No Longer at Ease
The Idealistic Characters and Their Representation
Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease includes a variety of idealistic characters, from Obi Okonkwo, the typical educated young reformer, to Mr. Green, his curmudgeonly, racist boss. Despite these characters’ differing views, they share the characteristic of being trapped in their world views, unable to effect change because of an inability to see the world beyond their preconceptions.
Because he lies between two worlds, Obi would seem the most likely to accomplish something, yet he is least able to. Raised in a Nigerian village and educated in England, he has experience of both European and African cultures but understands neither. He believes strongly enough in European progressiveness to marry a woman from a forbidden caste, despite the fact that she does not share his beliefs. “I can’t marry you” (80), says his fiancée Clara, to which his reply is “nonsense!” (81). Even after Clara attempts to return her engagement ring, explaining “your family will be against [our marriage]. I don’t want to come between you and your family” (141), Obi counters, “bunk!” (141) and proceeds to drive home, where his mother tells him that if he gets married while she is alive, she “shall kill [her]self” (154). Obi does not understand the fact that he cannot marry Clara. While his own views are enlightened, nobody else in his life shares them. Clara is not interested in the gift of equality brought by missionaries who teach that “in Christ there are no bond or free” (151). The Umuofia Progressive Union, who sent Obi to England to become “a great light” (9), have no desire to see what he illuminates, condemning Obi’s marriage to “a girl of doubtful ancestry” (94).
Similarly, nobody appreciates Obi’s attempt to reform Nigeria’s corrupt bureaucracy. When Obi refuses a bribe from a man trying to secure a scholarship for his sister, the sister comes in person to offer Obi another bribe. She gets the scholarship without any help from Obi, but when his friend Christopher asks, “how do you know she did not go to bed with the board members?” (138), Obi acknowledges that “she probably did” (138). Likewise, when Obi’s wagon is stopped by armed men demanding money, Obi conspicuously spies on the extortionists, making them fear that Obi will turn them in. The driver reacts by complaining that “now that [‘]policeman[‘] [is] go[ing to] charge…ten shillings” (50) instead of two. Mr. Green, the only person in the book who agrees with Obi’s goals, never knows about his attempts to stop corruption, only his eventual bribe-taking, which supports his own opinion that “the African is corrupt through and through” (3).
Mr. Green’s form of idealism is less orthodox than Obi’s. Mr. Green dreams of a government without corruption: a Nigerian government without any Nigerians. According to Obi, he is “a man who [does] not believe in a country and yet work[s]…hard for it” (120), which makes him sound like a pragmatist. It is true that Mr. Green tries to stem corruption; we hear him dictate a letter informing the recipient that “the Government pays a dependant’s allowance to bona fide wives of Government scholars and not to their girl friends” (132). Yet he “had put in his resignation when it was thought that Nigeria might become independent” (121), which could be the act of only an idealist. Mr. Green “must have originally come with an ideal–to bring light to the heart of darkness…in 1900 Mr. Green might have ranked among the great missionaries…in 1957 he could only curse” (121); in other words, Mr. Green has brought the full force of his idealism to bear on the educated Africans who constitute the corrupt civil servants. Most characters in the book agree with Mr. Green’s assessment of the civil service: “to [an old official] the bribe is natural…[the Ibo] say that if you pay homage to the man on top, others will pay homage to you” (23); “[bribes] would not be necessary, since [the officials in question] would be mostly white men” (38). This does not mean that Mr. Green is correct, but it does indicate that his views are the products of idealism, not merely paranoid racism. His view of educated Africans fits within a paradigm familiar to the African characters, but it is simplistic and false: “white men…eat bribe” (38).
We have little indication of how successful Mr. Green’s one-man campaign is; it certainly has few wide-ranging consequences. Mr. Green’s effectiveness is limited by his belief in the utter irredeemability of “the so-called educated Nigerian” (132). “I don’t expect you to agree with me, of course” (133), he tells Obi; his dedication keeps him from realizing that Obi does agree with his anti-corruption stance, though not with his disgust for Obi’s class. Mr. Green “loved Africa, but only Africa of a kind…the Africa of his gardenboy” (121), and so “had succumbed…to the incipient dawn” (121). His obsession with his ideal Africa has keeps him from seeing a more complex reality that includes people like Obi, who does not fit into the categories of the poor who “die every day from hunger and disease” (132) or the corrupt Europeanized civil servant.
