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Purple Hibiscus

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Purple Hibiscus

Control, family, and a desire for freedom: in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's coming-of-age story, Purple Hibiscus (2003), these themes colour the world Nigerian fifteen-year-old Kambili lives in. Let's delve into this emotional and turbulent tale of religion, control, and the harrowing effect it can have on the family unit.

Purple Hibiscus: overview and main ideas

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an award-winning Nigerian writer, primarily known for writing novels about Nigerian politics, race, and gender.

Purple Hibiscus, Adichie's first full-length novel, is her most emotionally evocative novel, delving into the damage religious fanaticism can do to a family. Unlike Adichie's other work, which characteristically has parallel narratives, this story is told by one narrator, Kambili.

Purple Hibisicus was released to critical acclaim, winning the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2005 for Best First Book in both the Africa and the Overall categories. It also won the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2004 in the Best Debut Fiction Category.

The title Purple Hibiscus comes from a special flower that grows in Nsukka, a place in the novel that becomes synonymous with freedom and liberation. It is a coming-of-age story taking place as we watch as Kambili (and her brother Jaja) time in Nsukka changes them from frightened teenagers to young people willing to take a stand against injustice.

Purple Hibiscus: summary

Set in Adichie’s hometown Enugu, this coming-of-age story follows Kambili’s family life with an abusive father (Papa). The story takes place within the uncertain and tense political climate of postcolonial Nigeria. The story opens on Palm Sunday, when Papa throws a Bible at Jaja, Kambili’s older brother, breaking her mother’s treasured ballerina figurines in the process. This event is significant because it was triggered by Jaja defying Papa. Up until this point, no one in Papa's family has defied him. This marks a turning point in the power dynamic in the household.

The narrative of the novel is non-linear and switches to the past to show the events leading up to the breaking of the figurines. Kambili is a smart girl, alienated from her peers by her family’s apparent wealth and her quiet nature, which they mistake for snobbery. Her father is a successful newspaper editor and a devout Catholic, who enforces his beliefs in his family with violence.

Papa's liberal sister, Aunt Ifeoma, a university professor, comes to visit and takes Kambili and Jaja with her to her hometown, Nsukka. Although she is not as wealthy as Papa, Aunt Ifeoma is loving and practises a more relaxed version of Catholicism. Amaka and Obiora, her children seem happy and wiser than their years.

At first, outspoken Amaka thinks quiet Kambili is snobby but with time the girls become friends. Kambili is able to come out of her shell whilst in Nsukka, and Jaja and her do not want to leave. Kambili develops a crush on Father Amadi, a young priest in Nsukka. They also meet their grandfather (Papa Nnukwu) whilst staying with Aunt Ifeoma, who follows the traditional Nigerian Igbo religion, which their father disapproves of.

When Papa finds out about this upon their return, tensions at home rise further. Papa forces Kambili to stand in boiling water as punishment for keeping a painting of Papa Nnukwu given to her by Amaka. Papa beats their mother and she miscarries.

After this, Papa falls ill and grows increasingly weaker. During this time, Jaja shows increasing defiance to Papa’s tyranny. Papa dies. Kambili’s mother admits to poisoning him and Jaja takes the blame for it when the police arrive, landing him in prison.

The story concludes with Kambili and her mother meeting Jaja in prison years later, assuring him that the changing political climate is hopeful and that he may soon be released.

Purple Hibiscus: analysis

We will now analyse the main characters and themes of the novel.

Purple Hibiscus: characters

First, we will discuss the characters.

Kambili

Kambili is our fifteen-year-old narrator. She is a quiet child and a high achiever at school, although she does not have many friends because the other children mistake her quiet disposition for snobbery. Due to Papa's influence, she spends a lot of her life in fear and guilt over her 'sins'. When others around her question the authority around them, she starts to as well.

