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No Longer At Ease

Chinua Achebe

Important Quotations Explained

Chapters 17–19

Key Facts

Obi's listlessness did not show any signs of decreasing even when the judge began to sum up. It was only when he said: "I cannot comprehend how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this" that a sudden and marked change occurred.

The above quote is spoken by the narrator in the first chapter of the novel, while Obi is on trial for having taken a bribe. While at the trial, Obi has shown himself to be somewhat indifferent to those around him. However, when his promise and education are brought up, he begins to tear visibly. There is much irony in all of this. First, and on the most basic level, it brings to the fore the idea that Obi sees failure within him. He begins as an idealist, ready to root out corruption in his country, ready to stand up and fight for what he believed. At first, everyone tells him that to take a bribe is not truly wrong as long as you knew how to do it because everybody did it. If he did not take bribes he would not be solving any problems because people would simply offer the bribes to others in the Civil Service. Still, at the beginning, Obi stands for what he believed. It was not until his economic burden became harsh, until his mother died and he lost Clara, that he gave into such bribes.

Furthermore, if one were to dig deeper into this quotation one would find that his education is the very sign of promise. However, this shows itself problematic because his education has been foreign. He finds himself, often times, a stranger in his own country because of this foreign education. At the same time, he found himself a stranger in England. And, further still, he happens to be educated in the same way that English with higher positions in Nigeria (such as Mr. Green) are educated. This causes conflict because it is perhaps because of his "education" that he does not know how to sneak the bribes the way others had. Also, it is this very English education, ironically, that makes him a promising young man. This is ironic for many reasons. First it makes him realize that the kind attitude held by the submissive "old Africans" is wrong. Further, it gives him a double vision. He is able to see both into the minds of the English and those of his own country because he, in a sense, belongs to both cultures. Therefore, he feels that his failure is doubled because he has had so much advantage on his side.

At the first meeting, a handful of people had expressed the view that here was no reason why the Union should worry itself over the troubles of a prodigal son who had shown great disrespect to it only a little while ago.

The narrator tells the reader this in the first chapter, when the Umuofia Progressive Union holds an emergency meeting in order to discuss their "brother" and "son," Obi. The Union has many opinions, and here it seems to be saying that they need not protect the very man who has, according to them, turned against them. This is important because it poses the Union against Obi, and since the Union symbolizes his village of Umuofia (his "home"), it therefore symbolically poses Obi against his village and the ways of his village.

Obi cannot see eye to eye with the opinions of the Union. From the very beginning they have quarreled for reasons such as Clara's status in society. Obi does not find it important because Nigeria is changing and by the time he has children this issue of Clara's status will be of no importance whatsoever. Obi explains that the conversion to the white man's religion of Christianity was once viewed with the same negativity as Clara's position, and, since that had changed, there was no reason for this not to change too. Paradoxically, the parable of the "prodigal son" is alluded to in the statements of the Umuofians. This parable is, of course, a Christian one—one that if were used years earlier might have been looked poorly upon and yet has come to be accepted. Therefore, the Union seems to be, unknowingly proving Obi's point.

Obi is in a position where he is not "at ease" anywhere because he finds himself between two worlds. He finds himself against the polar attitudes he sees around him and, therefore, finds himself between the ideas of his village and the ideas of someone like the empire-loving Mr. Green, with whom he also disagrees.

It was in England that Nigeria first became more than just a name to him. That was the first great thing that England did for him.

This is said by the narrator in the second chapter, while beginning to retrace Obi's life, from the time he receives his scholarship to the moment when he is put on trial. Here Achebe is saying that it is only when Obi is away from Nigeria that Nigeria becomes important to him and he has, ironically, the colonizer to thank for this. He is being educated in the language and in the ways of the colonizer but, again ironically, that brings him closer to home.

While in England, Obi feels like a stranger, and, even though he speaks the same language, it is not his native tongue. He longs for home and even tries to speak Ibo whenever he can. He even writes poems about Nigeria. And so, he begins to believe that with all his newfound education he will "go back" and make things better. This is ironic because it is very much a colonial mindset. It is what the English thought they were doing by giving Africans education and what they called "civilization." However, the difference here is that Obi is an insider, he is not, like the English, an outsider trying to impose foreign rules. Nevertheless, he is using the "tools" of that self-same outsider. This is what England has "done for him"—it gives him an education and a need for home that becomes problematic.

This quote can also relate to Achebe himself, as a writer, who took the tool of the English language and wrote back to the colonizer in the very form of the novel—the "English novel"—making that novel his own. He used those tools to bring light to the problems of a colonial and post-colonial world so that Nigeria would become "more than just a name."

The traders burst into song again Obi knew the refrain, he tried to translate it into English, and for the first time its real meaning dawned on him.

The above is said by the narrator in the fifth chapter of the novel when Obi returns to Umuofia for the first time since his return from England. The quote is foremost about the issue of language. Although the song sung by the trader is told in his native tongue and it is a song he has heard before, it is not until he translates the song into English that he understands its true meaning. The song turns out to mean: "the world turned upside down," which makes sense when one takes into account the fact that he has had to use another language, not that in which it was written, to understand the song. However, in a world that is already "turned upside down," perhaps this is the only way one can come to understandings … by turning oneself "upside down."

Furthermore, the song claims a betrayal because the paddle of the fisherman in the song speaks English—a language that the fisherman does not understand. This points to the issue of language in this section even further and instills a hint of betrayal in the fact that it is the language that Obi has studied and must use—a language not that of his people. Further still, it is interesting to note that he uses English to dissect, and Ibo when he is emotional and feels. Perhaps this is because Ibo is the language of his childhood, a language he used with his mother, for instance. And, English, on the other hand, is the language he learned to dissect texts in and so uses it to dissect the "text" of the song. And thus, what seemed not to make sense, begins to make sense. Still, by the end of the section, he is forced to stop thinking because the "spicy-ness" of the singing pulls him in—the song and therefore, symbolically his own roots, pull him in.

He knew that many of these secretaries were planted to spy on Africans.

The above is said by the narrator of Obi's suspicions about Miss Tomlinson, Mr. Green's secretary, in the ninth chapter of the novel. The quote points to the presence of the English within the Nigerian government in 1957, three years before Nigerian independence. It illustrates that educated Nigerians, like Obi, had suspicions and an inherent distrust of the English in high positions and even, as is evidence by Obi's spy thoughts, a certain degree of "fear." Although, Obi later becomes friendly with Miss Tomlinson, she represents an English presence and the consequences of such a presence.

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