Chinua Achebe’s novel No Longer At Ease describes the twilight zone between the British rule of Nigeria and the country’s independence. It is a transitional period during which the Whites are leaving the country and the natives are getting responsible for their own lives; colonialism is giving way to a post-colonial situation. Nigerians are now forced to negotiate the claims of both colonial modernity and their previously degraded African mode of life. The period of transition is one in which binary oppositions (colonial vs. African, modernity vs. tradition) seem to be collapsing, unveiling what Mudimbe calls “the strong tension between a modernity that often is an illusion of development, and a tradition that sometimes reflects a poor image of a mythical past” (5).
No Longer At Ease was first published in 1960, the year of Nigeria's independence from England. This is significant because it is a novel that pertains to a trend of literature called post-colonial literature that still survives. There are many issues that arise out of post-colonialism, issues that authors and writers around the world have had to deal with. Africa, India, and the West Indies all have come out of the colonial era with a new literature that must address the problems that colonialism left behind. Some of the problems in post-colonial regions concern language, education, the conflict between traditional ways and Western or European ways, the presence of the English, and corruption. Those who later moved into the land of the colonizer (for instance, Obi, while studying in England) experience an entire set of new problems such as nostalgia for home, memory, and the desire for the homeland. When Obi returns from his studies in England, he is an honest idealistic young man. He takes a high paying job in the civil service but soon finds that his salary is not sufficient to meet the financial demands made upon him. He also gets involved with a woman his parents and the clan despise. In the end he is caught taking bribes and is sent to prison.
Undoubtedly, many of the problems confronting Obi Okonkwo arise from his uneasy situation in the space between a diminishing colonialism and an emerging Nigerian nation. The major conflict of No Longer At Ease is the fact that Obi Okonkwo , the protagonist of the novel , is caught between two worlds: that of a traditional Africa and that of a changing and new world that lives amidst two cultures: the English and the African. A young man is caught in between tradition and the ways of the West in his homeland, toward the end of a colonial reign; he is entrapped in the dialectic of difference and identity. Obi finds that he cannot completely dissociate himself from the colonial culture which he has inherited from his father, nor can he totally identify with the Igbo culture of his ancestors. Obi got into this conflict because of the education he has received in England. It is the higher education he has received that put Obi in a position where he is ‘no longer at ease’.
No Longer At Ease takes place in historical time, but it is a personal story rather than a historical one. Achebe, writing in the later 1950s, wished apparently to deal with the alienation such educated young men as himself felt in the new nation moving swiftly toward independence (Wren 63). Upon their return, those who have been educated in England face different problems. They have to develop a different kind of worldview they never had before. Furthermore, local customs make the ‘been-tos’ (the precarious intelligentsia) feel uncomfortable.
According to Simon Gikandi, No Longer At Ease takes up the question of the exact authority of custom and what spaces sustain it, given the challenge posed by the forces of colonialism, which is seeking the society’s space with the autochthonous culture. As a result of this contest between the forces of colonialism and the authority of the indigenous custom, Obi constantly struggles to define himself in the two contending spaces, the schizophrenic inherited space in Umuofia and “his transplanted locale”, Lagos, which is fully under the hegemony of colonialism (Chinua Achebe 9-10).
One of the most important aspects of Obi's life is that he was educated in England. Obi Okonkwo is a young man born in Igbo in the Eastern Nigerian village of Umuofia. He was well educated and eventually sent to study law in England. The Umuofia Progressive Union had raised money for a scholarship for its brightest young man to study abroad. The Union believes in education, and they want him to study law so that he may help them with their land cases. But Obi eventually changed his course of study from law to English. The irony is that he "learned" nothing about the law (but studied English instead) and ends up in court. This is a perfect metaphor for the novel: the idea that he left what the Umuofians wanted him to study (which was law) in order to pursue the language and literature of the "colonizer", which did not help his as much as bring him hardship.