Papa

Papa is a wealthy newspaper editor and owns several factories. He is well esteemed in the community, revolutionary in his resistance to the government, and fights strongly for what he believes in. Unfortunately, his strong beliefs also extend how he practices Catholicism, to the point of religious fanaticism. He is heavily influenced by a love for the Western world and does not embrace his Igbo heritage, rarely speaking the language.

Behind closed doors, he rules his family with an iron fist, abusing them in the name of 'love'. He truly believes that the abuse he inflicts is just punishment to save his family from eternal damnation. He beats his wife, causing her to miscarry, mangles Jaja's hand, and pours boiling water on Kambili's feet.

Jaja

Jaja is Kambili's seventeen-year-old older brother. Like Kambili, he is also a quiet high achiever. He and Kambili do not spend much time alone together, yet they are close due to their shared abuse from Papa. Whilst at Aunt Ifeoma's, Jaja comes out of his shell and when he returns home he defies Papa's religious fanaticism. Jaja denies communion on Palm Sunday, which leads to Papa's fit of anger in the first chapter of the book. Jaja weaponises his silence and does not speak to Papa, which scares Papa. When Mama poisons Papa, he takes the blame for it and goes to jail to protect her.

Mama

Mama is silent and agreeable. She pretends that Papa's abuse is not happening and instead fervently polishes her porcelain ballerina figurines in the living room. When Papa breaks these figurines, she purchases poison and puts it in his food, leading to his death. She admits this to her children and allows Jaja to go to jail instead of her.

Aunt Ifeoma

Aunt Ifeoma is Papa's liberal sister who lives in Nsukka. She is also a Catholic, but does not use her religion as a reason to deny her Igbo culture as Papa does. She embraces her father Papa Nnukwu, despite their differing religious beliefs, and tends to him in his last days. She also introduces Kambili and Jaja to him for the first time. She raises her children Amaka and Obiora to be high achievers at school and also to express their opinions vocally. Aunt Ifeoma is strikingly different from Papa, and under her roof, Kambili and Jaja experience a taste of freedom.

Amaka

Amaka is the fifteen-year-old daughter of Aunt Ifeoma. She is outspoken and opinionated and serves as a foil to Kambili. At first, she does not get on with Kambili, thinking her snobby, but later the girls become friends. As Kambili leaves Nsukka, Amaka gives her a painting of Papa Nnukwu which Papa finds and punishes Kambili for.

Obiora

Obiora is the fourteen-year-old son of Aunt Ifeoma. He is quieter than his sister, yet still confident. After his father's death, he feels it is his responsibility to be the man of the house. His self-assured demeanour inspires Jaja to take charge of his own life back home.

Papa Nnukwu

Papa Nnukwu is the 'heathen' father of Papa and Aunt Ifeoma. He practises Igbo traditional religion and loves his children, having a good relationship with Aunt Ifeoma and her children. However, he has no contact with Papa, who views contact with non-Christians as sinful.

Father Benedict

Father Benedict is a British Catholic priest who has moved to Nigeria. He shares Papa's strict religious views and anglicises the church when he joins. He adores Papa and often uses him as an example in his sermons. When Kambili comes to him to confess that she spent time with Papa Nnukwu, he sees it as sin and prescribes her a penance to absolve her of her sins.

Father Amadi

Father Amadi is a younger Nigerian Catholic priest who Kambili meets in Nsukka. He is more relaxed than Father Benedict and plays football with the local boys. He does not see socialising with people of differing beliefs as a sin. He finds it absurd that Papa Nnukwu is not allowed to see his family due to differing beliefs. Kambili develops a crush on him as she gets to know him.

Purple Hibiscus: Themes

Now we will analyse the main themes.

Cultural Tradition and Religion

Papa shuns Igbo religious traditions in favour of Catholicism, a Western religion. His sister describes him as a 'colonial product'. He rarely speaks Igbo and forbids his children to speak it outside of the house; Kambili says, “to sound civilised in public, [Papa] told us; we had to speak English”.

