Friday, April 4, 2014

Textual Analysis of Purple Hibiscus

Textual Analysis of Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus as a novel is dressed with all the constitutive elements inherent in the novel genre, namely, plot, characterization, theme, and style, all of which are relevant in understanding its literary essence.

In terms of plot structure, Purple Hibiscus is essentially a story that is entirely woven around Eugene Achike, father to Kambili and Jaja, and husband to Beatrice. Eugene strikes us as the protagonist in the story, even though it is entirely told from the point of view of the fifteen-year-old Kambili. Purple Hibiscus begins in a medias res (it starts in the middle of the action) when Jaja, having returned from their holiday at Aunty Ifeoma’s at Enugu, de-mythifies Papa, by flagrantly absconding from holy communion. Kambili, the narrator states, in the opening sentence of the novel: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurine on the étagère.”

This development later charts the course of action that the story will advance. In the subsequent chapters of the novel, Adichie gives an account of the choking atmosphere that has engulfed the household, a result of Papa’s highhandedness and blind religious fanaticism. We are further led into all the actions that warrant Jaja’s defiance to his father: the children’s (both Jaja and Kambili) interaction with freedom at Aunty Ifeoma’s house at Nsukka; how the children have gained self-confidence and self-belief after meeting their cousins. As a result of this interaction, a comparison of the condition of life in both homes – Achike’s and Aunty Ifeoma’s is brought to fore. Meanwhile, hitherto to the children’s trip to Nsukka, Papa is associated with all forms of domestic violence in the house. Then later on in the novel, the story shifts to the present where Jaja has defied his father’s dictatorial stance and drifts to the anti-climax where Papa is dead and Jaja is imprisoned and released and Aunty Ifeoma and her liberal-minded children have relocated abroad. Told in this manner, the novel adopts the non-linear plot structure.

When we attempt to measure the success of a particular story, we would not have been successful if we fail to consider the people in the story whose lives the author has undertaken to mirror. It is this belief, therefore, that necessitates a brief look into the mapping out of characters as well as the role played by each of them in Adichie’s novel titled Purple Hibiscus. In Purple Hibiscus all the characters are significant. However, our interest will be to provide a sketch on the prominent ones among them such as Kambili Achike, Eugene Achike, Chukwuka “Jaja” Achike, Beatrice Achike, Aunty Ifeoma and Papa-Nnukwu.         

Both the central character and narrator in the novel, Kambili is the younger of Achike Eugene and Beatrice Eugene’s children. Aged fifteen nearly through the entire plot of the novel, she is a keen observer, brilliant, collected and gentle. The entire story is told from her point of view. What Kambili fails to notice in the story the readers too cannot see. Her social life alongside her brother, jaja, is shattered owing to their father’s brutality and religious dogma until their visit to their cousins’ at Nsukka, where, surprisingly, to them life can be more cheerful and happy. Indeed, Kambili’s realisation of her true self begins at Nsukka, where she gains the voice to fight back and where she has the gut to fall in love with a liberal reverend father, Father Amadi.  

Chukwuka “Jaja” Achike is the older son of the Achikes. An intelligent, sensitive and revolutionary young man and two years older than his sister, Kambili, Chuwuka is nicknamed “Jaja” since his childhood owing to his linguistic incompetence common with children grabbling with speech. Although he respects and obeys his father’s headship of the family, he dislikes his religious extremity. In the course of the story, Jaja’s true nature, just like his sister’s, blossoms as a result of his interaction with his cousins at Aunty Ifeoma’s. Through his character, we are presented with a tough young man who serves as checks to his father’s excesses. For instance, he defies his father’s orders when he refuses to go to communion at the start of the novel. Right from the start of the novel, Jaja is portrayed as having the instinct but lacking the will to protect his mother from his father’s maltreatment. His claiming responsibility for Papa’s murder further shows how strong and protective of his mother and sister he could have been if not for the moral instinct that still guides him from disobeying his parent. Jaja is a good man.