Both Obi and Mr. Green fail to understand the societies they try to serve. This is both the cause and the failure of their idealism. Obi is only determined to change Nigerian society, both traditional and official, because he does not realize that society does not want to change. His ignorance, not his education, drives him. Mr. Green’s desire for change comes from believing that Africans are thoroughly corrupt; if this is true, he can never curb corruption. Where Mr. Green remains ignorant, Obi learns that he can neither marry Clara nor afford to refuse bribes. He falls into realism, takes bribes, is arrested, and at the end of the story he understands more than any other character: “the learned judge…could not comprehend how an educated young man [could take bribes]…the British Council man, even the men of Umuofia, did not know…Mr. Green did not know” (194). This is why “treacherous tears” (3) fill Obi’s eyes at the mention of his unfulfilled “promise” (2); he realizes that the desire to effect change and the power to do so cannot be held at once.
Obi’s Parents and Their Reluctance to Accept Obi’s Engagement to Clara
“Osu is like leprosy in the minds of our people.”
When Obi makes the decision to marry Clara, an osu, both the Umoufian community, and his parents strongly oppose this marriage, as it is a union which will bring suffering to all of Obi’s future descendants. This conflict causes Obi’s familial relationships to crumble, which serves as one of the factors leading up to his final descent into corruption, the most notable relationship being that of the one between Obi and his mother. Achebe uses this to show readers the prominent role of culture in the life of Nigerians, that an individual whose ancestors had been devoted to the gods would be shunned and alienated from society.
The reaction of Obi’s parents towards his engagement to Clara is logical and understandable. Marrying Clara would cause Obi’s children and future descendants to become outcasts in the Nigerian society. Obi’s father even points out that osu is “like leprosy”, emphasising the social stigma surrounding people possessing the label. By marrying Clara, Obi will be dooming all of his future children. The fact that Obi is his parents’ only son makes this decision even more significant, as he is the only hope of continuing the Okonkwo family, and his actions would lead to the entire family tree becoming tainted. The insanity behind deciding to marry an osu can also be seen when Clara bluntly tells Obi “I am an osu”, and expect Obi to immediately understand why they cannot marry. As someone who herself bears the label, she of all people would know the degree of isolation of osu from society, further emphasising the consequences of Obi marrying Clara. Thus, Achebe makes it clear to readers that Isaac and Hannah’s response to Obi’s engagement is natural, and that Obi is the one who has been so detached from his own culture that he does not see the flaw behind his decision.
Obi’s father tries to convince Obi to rethink his decision of marrying Clara for the sake of his children. He warns Obi that his future generations will “curse his memory”, and that it is a terrible thing for a man to “curse his own child”. Isaac says he was cursed by Obi’s grandfather, implying that Obi’s decision is the curse. On the other hand, Isaac might be trying to show Obi that his decision will curse his descendants, and that doing so is horrible. Isaac may also be referring to his own separation from the society after deciding to convert to Christianity. He says that he ‘walked through fire to become a Christian’, showing that he has an inkling of an idea as to what Obi and his future generations will have to go through if he were to marry Clara. However, converting to Christianity is in no way comparable to marrying an osu, and Isaac references this, saying that “it is deeper than that”. Thus, readers can understand that Isaac Okonkwo opposes the marriage in an effort to prevent the curse from being passed on through Obi’s decision.
Obi’s father shows that he does not want Obi to personally suffer by marrying Clara. As a Christian, Isaac is not personally against the idea of marrying osu, as he has, as Obi points out, “seen the light of the Gospel”. However, he understands the consequences of marrying an osu, and still tells Obi ‘you cannot marry the girl’ as the Umuofian society would never accept the marriage. Isaac understands Obi’s view of there being nothing wrong with marrying an osu, but because he does not want Obi to be isolated from his kinsmen, Isaac desperately tries to make Obi change him mind. To Isaac, community is crucial, especially to Obi who lives away from his village as Isaac says that in a foreign land, “one should always move near one’s kinsman’. Isaac is less concerned about how Obi’s decision would affect himself, and cares more the social implications which would affect and harm Obi in the future.
Obi’s mother, compared to his father, has a much bigger reaction. When she finds out of Obi’s engagement, she threatens suicide, saying that “you (Obi) shall have my blood on your head, because I shall kill myself”. This is particularly significant and shocking, especially when considering the fact that Hannah is a Christian; in Christianity, suicide is a sin that will lead one to end up in hell. Throughout the novel, it is shown that Hannah is more traditional and cultural than Obi’s father, but have accepted and complied to the ways of Christianity due to her husband, and is a devout Christian woman. Obi’s engagement has such a large impact on her that she forgoes her loyalty to Christianity and reverts back to her cultural believes, showing the extent to which she opposes the engagement. However, Hannah seems to also acknowledge Obi’s stubbornness and subconsciously knows that Obi will persist with the marriage regardless of opposition, and tells Obi to marry Clara only after she has died. She disapproves of the marriage, and refuses to witness it happening. She, unlike Isaac, is personally against osu, and her threat of suicide leaves a larger impact on Obi who has always seen himself as having a closer bond with his mother. It is ironic how Obi was previously confident that he would be able to convince his mother, as this implies that Obi may not be as close to his mother as he initially thought.