Aunt Ifeoma, also Catholic, embraces Igbo culture and sees that her religion and culture can coincide together. When Kambili called Papa Nnukwu a 'heathen' (a term she learned from her father), Aunt Ifeoma says, 'Papa-Nnukwu was not a heathen but a traditionalist, that sometimes what was different was just as good as what was familiar, that when Papa-Nnukwu did his itu-nzu, his declaration of innocence, in the morning, it was the same as our saying the rosary.'

How can we relate this to their individual political views and the political landscape of Nigeria at the time? Hint: compare Father Benedict (older, White British, strict with extremely orthodox Catholic views) and Father Amadi (younger, Nigerian, approachable, incorporates Igbo songs in his worship)

Being raised by Papa, Kambili imagines God as a symbol of Western power, at odds with her cultural identity, 'his rumbling voice British-accented. He would not say my name right...'

Freedom vs Oppression

Although we are following Kambili's perspective, it is interesting to note that Kambili's own voice is impaired. Growing up with a stutter, Kambili is painfully quiet and initially prefers not to speak much. It is here that we are first introduced to the effects of control. Kambili, a victim of control, struggles to express her own perspective and is heavily influenced by those around her.

Amongst the powerful symbolism of Purple Hibiscus, perspective, especially as expressed through speech, is symbolic of power. The characters with the ability to express their perspective through speech wield the most power. Therefore it is particularly fitting that Papa, as the book's main antagonist and tyrant of his family, is a newspaper editor with the platform to share his perspective with many. In a house where the other members speak with 'more with [their] spirits than with [their] lips', he holds the monopoly on speech, even praying for 'twenty minutes' at a time before they can eat their lunch on Palm Sunday.

The purple hibiscus that grows outside Aunt Ifeoma’s house is a symbol of freedom and liberation as it’s an emblem of the place where Kambili and Jaja first experience freedom from their father. The plants also mark the beginning of Jaja’s rebellion against Papa, as it is through them he discovers his love of gardening and his sense of independence.

However, it is clear that Papa's actions are motivated by the fear of his family's damnation if they are caught in sin. This fear is not because he fears that he is losing his influence in his home, but rather because he fears the outcome of what he sees as Jaja's sinful behaviour. This point is supported by the tears Papa sheds as he pours boiling water on Kambili's feet in Chapter 10. He takes no pleasure in oppressing his family; in fact he sees his actions as freeing them from an eternal damnation from God. His religious fanaticism is born from fear. In this way, perhaps fear is a form of self-oppression.

Study Tip: Consider this: can it be said that the final violence of colonialism is the way that it instills the need for the oppressed to police themselves, becoming perpetuators of colonialism while still its victim?

Nigerian politics

The story takes place during the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida. Although he is not explicitly mentioned in the book, he is the 'Big Oga' and Head of State.

Though there is little overt discussion of politics, we can see the effects of the political landscape, with the police accepting bribes, and the workers’ strikes, which affect the population’s access to power and water.

The journalist Ade Coker, who is killed by a letter bomb, draws inspiration from a real victim of Bangida’s regime, Dele Giwa.

Familial love

Two family dynamics are explored in the story: family according to Papa and family according to Aunt Ifeoma.

In Chapter One, Kambili describes the 'love sip' of tea that Papa would offer Jaja and her, which was much too hot to drink. It is the perfect metaphor for the familial love in Papa’s house, conflated with pain and control.

Because it is all she knows, Kambili learns to look forward to the love sip, though it hurts her: 'I knew that when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa’s love into me.'

The imagery of love burning in Papa’s house is continued in Chapter 10, when he pours boiling water on Kambili’s feet as punishment for her 'walking into sin'. Papa seems to take no pleasure in his abuse, and as he cries it is apparent he believes he is acting from a place of care. He calls Kambili 'precious' with 'tears streaming down his face' as he pours the water on her feet.

In contrast, Aunt Ifeoma’s familial love is expressed in freedom and acceptance. She has raised her children to be independent, and Kambili is in awe of this as she eats lunch with them.

