Author: Chinua Achebe
First published: 1960
Time: The 1950's
Michael Obiajulu (Obi) Okonkwo (oh-bee-ah-JEW-lew oh-KOHN-kwoh), a twenty-five-year-old Nigerian civil servant. A brilliant student, Obi received the first scholarship loan given by the Umuofia Progressive Union (UPU), whose members taxed themselves harshly to provide someone from their native village with an English education. He has graduated with honors but is less than successful in meeting expectations when he returns from London. His mission background and European values make him an alien in his own land. Naïve and idealistic, he is disillusioned by the contrast between corrupt Lagos and the idyllic Nigeria about which he wrote poetry in England. The UPU is equally disappointed in Obi. He lacks the superficial characteristics that they consider to be byproducts of an education. In addition, Obi is self-willed. At school, he studied English, not law. Now he wishes to take an unsuitable wife. Although he immediately gets a job, Obi finds the demands of its accompanying lifestyle difficult to meet. He dutifully wishes to give financial help to his family, and he must also repay his loan. He anticipates no problems in remaining aloof from the bribery practices so prevalent in public office. When he succumbs, it is less from greed than from passive acceptance of a system that he no longer has the strength or will to challenge.
Clara Okeke (oh-KAY-kay), a young registered nurse who, like Obi, has been educated in England. Beautiful, straightforward, and self-confident, Clara is Obi's fiancée. Unfortunately, she is also an osu, a member of a forbidden caste descended from those dedicated to idols. Marriage to Clara will mean that Obi's children will also be osu. She is far more realistic than Obi in anticipating societal pressure against such a marriage. Her worry and natural moodiness make theirs a tempestuous relationship.
Isaac Nwoye Okonkwo (NWOH-yay), Obi's father, a retired Christian catechist living on an inadequate pension. Isaac is a generous but rigid patriarch to his eight children. As a young man, he rebelled against family and tradition to become one of the first Christian converts in his village. Now more a man of thought than of deed, he is still fervent in his Christian faith. He has always revered all things connected with the white man, and long ago he turned his back on most tribal beliefs, but he cannot countenance Obi's marriage to an outcast.
Hannah Okonkwo, Obi's mother. She and Obi share a special bond. Loyal to her husband, she has zealously carried out her duties as the wife of the catechist. She, too, is a devout Christian, but she enjoys the music her husband considers “heathen,” and Obi thinks she misses the folk stories that Isaac forbade her to tell their children. For years, she augmented the family income by selling homemade soap. Now she is old and ill, but her frailty belies her determination, as Obi discovers when he tells her about Clara.
William Green, Obi's boss at the Scholarship Board. Mr. Green is a conscientious Englishman with a complex attitude toward his adopted country. Despite devotion to his job and fatherly kindness toward lower employees, he is highly prejudiced against educated Nigerians. Obi thinks that he would have made a great missionary at a time when he could have felt noble about helping the less fortunate. With Nigeria on the verge of independence, however, he is openly petty and resentful.
Joseph Okeke, Obi's former classmate, a Survey Depart-mentclerkwhoisnorelationtoClara.Josephhashadnoopportunity for education beyond the mission school, but he has a worldly wisdom that Obi lacks. He is proud of his friendship with the successful scholar. Although Obi ignores his pragmatic advice, Joseph remains helpful.
Christopher, a London-educated economist and Obi's friend. Like Obi, he is of the second generation of educated Nigerians, those who have returned to many old customs without fear of being thought uncivilized. Christopher is an urbane and somewhat cynical ladies' man. He and Obi often argue about Nigeria's future and its present problem of corruption among public officials.
The Honorable Sam Okoli (oh-KOH-lee), the popular minister of state who plans to marry Clara's best friend. Handsome and suave, Sam lives well in a luxurious home provided by the government. He is hospitable and generous. His affluence may stem from the common practice of bribery.
Marie Tomlinson, Mr. Green's disarming English secretary, who shares Obi's office and may have been planted to spy on him. Obi perceives her as both likable and sincere.