No Longer at Ease

by Chinua Achebe

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How do Obi's major decisions in "No Longer at Ease" reflect Existential themes of free will, choice, and responsibility?

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Obi’s difficulties as a westernized Igbo man constitute on existential dilemma on several levels. While his own life is not at risk, several of his decisions implicate the welfare of people close to him. His preference to marry Clara, because it violates tribal taboo, terrifies his mother who believes it will bring her death. Clara’s decision to have an abortion, and his complicity by paying for it, places her in mortal danger. In his work life, his desire to behave ethically angers the powers that be and, although he finally acquiesces to taking bribes, he has burned his bridges so that legal action is taken against him. While this conviction does not kill him, it effectively ends his career and his future livelihood will be precarious at best.

The trajectory of Obi’s life and work suggest the distinctions in qualities of being that Jean Paul Sartre advanced. Sartre distinguished between two types of being: en-soi, “in itself,” and pour-soi, “for itself.” Being-in-itself is the fundamental existence beneath all superficial manifestations. All objects and animals have this quality, which does not imply a concept of self or self-aware. In contrast, the being-for-itself that humans possess is a kind of consciousness that requires active choices, which are made with awareness of their consequences. The individual’s responsibility stems from their awareness both of the past influences that shape current status, and to try to anticipate the impact of their decisions on others as well as themselves.

While Obi tries to behave responsibly, he is caught between cultures. The very circumstances that positioned him to meet Clara, for example, and defy tribal custom were the same as those that put him into the civil service. His structural position within the system, however, did not outweigh his responsibility for ethical behavior: to support her abortion and take bribes.

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