The differences in the types of familial love can be seen when comparing the cousins: Amaka and Obiora are pushed to be high achievers like Kambili and Jaja, but the difference is noted by Kambili in Chapter Twelve.

Aunt Ifeoma… [set] higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.

In Papa’s house, familial love equates to fear, and in Aunt Ifeoma’s house, love means freedom.

Purple Hibiscus - Key takeaways

  • Purple Hibiscus is a coming-of-age novel written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
  • The main characters of the novel are Kambili (the protagonist) and Jaja (her brother).
  • Kambili and her family suffer at the hands of Papa's abuse, caused by his religious fanaticism. While staying in Nsukka, Kambili and Jaja experience freedom for the first time and bring it back home with them to Enugu.
  • Fear is the main driving force behind the actions in Papa's house, and freedom is the reason in Aunt Ifeoma's
  • The main themes of the novel are cultural traditions, religious fanaticism, Nigerian politics, and familial love.

Frequently Asked Questions about Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus contains themes of family, freedom and opression, religious fanaticism, Nigerian politics and youthful romance.

The story Purple Hibiscus is about family and freedom. It follows the main character Kambili and her brother Jaja as they gain freedom from the religious fanaticism of their father. It explores both family relationships and romantic relationships, religion, and colonialism in Africa.

The main idea of Purple Hibiscus is about hope and freedom. The name comes from the purple hibiscus flower in Aunt Ifeoma's garden which is a symbol of learning new ideas and the power to create the life you want to see for yourself. Kambili, Jaja and Mama hope to create lives of freedom for themselves, just like Aunt Ifeoma has initiated the creation of the purple hibiscus that grows in her garden.

The author of Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is a Nigerian author who lives between the United States and Nigeria.

Purple Hibiscus is not a true story. It takes inspiration from many aspects of the author's life experiences but it is not autobiographical.

Final Purple Hibiscus Quiz

Question

Where is Purple Hibiscus set?

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Answer

Enugu, Nigeria. This is where Kambili's family lives. She then travels to be with her Aunt in Nsukka.

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Question

What is the name of Aunt Ifeoma's daughter?

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Answer

Amaka

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Question

On which holiday does Papa break Mama's figurines?

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Answer

Palm Sunday

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Question

What is the name of Papa's Catholic Priest?

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Answer

Father Benedict

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Question

Which religion does Papa Nnukwu practice?

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Answer

Igbo traditionalism

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Question

Why doesn't Amaka like Kambili initially?

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Answer

She thinks she is a snob

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What does Papa pour on Kambili's feet?

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Answer

Hot water

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What does Papa do, aside from edit a newspaper?

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Answer

He owns several factories.

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Which sport does Father Amadi play with the local children?

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Answer

Football

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Question

Which race does Kambili see God as?

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Answer

She imagines Him white and British, like Father Benedict

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Whose military regime does the story take place during?

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Answer

Ibrahim Babangida

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Question

Are any characters based on real life people?

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Answer

Ade Coker, the journalist killed by a letter bomb is based on the real life person Dele Giwa.

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Question

What is the symbolism of the purple hibiscus flower?

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Answer

it symbolises freedom and the ability to cultivate beauty in your own life

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Question

What is Papa's "love sip" a metaphor for?

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Answer

The familial love in his household which is synonymous with force and control.

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What does Amaka give to Kambili, which leads to her punishment?

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Answer

A painting of Papa Nnukwu

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Who goes to jail for Papa's murder?

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Answer

Jaja

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Why does Papa die?

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Answer

Mama posions him

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Is Jaja in jail forever?

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Answer

At the end of the book, Mama and Kambili visit Jaja and tell him due to government changes he may be released in the future

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Question

On whom does Kambili develop a crush on?

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Answer

Father Amadi

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Why does Papa abuse his family?

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Answer

He is a religious fanatic and fears that if he doesn't punish them, God will.

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