The purple hibiscus is a novel set in post-colonial Nigeria and follows the story of Kambili as she grapples with changes in her life. Having faced a brutal and tyrannical father her whole life, she soon realizes following a visit and stay at her Aunty’s place in Nsukka, that what she has considered being a way of life for her is not what life is supposed to be.
The purple hibiscus is a symbol of freedom and is a flower growing in Aunty Ifeoma’s garden, giving renewed hope to Kambili and Jaja. The characters in the novel are a representation of the new breed of people, with divergent beliefs and cultures in a new political era, all trying to address socio-political and cultural issues depending on how they have been molded.
The novel is written against a backdrop of a changing Nigerian society, coming just a few decades after independence from English rule. Post-colonial Nigeria is a country facing economic and political challenges, with new and emerging industrialists and elites such as Eugene, imposing their dominance against traditional Igbo culture.
Outspoken intellectuals like Aunty Ifeome, are also coming up and trying to find their footing in the Nigerian society. Though not wealthy, they are critical of government rule and try to highlight societal ills including political censorship, freedom of speech and corruption, to the great discomfort of the ruling class, who are hell-bent on silencing them.
Colonialism and Politics
Colonialism and Politics is a central theme and problem that is addressed in the novel Purple Hibiscus. Eugene is a product of colonial rule and believes that traditional beliefs have no room in modern Nigeria. He despises all traditionalists and is a devout catholic, who does everything according to the traditions and practice of the catholic faith.
Politics is also a central problem in the novel, as Eugene also publishes the Standard Newspaper that is critical of the government, and her sister is also critical of the government leading to her expulsion from her teaching job in the university.
Violence as a problem is also addressed several times in the novel Purple Hibiscus. Domestic violence is demonstrated through Eugene’s heavy-handedness and overbearing nature against his family. Eugene has used physical violence against his wife, son, and daughter many times, and it is shown how violence begets violence, as Eugene himself dies through poisoning by his wife.
Nationally political oppression and violence are used through the military enforcing political censorship and assassinations, including the killing of Ade Coker and Nwanketo Ogechi an activist. Aunty Ifeoma also faces the brunt of brutal oppression, as her apartment is ransacked, and is dismissed from her teaching job at the university.
Religion and Traditional beliefs
The problem of modern religion against traditional beliefs is also brought out in this novel. Eugene’s staunch belief in his faith in the Catholic church is super-imposed against the traditional beliefs of his father Papa-Nnukwu, and the liberal beliefs of his sister Aunty Ifeoma.
Description of main characters
The novel’s entire plot revolves around Kambili, as she is the narrator of the story. She is a 15-year-old girl, one of the two children of Eugene and Beatrice Achike. Due to her father’s tyranny, she has grown up shy and doesn’t express herself. She is always afraid of upsetting her father, and even shows fear on behalf of her brother and mother, cringing many times when her rebellious brother responds inappropriately to their father.
As the story evolves she builds her self-esteem, and becomes more outspoken, mostly as a result of her experiences at the home of her Aunt.
Jaja (Chukwuka Achike)
Jaja is the elder child of Eugene and Beatrice and the brother of Kambili the narrator of the story. He is an intelligent and bold character, who has grown under the tyranny of his father. He openly defies him and abandons their Catholic faith, to his great chagrin.
He is also courageous and loyal to his sister and mother, and without thought to his safety takes the fall on their behalf. On numerous occasions, he takes the blame on behalf of his sister to shield her from her father’s wrath. When her mother poisons their father, he also claims responsibility and is consequently jailed for three years.
Eugene Achike is the father of Kambili, who affectionately calls him “Papa”. Eugene is a wealthy industrialist, who also publishes the Standard Newspaper. He is a devout Catholic, who goes to great lengths to practice his faith and strictly imposes the same upon his entire family. He is a favorite of their local priest Benedict, due to his philanthropic giving to the causes of the church.
At home, Eugene is a domineering tyrant, unleashing terror upon his entire family. He physically abuses his wife and children and has twice led to his wife’s miscarriage. He also despises the Igbo culture including his father for his traditional beliefs.
Beatrice is the Matriarch of the Achike family and is a victim of Eugene’s tyranny and violence. She maintains a quiet and passive demeanor throughout the novel and maintains her loyalty despite suffering two miscarriages at the hands of Eugene.
Eventually, she is unable to bear the constant abuse from her husband, and she poisons him to death. Her son Jaja claims responsibility, to which he goes to jail for three years. Following the death of Eugene and the jailing of her son, her condition deteriorates significantly, a situation that does not change even to the end of the story.
Aunty Ifeoma is the paternal aunt of the narrator Kambili. She is Eugene’s only sister and is described as being physically tall. She is outspoken and intelligent and was instrumental in shaping the character of Kambili and Jaja.
She is also a liberal Catholic, who is understanding and tolerant of her father’s traditional beliefs, unlike her more affluent brother.
Her political outspokenness and criticism of the government leads to her expulsion from the university, and she subsequently gets a visa and relocates to the United States of America.
Papa-Nnukwu is the grandfather of Kambili the narrator of the story and is the father of Eugene and Aunty Ifeoma. He is kind-hearted and warmly affectionate towards his children and grandchildren. He is a traditionalist who follows Igbo traditions, a fact that led to the cutting of ties with Eugene and her family.
As the narrator gets to interact with Papa-Nnukwu at her aunty’s home in Nsukka, she develops a new respect for him, and understands the traditional religious practices, considering them to be comparable to her Catholic beliefs.