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Title: No Longer at Ease

Author: Chinua Achebe


By Mwandawiro Mghanga 


The novel, No Longer at Ease, starts at the end and ends at the end. We briefly encounter the main protagonist, Obi, in court awaiting judgment for a case of corruption against him. Other important protagonists, Mr. Green, Clara, and Obi's mother are also mentioned in the first two pages. At the same time, the main theme of the story, corruption, which has become part and parcel of Nigerian life - and of course that of African countries - is introduced with the sarcastic humour which is present throughout the story,


……Some Civil Servants paid as much as sixpence to obtain a doctor’s certificate of illness for the day. (pg. 1)


The theme involving the hypocrisy of the whole corrupt society which drives honest individuals towards corruption and then pretends to be surprised and unaware of the circumstances that breed corruption is also adroitly introduced at the beginning by use of sarcasm that will be clear as one reads the story,


I cannot understand why he did it, said the British Council man thoughtfully. (pg. 2)


The story then unfolds through a series of flashbacks revolving around the life and experiences of Obi Okonkwo. The whole story is told through the literary technique of 'flashback'. Through 'flashbacks', we are told about the life of Obi in London and the start of his love affair with Clara, and later the tragic end of their love. Through 'flashback', we also learn about Obi's childhood in the countryside in Umuofia. We also meet his parents and family, his relationship with them, and the role they play in influencing the tragic circumstances of the story. Through 'flashbacks' we also encounter the Umuofia Progressive Union and several characters, including his friend Joseph, who relates to Obi and who plays a great role in the story. Obi's experiences in Lagos and working life under and alongside hypocritical and malicious European civil servants are also told through 'flashbacks'.


Achebe combines the use of 'flashbacks', oral literature techniques such as Igbo proverbs, narrative allusions, extremely humorous dialogues, and other cases of language use based on the rich Igbo language and culture, to produce a unique and very interesting work of literary art.


The author uses ‘flashbacks’ to create suspense which ensures that once we start reading No Longer at Ease we read until the end of the story without putting the book down. For example, immediately at the beginning of the story, we encounter Obi in court awaiting judgment on a case of corruption against him. But the author deliberately avoids telling us about the judgment but instead puts us in a series of 'flashbacks' which gradually and skillfully unfold the theme of the story. We are, therefore, immediately put into suspense. We are glued to read on to find more about this Obi and why he came to begin accepting bribes.


Again, at the beginning of the story, the author deliberately tells us of Obi,


Mercifully, he had recently lost his mother and Clara had gone out of his life. (pg. 2)


We are not told more than this about Obi's mother and Clara, to begin with. So we are interested to go on reading to find out about Obi's mother and why the author finds it important to mention her at the beginning. In the process, we are also captured by the wish to find more about Clara and the circumstances that lead to Obi losing her. At the same time, by mentioning the fact that Obi lost his mother and Clara only recently, the author seems to suggest right from the very beginning that Obi deserves the reader's sympathy. It is also insinuated that we should be ready to read about the circumstances that brought Obi to court before we pronounced judgment upon him. Furthermore, the significance of mentioning Obi's loss of both his mother and Clara is that one of the central themes of the story is the tragedy of the love affair between Obi and Clara. Igbo cultural beliefs dictate that Obi must not marry his fiancée Clara who happens to be from a family of an Osu or outcast. His family and Umuofia society use all means possible to pressurise him to leave a woman he sincerely loves. Thus the tragedy of Obi's love affair with Clara is built around having to choose either his parents or clansmen on the one hand or Clara on the other. It is left to the readers to judge whether the tragedy would have been less if Obi had chosen Clara. In any case, in the end, Obi loses everything and we cannot help sympathising with him.


The story ends with,


Everybody wondered why. The learned judge, as we have seen, could not comprehend how an educated young man and so forth. The British Councilman, even the men of Umuofia, did not know. And we must presume, despite his certitude, Mr. Green did not know either. (pg. 154)


So, as soon as we reach the end of the story we immediately remember that the author had started the story with similar words,


I cannot understand why he did it, said the British Council man thoughtfully. (pg. 2)


Thus the author succeeds to make the readers reflect on the circumstances that drove Obi to gradually enter corruption. And when we do, we comprehend the sarcasm conveyed through, "Everybody wondered why?" The point is that everybody knows why, since corruption has become a culture in society everybody is guilty of corruption in one way or the other, directly or indirectly. Like what Jesus said about the prostitute in the Bible, nobody can cast a stone against Obi for accepting a bribe.


As the flashbacks reveal, the story of No Longer at Ease is a tragedy of a young man committed to honesty and the good of his society but who is coerced by the circumstances and material conditions of his country and society to degenerate into immoralities and corruption inherent in the society he wants to correct. Obi returns to Nigeria from England committed to being an example of virtue. While working in the office in charge of overseas scholarships, Obi refuses to take advantage of his position to acquire wealth as other people were doing through soliciting bribes or sexually exploit young women desperate for overseas scholarships. He remains loyal to his fiancée Clara and the moral behaviour he acquired from his Christian upbringing.


But gradually, circumstances and the society which has accepted corruption as part of the culture drives Obi to corruption. As a person with a university education from abroad and one employed in European jobs, Obi is forced to live an expensive and conspicuous high life which his salary cannot afford. He lives in European quarters of the city away from the slums where the majority live, he employs a house boy and engages in consumerism and urban leisure and pleasures. His European boss, Mr. Green, deliberately entices him to enter into the trap of taking loans which he can hardly afford to pay. Mr. Green and his fellow European civil servants consciously create conditions for destroying honest African civil servants to prove that Africans are incompetent and inherently corrupt.


But, again, the whole of African society, including the likes of Joseph and Umuofia Progressive Society, expects that educated people like Obi should live a flamboyant and lavish life conducive to the status of Africans with European jobs! If they live a humble life, then they are not respected. They are encouraged to practice nepotism and tribalism and even to accept bribes to advance themselves, their families, clans, and tribes. Again, besides having to pay loans and to pay for an expensive lifestyle he cannot afford, Obi has to support his family at the village in Umuofia. He has to pay medical fees for his mother and school fees for his brothers. All these pressures combine to drive Obi to take a bribe.


Thus Achebe, in No Longer at Ease, uses the style of beginning the story at the end and ending it at the same place where it began, i.e., in court. The background of the circumstances of the case of corruption involving Obi Okonkwo is skillfully narrated through a series of 'flashbacks'. At the end of the story, therefore, Achebe succeeds to convey his message: it is not Obi Okonkwo alone who is facing charges of corruption but the entire Nigerian society that has embraced corruption as a culture. Obi Okonkwo is only a symbol. Furthermore, Achebe contends that the root causes of corruption as narrated in the story must be addressed to liberate the society from corruption.

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