Thursday, April 3, 2014

Retributive Justice in the Character of Eugene Achike in Adichie's Purple Hibiscus

We shall attempt the exploration of the concept of retributivism in the dispositions of the chief character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. In the course of our assessment, we shall prove that this character named Eugene Achike in the novel exhibits some despicable qualities which qualify him for the kind of moral judgement, whether in self-purgatory, or in his physical suffering which culminates in his eventual justificatory downfall at the end of the novel.

However, before we delve into our analysis proper, a brief understanding of what constitutes retributive justice would be relevant. According to wiseGEEK, an online encyclopedia, retributive justice “is a legal principle which dictates that punishments for a crime is acceptable as long as it is a proportionate response to the crime committed.” Simply put, what retributive justice does is to ensure that criminals do not go unpunished and that, depending on the severity of the crime, the punishment should be rendered accordingly. Looking at it from a moral perspective, retributive justice is, as Michelle Maiese simply puts it, a moral law that ensures that “people should receive what they deserve.” It is, therefore, from this angle of “what they deserve” that we intend to view the character of Eugene Achike in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus.

In Purple Hibiscus, Adichie tells a story of utter cruelty, extreme religiosity and of course domestic violence as championed by Papa or Eugene Achike as he manipulates tools of religion, family and tradition through his consistent physical, psychological and spiritual violence on his own family. In understanding the character of Eugene, one needs to look at it from, of course, the perspective of Kambili, Eugene’s 15-year old daughter and narrator of the story, because it is through her keen and observant eyes that most acts of iniquity perpetrated by her father, are made manifest. The young Kambili alongside her brother, Jaja and mother, Beatrice are subjected to all kinds of domestic savagery by their extremely religious catholic father. The children’s lives are conditioned by Eugene’s imposed mandatory time-table, one which offers them no alternative to a free life and self-confidence. The children realise the extent of their father’s brutality on their lives only when they travel away from home, first to Abba where they spend their Christmas and then to Nsukka at Aunty Ifeoma’s. It is indeed in these two places, especially Nsukka, where the children truly realise who they really are, and who they have been conditioned to be. While at Aunty Ifeoma’s house when Amaka, Aunty Ifeoma’s daughter and Kambili’s cousin’s friends visit, Kambili realises that she lacks the self-confidence to feel among with them. She laments: “I wanted to talk with them, to laugh with them so much that I would start to jump up and down in one place the way they did, but my lips held stubbornly together.” (149) Of course, Kambili’s “lips held stubbornly together” because the act of talking, self-expression is a strange thing in their own house at Enugu; because what they are used to is stifling silence that has rendered their home a graveyard and them inmates.

Little is the incident mentioned above compared to Papa’s use of physical force, not only on the children, but also on their mother, his wife. How best, then, can we describe a father whose callousness and bestiality does not deter him from deforming his own son’s finger, even at the age of ten just because “he had missed two questions on his catechist test and was not named the best in his First Communion class”! As if that is not enough, Eugene’s malign disposition towards his own children is also depicted when he murderously hurls his heavy missal at Jaja for deliberately absconding from communion. If we are to go by the definition of retributive justice as provided earlier in this paper, we cannot but comment on how very apt Adichie’s moral judgement on Eugene is. To punish the villainous Papa, Adichie first resorts to some external forces, which constitute the military junta, bent on punishing any individual or group standing in their way – the same way Eugene does not hesitate to deal with any member of his family who fails to act according to his whims and caprices. Of course, Jaja’s rebellion is justifiable when we consider Papa’s disrespect of his father’s faith and belief and for his refusal to cater for him when he needs him most, as expected of all good sons, especially those who are supposed to be the breadwinner in the family. For instance, Papa’s punishment is not only evident in the murder of his friend and employee, Ade Coker, by the military government for daring to criticize them, of much pain and anguish to him is the destruction of a million naira worth of property at The Standard, Papa’s newspaper outlet, a powerful weapon with which he tackles the government. Even his reported failing health is a justification for his devilish conducts. It is thus not surprising when Kambili narrates in one part of the story: “when Papa threw the missal at Jaja, it was not just the figurines that came tumbling down, it was everything.” (23)   The “everything” is represented here, not only in the occurrences rendered above, but also in Beatrice’s loss of pregnancy; Eugene would have had a third child had he not kicked life out of the baby in his wife’s womb by resorting to violence.