Eugene Achike is both Kambili and Jaja’s father and Aunty Ifeoma’s brother. He is a radical catholic whose religious extremism has blinded him from the realities of his families. His character in the novel can be said to be complicated when we consider his two-sidedness throughout the entire story.  On one hand, he is religious, supposedly upright (of course he refuses a bride), a philanthropist, a hardworking man, a moderately rich man, and a caring father (at least he provides for his family). But on the other hand, he is a religious zealot, a callous and insensitive father, an aggressive and hypocritical leader. Adichie uses him to expose the beastly nature of most extremely religious parent whose religious dogma has robbed them of their sanity and humanity, of their human feelings for others. If examined closely, Eugene is not only presented to us as a representation of religious savagery but also as a warning against extremism of all kinds.      

We would not have Jaja and Kambili in the story had they not been born by Beatrice. Beatrice’s motherhood is brought to the fore as she shoulders the highest form of the domestic violence perpetrated by Papa, her husband. Despite her unfortunate position as the wife of a religious extremist and callous moralist, she still maintains her duty as a good and responsible wife and mother in the house. She, however, later becomes fed up with the situation in the house and then decides to get rid of the monster that has threatened the life of every member of the house – Eugene, by poisoning him. She represents true parenthood and responsible motherhood.        

Another important character in the novel is Aunty Ifeoma, a single parent of three children whose form of upbringing contrasts with that of her uncle’s. She is a resilient, educated, intelligent and liberal mother who trains her children to be outgoing and outspoken, rather than be confined to religious solitary in a bid to appear moral. Her form of parenting is clearly antithetical to that obtainable in Beatrice’s home, where the children including their mother, are ridiculously conditioned to act like robots. Charmed by the light atmosphere of Aunty Ifeoma’s house, Kambili, the girl-narrator observes: “Laughter always rang out in Aunty Ifeoma’s house,” (148). Aunty Ifeoma is indeed an epitome of determined, moderate and responsible parenthood.
What about Father Amadi, the liberal priest and friend to Aunty Ifeoma? Father Amadi’s portrayal in Purple Hibiscus is that of a sharp comparison between extreme Catholicism and moderate or, rightly put, liberal Catholicism. He is a reverend father who dresses simply and mingles freely with others without making himself a “demi-god” before others and allows that praise songs be rendered in Igbo. Through this unique character, Adichie presents us with a different perspective about the reverend father – reverend fathers are not stereotypes.  

Apart from all the characters examined above, we are also presented with Papa-Nnukwu, an old man and father to Achike Eugene and Aunty Ifeoma, who suffers unduly because of his religious belief. The old man is denied his fruit of fatherhood by his only son because of “his heathen faith.” With this character, we are able to see clearly Eugene’s stereotypical notion that people of other faiths will be damned, totally condemned in the sight of God. By treating his own father in this manner, Achike strikes us as a religious fanatic, one who is blind to others’ reality.  

By presenting all of these characters, (with each acting out his/her significant role in the story), Adichie has shown an in-depth grasp of a craft for which she has been appropriately acclaimed.
Thematically, Purple Hibiscus is endowed with numerous issues grabbing with socio-political conditions of Nigeria, the country which forms the setting of the novel. In the novel, Adichie scans through relevant themes such as religious hypocrisy, happiness versus wealth, and the consequences of silence.

Throughout Purple Hibiscus the question of whether a radical observance of religious doctrine equates piety is very well expressed. At every point in time in the novel, we glean a despicable situation in which a man who is supposed to be highly courteous because of his religious adherence is enmeshed in beastly acts capable of condemning one’s soul to hell. Eugene Achike, also known as Papa is the man and his dehumanizing position in a home where his wife and children have nearly been reduced to nothing but savages who only communicate non-verbally because of fear of him negates the preaching of true Christianity. He is, therefore, a hypocrite whose religious dispositions as well as his philanthropic significance are only an undercover or, better put, penance, for his demonic role as a father and husband. Just like every other disease of the soul, hypocrisy destroys as Eugene too is destroyed toward the end of the novel.

Also relevant in the understanding of Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus is a controversial relationship that exists between happiness and wealth. There is a general belief that anyone who is able to lay his hands on whatever he wants anytime can be considered a happy man. This assertion seems untrue as revealed to us in the novel through the character of Eugene. Of course, Eugene is wealthy and highly positioned in society, yet his home lacks the vitality and happiness that a home with such material success should have. This is, therefore, indicative of the fact that no amount of wealth and social status can give man peace unless he is at peace with himself.     

