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 upbringing. His father, Isaac Okonkwo (or Nwoye, as he is called in Things Fall Apart), has built his life around Christianity, spurning his own father and the ‘‘heathen’’ ways of his people. Obi’s mother, Hannah, has set aside many of the customs with which she was raised to live as the wife of a catechist. There are clear hints that Hannah has some regrets over the compromises she has made:
“She was a very devout woman, but Obi used to wonder whether, left to herself, she would not have preferred telling her children the folk stories that her mother had told her. In fact, she used to tell her eldest daughters stories. But that was before Obi was born. She stopped because her husband forbade her to do so.”
Thus the conflicted legacy of colonial Nigeria has sown discord in the heart of Obi’s family life. As a result, Obi has no culture he can truly call his own; he grows up estranged from both tribal and Christian ways. He declines to identify with Christianity, and is unable to receive nurture from traditional Ibo culture. He is deprived of the oral tradition his mother could have imparted to him, so much so that he is humiliated at school because he knows no folk story to tell when called upon. (His mother finally teaches him a story on the sly.) Furthermore, his father so fears Obi’s exposure to tribal ritual that he forbids the boy to eat in his neighbors’ houses. These strictures are more than enough to keep the young Obi at a remove from his Ibo kinsmen.
The consequences of this alienation from his native culture become apparent on close examination of the adult Obi’s behavior. For one thing, he is portrayed as having less than full mastery of the Ibo language. When he makes a speech to his town union, he begins in Ibo but falls back on English midway through. When he asks Clara to explain a proverb, she replies, ‘‘I have always said you should go and study Ibo.’’ For an accomplished student with a college degree in English, such an educational deficit is somewhat shocking.