Achebe's fourth novel contains a range of male and female characters who give a sense of the complex urban political life and the seemingly more anchored, but threatened life of the rural villages.
Odili, nicknamed "diligent" by his schoolmates, is the chief male character and the narrator. He is naive, sexist, snobbish, self-centered, and self-congratulatory, providing wonderful opportunities for demonstrating the author's humor and ironic wit. Still, he grows with the book into more of a man than even he perhaps knows.
At the outset, he puts his foot in his mouth on several occasions. He denigrates his father, although not totally without cause, just as he is about to fall into the clutches of Nanga. Just prior to the episode (described above) where Nanga seduces Odili's girlfriend Elsie, he remarks: "Chief Nanga was a born politician; he could get away with almost anything he said or did." Before he stands up to Nanga on the platform at the end of the novel, he says he aspires to "the heights of symbolic action, a shining, monumental gesture untainted by hopes of success or reward." It is the monumental gesture that results in the severe beating that lands him in the hospital, his heroism a bit tainted by our knowledge that he has tried to be the big hero.
With women, Odili is awkward and often chauvinistic, revealing his relative inexperience. Yet he is also capable of recognizing truly worthy women when the occasion arises. His estimation of Mrs. Nanga is fair. Yet sometimes this recognition disturbs him, as when he comments that it "unsettles him" when he "finds a beautiful woman who has brains as well." Still, he movingly recounts the plight of his father's younger wives, who must fend for themselves and their children as his father's wealth dwindles.
The chief indicator that Odili grows more caring and mature as the book progresses is the change in his relationship with his father, brought about in some sense by the man's obvious integrity in comparison to Nanga and his cohorts. "I realized" Odili says, "that I had never really been close enough to my father to understand him." Just as he is about to reassess his father, however, he pipes up with some of his usual superficial wit: "it was better left to the tax people."
Odili's coolness to his father is not without justification. Almost seventy-eight years old, the District Interpreter has a small pension from the government, but he cannot support his five wives and thirty-five children on it, leaving the younger wives to support themselves and their children. He has also become the local chairman of the political party, P.O.P., or People's Organization Party. He drinks palm wine every day. The narrator is still haunted by an incident from his childhood when he went to visit a school friend and was summarily sent home when the friend's father discovered that he was the District Interpreter's son. The old man's ambition for his son is that Odili should give up teaching, get a government job, and buy himself a car.
A foil for Odili is his friend Max, Maxwell Kulamo, aka "Cool Max." Max is often more mature, more level-headed, and more committed to political action than Odili. Max has been poet laureate of their school and is now a lawyer. But he has no telephone because he has not given anyone a bribe. He chastises Odili for "staying with that corrupt, empty-headed, illiterate capitalist," Nanga, although Odili has spared him the story of what Nanga has done with Elsie. Later,...
(The entire section is 1431 words.)