Not only the Ibo language, but also the prevailing mind-set and mores of his fellow Ibo elude Obi’s intuitive grasp. This becomes clear soon after he returns to Nigeria from England. Obi arrives at a reception held in his honor—a major event covered by the press—dressed in his shirtsleeves; everybody else is turned out in formal attire. He proceeds to disappoint the crowd still more with his speech, which is also too informal and fails to flaunt the prestigious education he has received. It could be said that Obi’s casual behavior reflects the mentality of a cosmopolitan ‘‘been-to’’ still under the influence of British culture. But it is equally plausible, given his upbringing, that he simply overlooks, or disdains, the respect for formality and ceremoniousness that is engrained in Ibo customs.
Lacking this instinctual sense of belonging within his clan, Obi reveals little awareness of his place in either his family or his community. The reader learns that Obi has six sisters and one brother, but he hardly interacts with them, and they do not seem to figure largely in Obi’s life. He does become aware of a responsibility to contribute a share of his salary to his parents’ upkeep, and he volunteers to pay his youngest brother’s school fees. These acts are appropriate given Obi’s high income and status. Soon, however, Obi’s growing feelings for Clara, and the complications caused by her caste position, lead to an inner conflict: ‘‘Family ties were all very well as long as they did not interfere with Clara,’’ Obi thinks to himself. He tries to convince himself that he can convince his mother to put aside her objections, so he will not be forced to choose between his blood and his heart. But he is deluding himself; he cannot avoid this choice, and it is his undoing. It is characteristic of Obi that he is not fully conscious of the depth of his connection to his mother. He is more closely bonded to her than any other person, but he takes that bond for granted until it is threatened by his stubborn passion for Clara.
Hannah Okonkwo’s revulsion at the idea of her son marrying an osu is in keeping with her identification with Ibo culture and values, an identification her husband’s Christianity could never erase. Obi is blind to his mother’s predictable reaction. No doubt his wishful thinking is caused, in part, by the blindness of love; but there is another explanation, his other blind spot—his disconnection from the values of his people.
This lack of tribal solidarity also reveals itself in Obi’s dealings with the Umuofia Progressive Union. It is because of this group’s largesse that Obi has received the opportunity to study overseas and become a big man. What do the Umuofians deserve from Obi in return for their investment in him? The union hoped Obi would study law, so when he returned he could help the village settle land claims. Traditional tribal values would imply that any valuable resource—such as, in this case, Obi’s expensive education—should serve the interest of the clan as a whole. Yet Obi shows no sign of subscribing to such values. He pursues only his own individual interests. He reads English instead of law. He appears to offer nothing back to the community, apart from his financial commitment to repay the scholarship loan—and by the novel’s end, he is even reneging on that. Moreover, he dismisses the idea that he has a responsibility to set a good example in his conduct. He becomes furious when the union president comments during a meeting about Obi’s affiliation with ‘‘a girl of doubtful ancestry.’’ The elder Umuofian clearly believes he has the prerogative to offer frank advice to the young man who has received the group’s help (and has already asked for further help at this meeting). The president is displaying the values of the tribe. Obi, on the other hand, reveals an individualistic mind-set when he interprets the president’s comments as an unjustified intrusion into his personal affairs. The exchange underscores the essential truth that modernization causes the ties of community to become thinner and more attenuated—indeed, Obi doesn’t seem to feel the least bit bound by them.
The confusion in Obi’s thinking leads him to identify in a materialistic sense with European culture, an essentially inaccurate assessment of his social status. Once ensconced in his senior service job, he does not hesitate to buy a car he can scarcely afford, and even to hire a driver. He takes a flat in an expensive European suburb of Lagos and employs a steward. Because of such profligate choices, even though he is earning far above the norm, he soon finds himself unable to pay his car insurance, and later his income tax. He realizes that it will be difficult to explain his financial problems to his fellow Umuofians whose sacrifice made his education possible: