No Longer at Ease

by Chinua Achebe

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Themes and Meanings

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No Longer at Ease is set in colonial Nigeria on the verge of independence, primarily Lagos, an urban world that has been fully infected by European culture. Yet this does not mean that the traditional influences have disappeared. Umuofians who live and work in Lagos attempt to preserve the traditional unity of the clan through the Umuofian Progressive Union. The result of this mixture, as seen through the consciousness of Obi Okonkwo, is an urban jungle in which the worst aspects of Western culture and traditional culture predominate. In Lagos, urbanization has resulted in filth and crowding. The centralization of government has led to inefficiency and corruption. The traditional communal action of Igbo society has become a narrow pursuit of advantage that condones corruption if it is done for the good of the group. In short, the coherent system of values that existed in precolonial Nigerian cultures has been shattered.

In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe dramatizes the initial encroachments of Christianity, but in No Longer at Ease, the Christian ideal is being replaced by the matched goals of education and power. In effect, out of the struggle between two value systems, a culture without values has appeared. It is therefore fitting that Achebe’s title is drawn from William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” in which the wise men return to mundane reality, for, like the wise men, Obi and the nation are trapped between two eras. Although in No Longer at Ease Achebe shifts his attention from the distant historical past portrayed in Things Fall Apart to contemporary Nigeria, his central theme is the same: the tragedy of a man who cannot or will not adapt to change.

Obi Okonkwo’s life stands as an exemplum, typifying on an individual level the condition of modern Nigeria as a nation, a syncretic society that has learned the Western desire for material goods without having sufficient income to satisfy it. In such a situation, the nation, like Obi, must choose between corruption and bankruptcy. Thus, as Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart stands for the vanishing traditional African, Obi in No Longer at Ease stands for the vanishing idealist in a world of compromise.

No Longer at Ease, however, is as much comedy as tragedy. In it, Achebe translates the theme of Things Fall Apart to a humorously mundane setting and selects a protagonist who is hopelessly out of touch with the fluid world in which he exists. This new world is devoid of climactic moments, as Obi recognizes when he says that “real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever.” The humor is darkly deterministic, but behind Achebe’s bourgeois tragicomedy is a nostalgic yearning for the time when men of Okonkwo’s stature and integrity could be imagined, a time when truth could be known.

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