Finally, in her bid to further highlight the grave consequence of the fragile peace that reigns in the home of the Achikes, Adichie identifies one single but deadly trait: silence. And as we all know, silence is usually associated with gloom and doom, with fear, death, with the graveyard, all of these are, no doubt, responsible for the children’s introverted tendency, especially kambili who has never experienced what it really means to be cheerful, to be truly happy until she meets her cousins. Unlike Amaka, Obiora and even Chinwe, Aunty Ifeoma’s children who cheerfully express themselves even in matters as delicate as religion, Kambili and Jaja are, under the circumstance of their father’s dictatorship, conditioned to be dull, unintelligent, robotic and, of course, miserably pitiable. Thus, Adichie seems to be telling us that where silence is regarded as the norm, nothing but grimy and gloomy occurrences is bound to happen. Little wonder, the home of the Achikes has always been termed gothic castle.       

In terms of style, Adichie’s novel, entitled Purple Hibiscus has been superbly structured in such a way that every element of style inherent in the novel is a contributory factor to its powerful literary essence. Purple Hibiscus is a 310-paged novel divided into four main parts, each of which is further separated into chapters. The first part titled “BREAKING GODS¾Palm Sunday” contains just one chapter; the second, “SPEAKING WITH OUR SPIRITS¾Before Palm Sunday,” consists of twelve chapters while the third and fourth (“THE PIECES OF GODS: After Palm Sunday” and “A DIFFERENT SILENCE: The Present”) comprise chapters three and one respectively. Each chapter marks the development of the girl-narrator, Kambili, as she curiously becomes inquisitive about the situation surrounding, first, her identity, and, then, her domestic reality, a delicate aspect of her life that has been completely dominated by the fear of her domineering father. Similarly, Adichie’s use of the first-person point of view is apt, for it enables us the freedom to mingle with the familial distance that is deeply rooted in the lives of the four members of the Achike’s family, Mama (Beatrice), Jaja and Papa (Eugene), and of course, Kambili. Had the story been told from the perspective of a character other than the 15-year old Kambili, there would be less effect of the suspense and tense atmosphere on the reader. Even though Kambili’s point of view seems biased at some points in the novel, (as common with the first-person narrative point of view), it still strikes us with much realism and provides us with a keen sense of observation – one without which the readers would be left soulless, unmoved by the mood of fear and apprehension that hangs loosely on every member of the Achike family. The appropriateness of the point of view comes closer to the reality of the setting, one which is both psychological and historical. Obviously, Adichie deliberately places the setting of the novel in Kambili’s minds and action, thereby leading us through her journey from innocence to self-awareness, from the ideal to reality, from imprisonment to freedom. This has usually been described as a bildungsroman. Historically too, Adiche depicts the 1990’s Nigerian socio-political terrain, by drawing materials from the political unrest during the Babangida military regime. Ade Coker’s death in the novel easily brings to mind the infamous brutal murder of the Nigerian newspaper icon, Dele Giwa. He was assassinated through a letter bomb. Adichie also portrays the utmost dilapidation of the Nigerian educational system at the time, as evident in Aunty Ifeoma’s pitiable state of poverty.  

Interestingly, Chimamanda is able to weave meaning into all of the aforementioned through very subtle but powerful manipulation of language. Though simple and easy to understand, the language strikes us with much precision and intelligence so much that one might mistake Adichie for a native speaker of the English language. Of course, there is more than a mere display of mastery of the language; Adichie has equally demonstrated her originality and true African nay Nigerian Identity through her manoeuvre of both English and Igbo, the latter being her mother tongue, since she is originally from the Eastern part of Nigeria. This, she handles so skilfully and meticulously that she has often been compared with the Nigerian’s foremost and finest novelist, Chinua Achebe, for his blend of English and Igbo in most of his novels, especially his one of the world’s most celebrated debuts, Things fall Apart. Indeed, Adichie’s literary savoir-faire in her premiere novel entitled Purple Hibiscus cannot be overemphasized.                  


  1. Brilliant! I'll be sharing this with my tenth grade literature class.

  2. Glad you found this resourceful, Angela. Feel free to share it.

  3. This has been quite helpfull. It is both compact and rich in content.

  4. Resourceful indeed. More Grace to you Sodiq