Purple Hibiscus – The Distinct Voice of a Girl amidst Oppressive Regime & Oppressive Father
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2004 debut novel Purple Hibiscus is set in Nigeria, which may inadvertently bring to mind the images of colonialism, poverty, and bloody coups. But, the novel tells a very distinct, personal story of a shy fifteen year old girl which works as a beautiful fable about love, in the times of violence and discomfiting silence. Religious extremism, feminism, brutality of the powerful, racism, and corruption are definitely the themes Purple Hibiscus deals with. Yet, writer Adichie doesn’t tell a story to emphatically deliver the themes. She brings to life a smart 15 year old narrator Kambili, who by divulging little details of her domestic life deftly places us inside the story’s atmosphere. The first fascinating aspect of Purple Hibiscus is the choice of characters for the central family and their place inside the Nigerian social hierarchy.
The novel opens with Kambili pulling us into the middle of her family dispute. Kambili’s brother Jaja has refused to take communion on Palm Sunday and their father has thrown his missal (prayer book) at him, which misses him and shatters the mother’s beloved ceramic figurines. The voice of Kambili evocatively captures each family member’s manners and idiosyncrasies. Although Kambili holds nothing but feelings of respect and awe for her father Eugene, he happens to be a paradoxical figure. Eugene is a wealthy businessman who also runs a pro-democracy newspaper ‘Standard’. Despite receiving numerous threats from the military regime, Eugene’s paper continues to tell the truth to people. He is also a devout catholic. He makes huge donations to local church, children’s hospitals, disabled veterans, and so on. Eugene has even received Amnesty world’s Human Rights award. Nevertheless, he exudes both benevolence and tyranny inside the confines of his home.
The champion of the human rights senselessly beats his wife and awards harsh punishments to his children for either going over his word or for not confirming to his rigid religious duties. He doesn’t talk to his own father and refers him as a ‘heathen’, because the old man is a follower of traditional religion. Eugene condemns the violence of the regime, yet he inflicts pain on those he loves, in the name of god. He obviously cares for his family although his rigid idea of sin provokes uncontrollable wrath. On many occasions, Eugene cries and nurses the physical wounds of his family members. What he couldn’t heal (or even grasp) is the deepening emotional bruise. Through Kambili’s extremely shy (but very imaginative, sharp observations) nature we can feel the family’s mechanical way of communication. Jaja and Kambili’s way of life is challenged when Eugene’s reluctantly allows them to stay for few days at their aunt Ifeoma’s (Eugene’s sister) house.
Purple Hibiscus may seem to tell a very simple story about a girl, who finds herself in distressing and somewhat brutal situation. But Adichie’s exceptional writing brings great emotional sensitivity to the ordeals faced by Kambili. The pleasure in the narrator’s voice in confessing papa Eugene’s accomplishments and the hushed voice while being aware of papa’s violent streak encloses the readers inside the luxurious home. The story’s arc is predictable when Kambili and Jaja visit their aunt Ifeoma’s house, a university lecturer and a widower. Ifeoma and her three children live in a cramped flat, yet it is filled with chatter and laughter. She is a radical woman in an authoritarian society. The recital of Igbo songs may denote the freedom; freedom which the tyrannical government and ruthless father would trample on. The rare experimental purple hibiscus (that grows in Ifeoma’s garden) represents the mixture of cultural and social clashes and resonates a hope for the better future.
Despite the familiar story beats, Purple Hibiscus retains a glowing intensity thanks to Adichie’s choice of narrator. Kambili not only details the emotional state of her mind, but she also at times (involuntarily) tries to repress some thoughts. The repression particularly happens when she only suggests papa’s angry behavior. Kambili’s description of her feelings about Father Amadi seems a bit repetitive and naïve, but it’s believable considering the girl’s psychological state. The novel is also a subtle study about the effects of colonialism on colonial subjects. Within this framework, I consider language as a very important theme. For Eugene, the language English determines the perfection in an individual as much as the religious devotion. He rewards the person in his village who tries to speak in English. He himself only breaks into Igbo when grazed with feelings of anger. The language determines the public and private moods of Mr. Eugene. The uptight and contradictory nature of Eugene could also be found in his children, especially in their confusion over communicating things. Remember that the heavy missal is slung across the room in the opening chapter because Jaja has used language in a precise way to tell what he wants.
Silence is also an important theme. The violence and rage that sputters in the last chapter is an outcome of the repressed silence. At other times, Kambili and Jaja remain silent to not address what is the naked truth. Adichie’s approach to feminism is different from the usual traits. She uses the positive aspects of male figures to dispute the oppressive male. She doesn’t equate the tyrannical state power with patriarchal African society. What eventually Adichie dreams of is a peaceful coexistence between men and women; a society where we could talk about each other’s pain.
Purple Hibiscus is a very compelling account of a young girl who overcomes despotism and takes a crucial step towards emancipation.