“Obi admitted that his people had a sizable point. What they did not know was that, having labored in sweat and tears to enroll their kinsman among the shining e´lite, they had to keep him there. Having made him a member of an exclusive club whose members greet one another with ‘‘How’s the car behaving?’’ did they expect him to turn round and answer: ‘‘I’m sorry, but my car is off the road. You see I couldn’t pay my insurance premium’’? That would be letting the side down in a way that was quite unthinkable. Almost as unthinkable as a masked spirit in the old Ibo society answering another’s esoteric salutation: ‘‘I’m sorry, my friend, but I don’t understand your strange language. I’m but a human being wearing a mask.’’”
The reference to esoteric Ibo rites in this passage appears somewhat strained; much more revealing of Obi’s thought process is the phrase ‘‘letting the side down,’’ a British sports expression. Because Obi does not want to ‘‘let the side down,’’ or is afraid to, he eventually succumbs to the temptation to square his debts through ill gotten gain.
Without the support of a clear cultural identity and a stable set of values; without a strong bond to either his family or his clan; without a commitment to anyone’s interest but his own, what does Obi Okonkwo have going for him? He appears to have two strong assets, one being his intellectual prowess. But this is highly abstract, and tooled in the European fashion, through the study of the printed word. Obi ‘‘knows book.’’ He flaunts his book-smarts in his employment interview, and this appears to be the central way he earns his ‘‘European’’ job posting. But the novel repeatedly reveals that his European education is of limited use for getting along in modern Nigeria. It needs to be complemented with street smarts and common sense, both of which are somewhat deficient in Obi’s case. As a case in point: why does he not know that it is unwise to leave fifty pounds cash in the glove box of his car in a nightclub parking lot with ‘‘half a dozen half-clad little urchins’’ trolling around?
His other major strength—until it gives way—is his sense of morality. But this too proves to be a liability at times, such as when he silently interposes himself into the exchange between the police and the mammy-wagon driver. Obi’s vigilant gaze, it turns out, costs the driver eight shillings, and earns him the derision of the other passengers, who correctly peg him as ‘‘too know.’’ Once again, he is out of step with the goings-on around him.
More importantly, for all the reasons discussed above, Obi’s individual ethical stance lacks a firm foundation. He is unwittingly prophetic when he says to Christopher, speaking of his generation: ‘‘It’s not that they’re necessarily better than others, it’s simply that they can afford to be virtuous.’’ Later, when circumstances press him, he can no longer afford the cost of virtue. Like the benighted, colonial society around him, he drifts passively into corruption and decay.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels – Chinua Achebe, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Roger K. Smith, Critical Essay on No Longer at Ease, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.