Accordingly, Papa’s barbarity is further expressed in many things other than as presented above; in his use of fear to police the heart and mind of members of his family; in the instrumentality of silence; and in the violence of physical beating. As we all know, fear can be more deadly than death when used to subdue some people for selfish advantage. It is this same fear that Gorge Orwell’s totalitarian Big Brother employs to enslave the entire human nature of his subjects in the novel titled Nineteen Eighty-Four. Where fear is used, human reason and human feeling are suppressed so much so that what would be left of man would be an iota of psychological disorganisation and spiritual disorientation. It is this same fear that Eugene uses to mould his children into stereotypes who cannot tell any difference from a life different from what obtains within the four walls of their home. Fear is so implanted in the minds of these children including their mother that even outside their home they remain caged. Their minds and actions are not of their own making; they are as Papa willed it. In this way, Papa is best described as a demy-god who is bent on “hunting down” whosoever refuses to dance to his mischievous tunes. Christopher Anyokwu cannot less be appropriate when in his essay titled Postmodern Gothic and Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, he describes Papa’s domineering power in the house as devil-like. He asseverates: “Threatened with defeat, power (Papa) tries to reassert his hold on his “inmates” by resorting to the use of the instrumentality of fear rooted in the institutional agencies of tradition and custom, and, more important, religious dogma.” (2010:110, emphasis mine) It is these “institutional agencies” that indeed makes it easy for Papa to flagrantly wallow in his evil machination. Although Eugene is opposed to anything African as evident in his faked British accent and his position that Igbo song should not be song at important religious duty, he is able to oppress his family through his local belief of total submission to one’s father and husband. Because the African culture permits physical beating, either by cane or by hand of any member of one’s family and this is solely because as a father and husband in the house, your order is supreme and your decision final. So, it is this archaic cultural principle that Papa has exploited. Little wonder then, that Beatrice seems foolish to us in the novel when she suffers in silence and still remains Eugene’s wife despite his criminal acts against her and her children. Besides custom and tradition, another institutional agency which aides Eugene’s incredulous evil deeds is religion. In fact, any attempt to analyse Purple Hibiscus would be incomplete if there is no mention of the significant role played by religion. In the novel, Adichie handles the delicate issue of religion with much precision that she is able to present us a balanced view. Instead of portraying a one-sided perspective of Catholicism, Adichie rather puts it across to us that it is not religion that is harmful or capable of causing suffering and tribulation to its adherent, but it is the practitioners of such religion. In Purple Hibiscus, for instance, it is not Catholicism that is faulty, cruel or inhumane; rather, it is Eugene that turns fanatic in his practice of the religion. This brings to mind the highest level of criminal acts of violence and manslaughter perpetrated by the so-called Islamic extremists in the northern part of Nigeria. Meanwhile, Islam, the world’s fastest growing religion, has severally been adjudged, by even non-muslim scholars and thinkers, as the least violent religion that ever exists. Thus, through religious dogma, Eugene enslaves, oppresses and suppresses his own family by instilling in them his fear rather than the fear of God. To worsen his already biased view of people of other faith, Papa is hostile to and condemns his own father, Papa-Nnukwu, because of the latter’s belief in traditional religion. His religious extremism is further reflected in one of his basest acts as narrated by Kambili in the novel.
“Kambili, you are precious.” His voice quavered
now, like someone speaking at a funeral, choked with
emotion. “You should strive for perfection. You should
not see sin and walk right into it.” He lowered the kettle
into the tub, tilted it towards my feet. He poured the hot
water on my feet, slowly, as if he were conducting an
experiment and wanted to see what would happen. He
was crying now, tears streaming down his face. I saw the
moist steam before I saw the water. I watched the water
leave the kettle, flowing almost in slow motion in an arc
to my feet. The pain of contact was so pure, so scalding,
I felt nothing for a second. And then I screamed (201).

It is shocking to note that the gullible child is subjected to this act of wickedness just because she is accused of sleeping in the same house as a heathen, their grandfather. Ironically, it is this same “heathen”, Papa-Nnukwu, from whose prayer we learn of his goodwill, his distance from fornication, and his love for his grandchildren and children, for even Eugene whom he believes has been cursed, that Kambili has thus observed, in her bid to detect the “heathen” in him: “I had examined him that day, too, looking away when his eyes met mine, for signs of difference, of Godlessness. I didn’t see any” (71) How is it then justifiable that Kambili is beaten into a state of unconsciousness by Papa, as she tries to recover the shattered images of her late grandfather. As if to worsen the matter, Eugene also becomes infamous (at least among his family), for his use of silence to roboticise his “subjects” from escaping his unpardonable and nefarious acts of terrorism. Kambili and Jaja have nearly been reduced to barbarians when they constantly resort to a telepathic mode of communication. Their voice, self-expression, has been so stifled by the omnipotent eyes of the fear of their father that they only talk to each other with their eyes. When thoroughly considered, this silence in itself is a form of violence and criminality. Talking about the impact of the silence, Kambili observes that “the silence was broken only by the whirr of the ceiling fan as it sliced through the still air. Although our spacious dining room gave way to an even wider living room, I felt suffocated.” (7, emphasis mine) Explaining the implication of the stultifying silence that has engulfed Eugene’s home, Anyokwu opined that the use of silence “approximates a denial of the right to free speech, the right to personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Indeed, the children alongside their weak mother are denied all of these fundamental human attributes.                

What then is the retributive justice against Eugene Achike for his act of terror upon his own family? Just as we have it in several other works of literature, retribution is not necessarily translated to an issue which some cabals, called lawyers, have the monopoly of discussing, but rather, in the literary parlance, it is concerned with the proportion of punishment or rewards levelled against a character or some set of characters according to their vice or virtue. In other words, retributive justice is equivalent to M.H. Abrams’ poetic justice. Since no man is entirely evil, Eugene still displays some good qualities in the novel for which he also enjoys some rewards. For one thing, Papa is a responsible husband, principled, hardworking, a philanthropist, an activist, and so it is not surprising that Adichie rewards him with fame and wealth. On the other hand, his wrongdoing, his vice, is rewarded with death. Towards the end of the novel, Eugene is reported dead. Worse of all, he is poisoned by his own wife, one who is supposed to be his shield in adversity, his blanket during torrential rain. And Jaja assuming the role of a protagonist, becomes happy now that his villain has been eliminated. This is proven by his act of courage of claiming responsibility for the murder. Of course, he is sent to jail, even though he is not the culprit. In this way, therefore, Adichie equally makes him pay for disrespecting his father. Indeed, no matter how infinitesimal our vice and virtue is, we will, willingly or unwillingly, be forced, by some power beyond our control, to pay for our actions.                                                                                             


In all, Purple Hibiscus dramatises the two-sidedness of human nature – good and evil. In the novel, using the character of Eugene Achike, Adichie highlights the inherent universal tendency in man’s relationships, whether in his home, school, church and, to a large extent, the entire community. Through Eugene’s misdemeanour to his family, we are led into the moral judgement of retributive justice; that is, as succinctly expressed by Immanuel Kant: “whatever undeserved evil you inflict upon another. . . , that you inflict upon yourself.”