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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
One of Chinua Achebe's main socio-political criticisms in No Longer At Ease is that of corruption in Nigeria. From the moment the book begins the main character, Obi Okonkwo, is confronted with the issue of bribery. From the moment he arrives at customs to the point at where he gives in to taking bribes himself, the voice of Achebe lingers in the backdrop through the words.
At first Obi is as critical as Achebe of bribery. He refuses to take bribes and also finds it necessary for himself to be a "pioneer" in Nigeria, bringing down corruption in government and instigating change. It seems that corruption runs rampant and that everyone in Nigeria from the "white man" to the Umuofian Progressive Union participates in "seeing" people about what they need done. Men offer money, and women offer their bodies, in return for favors and services. Obi believes that by not taking bribes he can make a difference. He had written, while at the university in London, a paper in which he theorized on what would change the corruption of high positions in Nigeria. He believed that the "old Africans" at the top of civil service positions would have to be replaced by a younger generation of idealistic and educated university graduates, such as himself.
Achebe, however, is not as optimistic as Obi because he has Obi fail. Achebe takes us through the path of how someone like Obi can come to take bribes. The book begins on a negative note: starting with Obi's trial. It is as if Achebe, by beginning in the end, is saying that Obi was doomed from the start. Obi's position is a difficult one. He is born in Ibo, but he has been educated in England and often feels himself a stranger in his own country. He has lost his love because of a rule of the past, he has suffered under great financial distress, he has exerted himself because of the expectations others have placed on him, and he has lost his mother. All of this brings the protagonist of the novel to fall into what he once had believed was a terrible and corrupt act. Still, Obi always feels guilt at taking a bribe, and he had decided to stop taking them. By having Obi get caught, even amid an aura of repentance and guilt, Achebe further illustrates the hypocrisy of all who have participated in bribes and now throw stones at Obi. And, at the same time, it tells us that, although he got caught, Obi is still a pioneer because he has sworn to not do it again. It may be that his beginning as a "pioneer" is a rough one, one that has taken a curved path, but it does not definitely mean that he cannot still lead toward change. Still, perhaps Achebe may be saying that this is not true, and that Obi, ultimately, has failed at the task he set before himself.
Whether the book is a tragedy (an unresolved situation) in Obi's definition of the word or not is up to whether we believe that it is Achebe who is the greatest "pioneer" in the novel. In other words, it is the author's critical voice that will lead others out of such corruption, if not by only making the world and younger generations of Nigerians aware of it.
One of the most important aspects of Obi's life is that he was educated in England. 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. At the same time, however, he seems to be making constant mistakes because of what he has learned to be like, what he has come to understand, and what he has never learned. For instance, when Obi first arrives, he is given a reception by the Umuofian Progressive Union at which he makes several mistakes. He has forgotten how to act in his home or simply does not agree with its ways: he wears a short-sleeved shirt and sees nothing wrong with it, for it is hot, and he speaks casually in English, instead of the kind of heavy English that the Umuofians admire in the president of the Union. His education has brought him status and has placed him in a position where others expect the most and best of him. No one can understand, in the end, how a man of "his education and promise" could take a bribe. Of course, Achebe, says this cheekily since many who have accused him and who also hold high positions are guilty of similar transgressions. Ironically, the only thing his "education" did not teach him was how not to get caught.
Another important aspect of education, aside from the contradictions mentioned above, is the fact that Obi's generation uses its education as a tool, paradoxically, against colonialism. Sam Okoli, the Minister of State and also an educated man, verbalizes the position of the populace by saying that, yes, the white man has brought many things to Africa, but it is time for the white man to go. In other words, a man like Obi can use his education to take his country back into his own hands, even if his education is something that the colonizer gave him. It is important to remember that the only way to survive in a world where two cultures have met is to allow a certain amount of mixture to be used in a positive regard.
While Obi is in England he misses his home, longs for his family, and writes nostalgic poetry about Lagos and the sun and the trees of his homeland. He even begins to feel a certain degree of guilt, at times, for studying English and not being in Nigeria with other Ibo people. Nevertheless, this "English" has become a part of him, one that he cannot erase when he arrives back in Nigeria.
Obi is in love with his native tongue, and it holds a place in his heart. At the same time, however, he is also comfortable with the English language. The struggle of language is just one of the many examples of how African tradition and English culture collide in this novel. Obi loves his family dearly, and since his family is symbolic of his roots, it can be said that he loves his roots dearly. This is not to say, however, that he will not rebel against his roots because of things he has learned elsewhere. Obi possesses the more liberal, and even "European," belief that he may marry anyone he wishes, even though his family and his countrymen are opposed to it. And, even though he wishes to marry Clara in the end, despite her history, he is tied to his mother a symbolic traditional root
It is this struggle between tradition and European ways that is evidenced throughout and that is further amplified by the European presence of characters like Mr. Green. And, aside from the obvious Mr. Green, there are also the more subtle presences of Europeans at lounges and restaurants throughout Nigeria serving English food and importing European beers. Some of these colonial importations and introductions are good, as is evidenced by the scene about the radiogram between Obi and the Minister of State. Nevertheless, the struggle exists, and it is obvious that Achebe has a strong negative opinion about colonialism as a whole.