African continent. Chinua Achebe depicts the roots of British rule over the Ibo people of the Niger Delta in Things Fall Apart. As colonial administrators were setting up the machinery of government, European industrialists exploited the country’s natural resources, and Christian missionaries introduced Western religion. Economic development, and the imposition of taxes, led many young men from the countryside to enter the cities in search of wage labor. Tribal unions, resembling the fictional Umuofia Progressive Union in No Longer at Ease, sprang up to keep the bonds of clan affiliation alive and provide mutual aid amid the anonymity of the city. A select few Africans received a European education, and gradually an African professional class emerged. Nevertheless, the changes imposed during the colonial era undermined African tribal existence on every level, from the logistics of village life . . . Read More
The social and psychological effects of European colonialism in African life is a central theme in all of Chinua Achebe’s writing. No Longer at Ease is set toward the end of the colonial period; two generations have passed since the white man’s initial disruption of Ibo society, the period depicted in Things Fall Apart. Blatant racial prejudice remains quite alive in the world of the latter novel. For example, the two Irish nuns are discouraged by their Mother Superior from socializing with African men. The patronizing attitudes expressed by Mr. Green reveal another dimension of the clash between cultures.
However, No Longer at Ease illuminates a subtler, deeper effect of colonialism, and that is the division and confusion of values—the conflict between tradition and modernity, between indigenous and Christian religion, between village communalism and urban materialism. Obi Okonkwo exemplifies this division. His upbringing, with his . . . Read More
In Chinua Achebe’s novel, Bisi is a girlfriend of Obi’s friend Christopher. She and Christopher go out one Saturday night with Obi and Clara; Bisi wants to go to the movies, but agrees to go out dancing instead. They stay out until two in the morning, and Bisi is reluctant to leave; she says the dance is just starting to heat up.
Christopher is a good friend of Obi Okonkwo. He has a degree from the London School of Economics, and has recently been transferred to Lagos from the city of Enugu. Christopher and Obi enjoy lively intellectual debates, especially on the topic of corruption in the Nigerian civil service. Christopher invariably opposes Obi’s point of view, perhaps for the sheer pleasure of playing the devil’s advocate. Christopher’s attitude is much looser than Obi’s on the ethical questions concerning bribery. Obi admires Christopher’s flexibility in moving between standard English and . . . Read More
Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease reveals its ending at the beginning: Obi Okonkwo is on trial for accepting a bribe. The trial is the talk of Lagos and the courtroom is crowded. Obi has maintained a demeanor of indifference throughout, but at the judge’s summation tears come to Obi’s eyes. The scene shifts to a British club, where Obi’s boss, Mr. Green, cites the case as proof of his conviction that ‘‘the African is corrupt through and through.’’ The Umuofia Progressive Union, an association of Ibo from Obi’s home village, meets to discuss Obi’s case. This group has raised funds to send select young men from Umuofia to study in England. Obi Okonkwo, a brilliant student, won the first scholarship, but disappointed his sponsors by studying English instead of law. The flash-forward ends, and the narrative backtracks to reveal how Obi’s disgrace came about, beginning with a prayer meeting and feast held at the Okonkwo family home . . . Read More
Nicholas Nickleby was Charles Dickens’s third novel, after The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, and it is considered his first classic romantic novel. This latter point is important because Nicholas Nickleby marked an important turning point for Dickens, the definitive fork in the road at which he became a writer of fiction rather than journalism, and thereby changed the face of literature forever.
Dickens had been a successful journalist in his so far rather short writing career. (He was only twenty-six when Nicholas Nickleby was published in 1838.) A collection of his journalistic pieces from London newspapers, Sketches by Boz, had been published to enormous acclaim two years earlier. The two novels that followed,The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, are characterized by critics as having the quality of stories stitched together, as literary rather than journalistic ‘‘sketches.’’ Nicholas Nickleby would change that pattern.
The novel was born, however, . . . Read More
Reform in England
Charles Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby in 1838 and 1839, at the end of a turbulent decade in Britain. British workers had fought for an extension of the right to vote early in the decade, but the Reform Act of 1832 in actuality disenfranchised some workers. The Poor Law Amendment Act, passed in 1834, all but ended ‘‘outdoor relief,’’ or payments to supplement the income of the poor, and created harsh workhouses meant to be an alternative only for those facing starvation. Then in 1837 unemployment spread through industrial districts as a result of an economic depression that gripped the country. A largescale workers movement called the Chartist movement emerged from all of these causes to push for universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, the abolition of property requirements to be elected to Parliament as well as pay for its members, and annual elections. While the Chartist movement ultimately failed to achieve its goals, it . . . Read More
Class and Privilege
Nicholas Nickleby, like most of Charles Dickens’s novels, is explicitly concerned with the human costs of the class system. Nicholas and Kate suffer a tremendous loss of privilege when they lose their father’s fortune and sink from the genteel class status of their birth to a sort of purgatory class of the educated poor who must find paying work. They are no longer in charge of their own destinies, but must rely on the kindness of their one relative, Ralph, or on the kindness of strangers to procure work.
Both siblings are forced to do work that is beneath their accustomed class status—work that requires none of their talents or education, but rather hard physical labor and a willingness to abandon all ethical qualms in return for a paycheck. Ralph, in procuring these jobs for the siblings, makes it clear that this is the level appropriate to their new, lower-class status. Nicholas must work for the brutal and dishonest . . . Read More
Nicholas falls in love with Madeline Bray after seeing her at an employment agency. Not knowing her name, Nicholas despairs of ever meeting her until he discovers she is having secret evening meetings with the Brothers Cheeryble. Like Nicholas, she is from the gentler classes but has fallen on hard times and must now support herself and her family. Much drama ensues, including Nicholas’s ingenious and heroic plot to save her from a forced marriage to elderly miser Arthur Gride, yet another association brokered by Ralph for his own financial gain. Unbeknownst to Madeline, she will get an inheritance upon marrying, which will then become Gride’s, as a wife’s property becomes her husband’s. Ralph plans to force Gride to give it to him to pay Ralph back for Madeline’s father’s debts.
Walter Bray is Madeline’s father. Once a dashing man who swept Madeline’s mother off her feet, he is now a . . . Read More
Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby opens with Nicholas’s grandfather Godfrey Nickleby, who has been driven by poverty almost to the point of suicide, inheriting money from an uncle. He buys a farm and raises two sons, Nicholas and Ralph. Cold and miserly Ralph becomes a rich money-lender, while the kinder Nicholas remains poor, eventually investing badly in the stock market and losing what little he has. He dies a broken man, leaving his wife and two children, Nicholas and Kate, penniless. The scene shifts to the office of the children’s uncle, Ralph Nickleby, in Golden Square, where readers first meet Ralph’s assistant, Newman Noggs, another former gentleman who was ruined through bad investments. Newman is the first of many characters in the novel who is deformed in some way. In Newman’s case, it is due to his ‘‘two goggle eyes, of which one was a fixture’’ [made of glass], his absurdly small clothes, and his incessant . . . Read More