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 father’s devout Christian faith and his mother’s reluctant abandonment of folk culture, left Obi with one foot in each world, with neither world claiming his allegiance. His European education only deepens his alienation from his own society. Through his engagement to Clara, Obi intends to break away from the restrictions of traditional beliefs. He knows he will have to face opposition to his decision and he steels himself for battle. However, he is ultimately unable to defy the demands of custom when expressed forcefully by his mother. Unable to reconcile the conflicting values within him, Obi’s character collapses at its foundations. He betrays Clara and drifts away from his moral principles. Obi’s tragedy, Achebe implies, can be attributed to the subtle but pernicious effects of colonialism.
Corruption is clearly key to the plot of No Longer at Ease. Right from the start, the author makes clear that Obi Okonkwo has been prosecuted for accepting a bribe. It soon becomes clear that bribery and corruption are pervasive in the social world depicted in the novel. The author hints at this early in the opening chapter by revealing that some people paid money to receive a phony doctor’s note so they could skip a day of work and attend Obi’s trial. References to corruption recur frequently, demonstrating that the disease has penetrated deep into the social fabric of colonial Nigeria. Even before Obi disembarks from the boat that has taken him home from England, a customs official suggests a bribe to reduce his duty. ‘‘Dear old Nigeria,’’ he chuckles to himself. When he interviews for a public service job, Obi is shocked when one man asks him directly, ‘‘Why do you want a job in the civil service? So that you can take bribes?’’
Achebe suggests that the ubiquity of political corruption in pre-independence Nigeria is due, in large part, to widespread alienation from the government—another result of the colonial presence. As Obi begins his adult life in Lagos with an idealistic outlook, certain that he can uphold his scruples and avoid temptation. But the novel makes clear that he is swimming against the current. As a government official, he is expected to take bribes. When his friend Joseph describes Obi in this way: ‘‘Him na gentleman. No fit take bribe,’’ a colleague replies with obvious doubt. Obi’s friend Christopher expresses a looser, somewhat jaded view of the ethics of bribery, and this cynical perspective seems closer to the prevailing sentiment. Obi eventually succumbs to the pressure; when he gets caught accepting a twentypound bribe, few people are surprised. One of Obi’s kinsmen in fact finds it shameful that the offending bribe was for such a small amount. Another chalks it up to inexperience, saying, ‘‘Obi tried to do what everyone does without finding out how it was done.’’ Their objections, in other words, are not at all ethical in nature. These remarks illustrate the debasement of values that are the target of Achebe’s satire.
Before the advent of colonialism, African societies such as the Ibo were centered on the clan or tribe. All individuals were expected to subordinate their personal interests and behave according to the best interests of the group. The coming of modernity brought changes to the meaning of tribal identity and strains to the bonds of kin and clan. At the same time, it gave rise to a new, more European concept of individual rights and privileges. Obi Okonkwo’s kinsmen in the village of Umuofia raised a large sum of money to pay for his overseas education. They expected, with good Lagos, Nigeria (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) reason, that Obi would return and serve the people of the village, thus justifying their investment. To their consternation, Obi immediately asserts his own will. Instead of studying law, he majors in English literature. When he returns to Nigeria, he settles in the metropolis of Lagos instead of Umuofia. At his reception, he foils his kinsmen’s expectations by dressing and speaking informally. To the tribe, Obi’s self-will bespeaks impudence, but from Obi’s point of view, he is a sophisticated ‘‘been-to’’ and a pioneer.
The conflicting claims of the individual and the group come to a head in Obi’s decision to marry Clara, despite the long-standing social taboo against the osu caste. Obi finds the taboo archaic and out of place in the mid-twentieth century, but he underestimates the opposition his ‘‘pioneering’’ decision will provoke. He approaches the Umuofia Progressive Union to ask for relief from his debt to them, but then leaves the meeting in a huff when the union president publicly raises his relationship with Clara. This incident brings to light the viewpoint of communal responsibility: Obi comes seeking further financial support from the group, but will tolerate no interference in his personal affairs. He cannot have it both ways. In the end, Obi stops repaying his debt to the U.P.U. altogether. With the ties of clan no longer binding, Obi cements his status as a modern, isolated urban individual.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels – Chinua Achebe, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010