The first chapter opens with Obi Okonkwo's trial; he is being charged with corruption and with accepting a bribe. "I cannot understand how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this," the judge says (1.9). We're scratching our heads, too, and want to know. But, we have the genius, Achebe, at work. The answer to that question is what makes this story a classic tragedy.
When the plot backtracks to the period when Obi appeared to be a man of steel in his resolve to remain pure and incorruptible, we keep searching the fatal flaw that causes Obi's downfall. And guess what? It turns out to be the classic fatal flaw: hubris (excessive pride). Maybe with a bit of self-righteousness thrown into the mix. Obi has always been smarter than most of the people around him. This, combined with his isolation from Igbo culture and values, leads him to assume that he could follow his own path without consequences.
Isolation at Home and Abroad
Although his college education in England becomes the ultimate wedge that separates Obi from his cultural heritage, the isolation from his culture began at home. Even before Obi was born, his father, Isaac Okonkwo, converted to Christianity. His family adhered to Christian values with rigorous devotion, separating Obi from many aspects of his cultural heritage as an Igbo. Obi doesn't know even basic aspects of Igbo culture – such as the folk tales that other children heard from their mothers. Isaac Okonkwo's love of Western culture, religion, and especially the written word, further propelled Obi towards a Western education and achievement.
In Great Britain, Obi discovered that he longed for Nigeria. At the same time that his education trained him to look down on his traditional culture, he felt homesick for his family, friends, and home. When he met fellow Nigerians in England, he was thrilled to chat with them in Igbo. When he met an African who didn't speak Igbo and had to speak English, he felt ashamed, wondering if the people around him were judging them, as if they had no culture, no language.
This process of becoming educated was also a process of becoming increasingly alienated from his culture. Ironically, though Obi began to despise certain aspects of Igbo culture and life, he never felt comfortable or accepted in England. He thus exhibited the classic symptoms of what literary critics have called a "postcolonial identity" – feelings of discomfort in his home culture, and alienation in Western culture.
But even though Obi felt uncomfortable among the British, and realized that he'd always be considered "inferior," he became convinced of several things during his time in England. For one thing, he decided that education was the key to changing Nigeria's corrupt system, one where uneducated Nigerians were forced to use bribes to obtain jobs.
On the way home to Nigeria, he meets Clara, a beautiful nurse who was, like Obi, educated in England. Their similarities give them an instant connection. When Obi falls in love with Clara, he doesn't realize she's an osu. (Her identity as an osu means she is dedicated to a god, and Obi is supposed to shun her.) He isn't even supposed to date her, much less marry her. By the time she confesses her identity, Obi is in love and can't imagine his life without her. And so he becomes convinced that he is part of the generation that will transform harmful cultural practices. Overriding all his friends' objections, Obi and Clara get engaged. Obi overestimates his ability to convince his family to support his decision to marry someone who is taboo.
Personal and Professional Unraveling
As Obi's personal life begins to spiral out of control, so does his financial life. Obi shoulders a number of responsibilities – his parents' income during their elderly years, his brother's school fees, repayment of his scholarship – but he has failed to take account of how much it costs to maintain the lifestyle necessary for his social class. It is not that Obi is irresponsible with money, but half his salary goes to his parents or to the Umuofia Progressive Union (who gave him a scholarship for study abroad). With the half of his salary that is left over, he is supposed to own a car, keep a driver, keep a cook/servant, and maintain other expensive symbols of his elite status. At first Obi is optimistic that he can make this salary stretch, but he keeps encountering unexpected expenses, like his annual car insurance. Each unexpected expense makes Obi feel worse about his ability to shoulder the responsibilities of being a responsible man, (future) husband, and son.
When Obi's mother forbids him to marry Clara (or, rather, she says "you'll marry her over my dead body," literally), Obi's life takes a turn for the worse. He had optimistically hoped for the best, but he is already deeply in debt. And when he tells Clara that they need to "lay low," he discovers that she's pregnant. Obi decides that Clara needs to have an abortion, which he sees as another unexpected expense.
Though Clara understands on one level that Obi would be going against all his friends and family to marry her, she can't help but feel rejected and abandoned when Obi arranges for an abortion rather than marry her. Their relationship is already over when his mother dies. At that point, Obi begins to accept bribes. Perhaps he has grown tired of trying to remain honest when there are so few awards for it. Perhaps the two women in his life kept him more honest than he realized. What do you think?