The reluctance of Obi’s parents in accepting his engagement is expected. In fact, Obi may be fortunate for being brought up in a less traditional, Christian family, else his father would have likely had a bigger reaction. The fact that both of his parents opposes this union, shows how bad of a decision it is, on a personal, familial, and communal level. Achebe emphasises Obi’s idealism and detachment from his own culture — both crucial factors which leads to his descent into corruption. Readers realise the marriage of Clara and Obi is impossible — a fact that Obi himself unfortunately refuses to accept until it is too late.
An Unflattering Portrait of “Old” Nigeria: Analyzing Mr Omo
Mr Omo from the novel ‘No Longer at Ease’ by Chinua Achebe is a minor character. He is one of the Nigerian men who shares a workplace with Obi, and is Obi’s idea of a typical ‘old Nigerian man’. Indeed, Mr Omo does represent the older generation of Nigerians – as viewed by younger characters and construed by the author – and the readers are led to think him lazy and corrupt as a consequence..
When readers are first introduced to him, Mr Omo is shown to be lazing off during his job, and quickly “pockets a kola nut” when Mr Green walks into the room. This is likely why Obi quickly forms the conclusion that Mr Omo is one of the lazy, corrupt, older generation of Nigerians. Throughout the rest of the novel, there are also several mentions of Obi not knowing certain details of his job, such as the fact that the excess of the fund he received for his journey back to Umuofia needs to be returned, because Mr Omo did not mention it to Obi. This may indicate that Mr Omo is not responsible and thorough in his work, and only does the bare minimum required of him. Thus, readers will look down on him.
Moreover, Mr Omo is someone who is intimidated by the white man and their world. He grovels in the presence of Mr Green, and tries to flatter him, as seen when he personally brings a report to Mr Green after failing to do so on time. This hints that he feels inferior to Mr Green, a European, and he, like other Nigerians, think “the only thing the white man cannot do is mold a human being”. He is also scared of answering the phone, and shows “hesitation” before answering the phone and “relief” when the caller asks for Obi. This shows his sense of discomfort in the world of the white man. The fact that he is introduced as eating a kola nut — a recurring motif in the novel which represents Nigerian culture, further proves the fact that he is a representation of Nigerians in the world of the white man.
Furthermore, it is hinted that Mr Omo is corrupt. When Obi looks for a salary raise, Mr Omo implies that the possibility of such a raise is not “unconnected to his personal pleasure”, showing that Obi will likely have to bribe Mr Omo for such a raise to be possible. This shows the reality of Nigerians in higher positions of power abusing said power for their own benefits. Obi’s conclusion of Mr Omo being one of the corrupt old men is not far from the truth. However, it is worth noting that despite Mr Omo’s potential corrupt tendencies, he is still respected by the people who work beneath him, as seen when his loyal colleagues laughed along with him to Obi’s ignorance regarding contracts. This shows that corruption is either expected of someone in Mr Omo’s position, or Mr Omo is merely experienced enough to hide his abuse of power. After all, in the end, it is not Mr Omo, a corrupt, uneducated, old Nigerian man who gets caught for corruption, but Obi, a young, educated man who was vehemently against corruption instead.
Relating to the previous point, Mr Omo, is, in the eyes of a traditional Nigerian, a successful man. He works as an Administrative Assistant, which is a relatively high position of power, and he has people who work beneath him who are loyal to him. It is mentioned that he is working to fund his son’s education. All these factors make Mr Omo a success in the Nigerian society. He may not have a degree like Obi, but he ends up being the one who shows Obi’s the ropes on his first day, showing readers that experience is indeed more important than education, something that Obi does not realise. Thus, Mr Omo, although representing the Obi’s idea of a typical old Nigerian man, also shows readers that that is not necessarily a bad thing, and that such old man have reached positions of power for a reason. Mr Omo, whether he obtained his job through bribery or not, is ultimately successful as a member of his community and the head of his family.
Mr Omo, although bearing the flaws of the old Nigerian generation which Obi continuously points out throughout the novel, shows readers that such ‘flaws’ are the way the Nigerian society works. It is through bribery, experience, and respect and understanding of the Nigerian culture and social hierarchy that one manages to succeed and survive. Mr Omo may be lazy and corrupt, but at least he does not end up being sentenced to jail as Obi does. Achebe uses Mr Omo to convey this message, reflecting the deeply rooted problem of corruption not only in Nigeria as a country, but in the Nigerian culture and society as a whole.