Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 602
No Longer at Ease opens and closes at the trial of Obi Okonkwo, a young civil servant in the colonial Nigerian government who is accused of accepting bribes. Within this frame, the bulk of the novel is a retrospective look at Obi’s progress from the remote village of Umuofia in southeastern Nigeria, where he is the star pupil in the missionary school, to an English university, where he earns a degree with honors in literature, and then to a position with the Nigerian Civil Service in Lagos, where he finally succumbs to the prevalent practice of bribery and is caught.
Obi is selected as the first representative of Umuofia to receive a European education, and the expenses of his education are underwritten by the Umuofian Progressive Union (UPU), an organization of clansmen that conscientiously promotes the general well-being of the clan. The members of the UPU view their support of Obi as a means of enhancing the status of their village and as an investment that will pay economic dividends. Obi’s English education gives him access to the Nigerian Civil Service, and the UPU members expect him to use his influence to help other clansmen win white-collar jobs with the government. Yet Obi’s studies in English literature, his exposure to European culture, and his passive temperament alienate him from his homeland and from his clan.
On the ship back from England, Obi meets Clara, and he subsequently falls in love with her despite the fact that she is osu, marked by a traditional, hereditary taboo. Obi stubbornly resists Clara’s suggestion that they break off their star-crossed affair, rejecting the traditional taboo as primitive superstition, but his naive determination to be thoroughly modern places him in direct conflict with his family and with his clan.
His life is further complicated by his increasingly difficult financial situation. He is obligated to repay the cost of his education to the UPU so that the funds can be reinvested in the education of another clansman. He also feels the pressure to keep up the material appearances expected of one in his position—a European apartment, a car, and a chauffeur—even though such expenditures necessitate his living beyond his means. His inability to manage his finances forces him to ask the UPU for an extension, and this suffocating sense of dependence increases his feeling of alienation and resentment toward the clan.
When he returns home and tells his parents of his intention to marry Clara, his mother, who adheres to many of the traditional customs, tells Obi that she will die if he marries an osu. His father, once the rebellious Nwoye of Things Fall Apart (1958), now a retired Christian catechist, also opposes the marriage despite the pagan nature of osu. To Obi’s father, the dire social effects of such a marriage outweigh theological considerations. Obi’s resolve is weakened by his parents’ opposition. After his return to Lagos, Clara becomes pregnant, and the abortion for which he pays further sours their relationship.
Obi’s gradual debilitation is also apparent in his work. In his early days in the Nigerian Civil Service, he eschews the customary practice of accepting bribes, seeing it as anachronistic behavior that the new generation of educated and idealistic civil servants will eradicate, but his financial situation and his general weakening of resolve eventually lead him to accept payments. When he does give in to custom, he handles the bribery so amateurishly that he is caught. The UPU pays for his lawyer, partly to protect its investment and partly out of clan loyalty, but Obi is convicted.