When it was time for Obi to leave, it was a huge occasion in the town for one of its young men to go and study in England and therefore his father, Isaac Okonkwo, made a big feast for his son's farewell. This also underlines the significance of Obi’s departure to England. Everybody is celebrating because Obi will receive education in England. They expect a good return on their investment because Obi is their kinsman. The oratory in Umuofia before Obi goes abroad exposes the people’s expectation that is the driving force behind Obi’s view of his role as well as his internal conflict and alienation from his center of being, the clan and his family. According to Okechukwu, “there is a man-of-two-worlds motif in all his encounters with his people, whether they are praying for his safety or advising him on his conduct” (90).
A few days before Obi’s departure Obi’s parents called a prayer meeting at their home during which the Reverend Samuel Ikedi sees the occasion as fulfilling Biblical prophecy (Achebe 9). The people of Umuofia have been sitting in darkness, and Obi’s departure to England for further studies is an act of bringing light to his people. Even before he leaves, Obi has been given the burden of bringing light to his dark village. This light has the power to rescue him from “the region and the shadow of death”. For the Christian pastor, Obi’s trip to England represents not a step into a different culture and set of values, but a new form of fulfilling traditional expectations. He is not sent to bring home human heads as his ancestors did but knowledge. Obi is also admonished not to give himself to the pleasure of women (Achebe 12). As always, the concern is with the welfare of the clan, the community, to which individual desires must always be subordinate.
Obi stays in England for nearly four years, at times longing for the warm weather of home and all the other nostalgic qualities his memory supplies him during long winters abroad. Nevertheless, his arrival is less than what he has expected: “His homecoming was not in the end the happy event he had dreamt of. The reason was his mother. She had grown so old and frail that he could hardly believe it ” (Achebe 63). In his book Reading Chinua Achebe, Simon Gikandi argues that “the withering of the mother – the symbol of the homeland and the source of life – already points to Obi’s tenuous state in Umuofia” (93). Furthermore, Obi’s rejection of his father’s God (Achebe 64) signals his rebellion from the paternal authority. Back home in Umuofia, Obi cannot reconnect with things as they were before his departure for England.
The fact that he went to England to study and has returned puts him a peculiar position, one in which he will have to face the issues of a man torn between his own country and what he has learned in the hands of those who have colonized his country (the English). This small fact molds the way others treat him and shapes what others expect of him. At the same time, the education he holds dear is also one for which he has felt guilt and one which has often made him a stranger in his own Nigeria.
Upon his return from England, Obi is secured a position in the civil service, given a car, money, and respect. However, Okechuku claims that Obi’s coming home without informing the Umuofian Progressive Union beforehand robs his kinsmen the opportunity to display their prize and bask in their achievement of having trained someone overseas. He is already starting to gradually lose the awe that his position in the civil service, his exposure overseas, and his acquisition of Western education should have given him (82).
The Umuofian Progressive Union has a reception for Obi in honor of his return after having studied in England. His fellow Umuofians are very proud of having someone from their village that studied in England and the president gives a long, and spirited speech about Obi and about knowledge. He does so in a full and formal English, which the members of the Union like very much. In his study of Nigerian nationalism, Coleman reminds us that the generation which still looks up to the colonizer as its model of behavior is characterized by the “misuse or overuse of long words, in the use of pompous oratory, and in the ostentatious display of educational attainments” (146-7). Simple grammar does not impress this generation. The value of words does not lie in their meanings but sounds.
Obi makes several mistakes at his reception. First he arrives informally dressed and then he speaks in an informal English. His kinsmen are unimpressed by his speech and Obi has robbed himself of another opportunity for placing himself on the pedestal where his people expect him to stay. Obi does not realize that he must dress a certain way and because it is hot, he simply wears short sleeves. He speaks English with less formality (an English of "is" and "was") because he is used to the language, and it is not strange to his tongue (Achebe 35-37). According to Okechukwu, Obi’s speech buttresses Achebe’s implicit argument, that British education is inadequate for preparing a future Nigerian leader (82).