Things started to fall apart when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.
“Things fall apart” is an allusion to one of the most well-known English-language books about Nigeria. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, chronicles the decline of an Igbo clan leader in the shadow of British colonial rule and Christian missionaries. Purple Hibiscus is a novel about a culturally Igbo family who lives under strict Catholic mores. Papa, the patriarch, was schooled in Britain and adopts and English-inflected accent when speaking in public. The Achike family reflects both the roots of their ancestry and the impact imperialism has had on their traditions.
I meant to say I am sorry that Papa broke your figurines, but the words that came out were, ‘I’m sorry your figurines broke, Mama.’
As a victim of physical violence at the hands of father, Kambili is too frightened to speak the truth. Everything she wants to say she translates into what she should say. If Kambili were not the narrator of the novel, her true feelings would not be understood. The Achike family must always keep up appearances, hiding the truth about Papa. Even inside their home, Kambili cannot bring herself to blame Papa for the broken figures though the entire family witnessed his outburst. Kambili’s misplaced sense of duty renders her mute.
’Imagine what the Standard would be if we were all quiet.’
It was a joke. Ade Coker was laughing; so was his wife, Yewande. But Papa did not laugh. Jaja and I turned and went back upstairs, silently.
Though Papa and Ade Coker, through the Standard, seek to tell the truth about the government, the Achike children are not urged to tell the truth about their own lives. To Papa, being a good Nigerian entails two things – exposing corruption and strict adherence to faith. Papa believes it is his duty to deliver his country and his children to heaven. He holds both up to extreme standards. Though he is considered a hero for fighting against corruption, his actions as a disciplinarian in the home make him a monster. Ultimately, Papa is neither. He is a flawed person.
I looked at Jaja and wondered if the dimness in his eyes was shame. I suddenly wished, for him, that he had done the ima mmuo, the initiation into the spirit world. I knew very little about it; women were not supposed to know anything at all, since it was the first step toward the initiation to manhood. But Jaja once told me that he heard that boys were flogged and made to bathe in the presence of a taunting crowd. The only time Papa had talked about the ima mmuo was to say that the Christians who let their sons do it were confused, that they would end up in hellfire.
This is the beginning of Jaja’s transformation. The Christmas holiday spent in the company of Aunty Ifeoma and, secretly, Papa-Nnukwu, is like an intiation ceremony of its own. Jaja is exposed to a different way of life both through the liberal beliefs of his aunt and the traditionalist rituals of his grandfather. Jaja compares himself to Obiora, who is well-spoken and mature for his age. Obiora has done the ima mmuo in his father’s hometown. Though his father is dead, Obiora seems to have a deeper connection with his father’s ancestors. Jaja is not permitted to visit with his grandfather for more than fifteen minutes a year. His shame at not taking part in the initiation prompts Jaja to question the authority of his father.
’I thought the Igwe was supposed to stay at his place and receive guests. I didn’t know he visits people’s homes,’ Amaka said, as we went downstairs. ‘I guess that’s because your father is a Big Man.’
I wished she had said ‘Uncle Eugene’ instead of ‘your father.’ She did not even look at me as she spoke. I felt, looking at her, that I was helplessly watching precious flaxen sand slip away between my fingers.
Amaka is not afraid to speak her mind. She does not offer Papa the same terse respect that Kambili is compelled to. Though Amaka is derisive towards her, Kambili longs to be understood by her cousin. Amaka represents an alternative version of herself – confident, inquisitive, and aware of her body. Kambili wants to be like her cousin even though she does not fully comprehend her ways.
When she made a U-turn and went back the way we had come, I let my mind drift, imagining God laying out the hills of Nsukka with his wide white hands, crescent-moon shadows underneath his nails just like Father Benedict’s.
Kambili finds God in the natural world. The hands she envisions creating the hills of Nsukka are white, as she has been taught to accept a white image of God. Kambili’s experiences with Aunty Ifeoma’s family have opened her eyes to different types of faiths. Aunty Ifeoma herself successfully blends traditionalist ways with her Catholic faith. At this point, Kambili still clings to her ingrained understanding of faith.
’Morality, as well as the sense of taste, is relative.’
Obiora, as the son of a university professor of African studies, is encouraged to question authority. This statement opposes what Kambili and Jaja are taught. They are only offered one path towards success. This discourse is at the heart of the book. There are no moral absolutes in Purple Hibiscus. Kambili loves her father though he abuses her and her faith remains strong even when it is used as a tool for repression. Kambili learns this lesson on her journey.
’This cannot go on, nwunye m,’ Aunty Ifeoma said. ‘When a house is on fire, you run out before the roof collapses on your head.’
Aunty Ifeoma cannot believe that Mama would consider returning to her home after the beating-induced miscarriage. Aunty Ifeoma does not understand that the Achike family has been living in a burning house for a long time. In the early chapters of the novel, Mama suffers the same fate, losing a child because of Papa’s violence. But this time, Mama listens to Aunty Ifeoma’s plainspoken advice. Though she does return to Enugu, Mama begins poisoning Papa shortly thereafter.
Rain splashed across the floor of the veranda, even though the sun blazed and I had to narrow my eyes to look out the door of Aunty Ifeoma’s living room. Mama used to tell Jaja and me that God was undecided about what to send, rain or sun. We would sit in our rooms and look out at the raindrops glinting with sunlight, waiting for God to decide.
Kambili’s belief in God’s connection to nature is inspired by Mama. Though she does not hold on to many traditional rituals outside of Igbo song, she draws parallels with the Catholic God and Chukwu. As God created the world and is omnipresent, Chukwu built the earth and is associated everything in it. Kambili is undecided as well. Her home is in Enugu, but having tasted a freer way of life in Nsukka, she feels conflicted about her future. She loves Papa but does not want to live in his shadow.
She picked up an enterprising snail that was crawling out of the open basket. She threw it back in and muttered, ‘God take power from the devil.’ I wondered if it was the same snail, crawling out, being thrown back in, and then crawling out again. Determined. I wanted to buy the whole basket and set that one snail free.
Kambili feels akin to the snail. She is trapped in the basket of her father’s home and when she goes to Nsukka, she is crawling towards freedom. Though she may not recognize that she is as determined as the snail, her strength grows as it is nurtured by the love of her aunt and Father Amadi.
That night when I bathed, with a bucket half full of rainwater, I did not scrub my left hand, the hand that Father Amadi had held gently to slide the flower off my finger. I did not heat the water, either, because I was afraid that the heating coil would make the rainwater lose the scent of the sky. I sang as I bathed. There were more earthworms in the bathtub, and I left them alone, watching the water carry them and send them down the drain.
Kambili wants to bathe in the scent of the sky. The Igbo god Chukwu lives in the sky. Kambili wants to honor nature here and also retain the elements of her happy memories. She lets the earthworms be this time. Having found her voice, she sings. Here she revels in the natural world.
’Kambili is right,’ she said. ‘Something from God was happening there.’
Aunty Ifeoma notices that Father Amadi is looking at Kambili before she says this. Kambili is like a new girl. She is confident and happy, blossoming in the attention of her aunt’s family and also Father Amadi. Her coming of age, complete with first crush, has been a gift from God. Even though she didn’t see the apparition, Aunty Ifeoma saw new life in her niece.
'Of course God does. Look at what He did to his faithful servant Job, even to His own Son. But have you ever wondered why? Why did He have to murder his own son so we would be saved? Why didn’t he just go ahead and save us?'
Jaja breaks with his faith at this point. His questioning of the Bible’s parables has resonance in his own life. The treatment of the son by the father pertains to the abuse suffered at the hands of Papa as well. Papa, and his faith, is literally and figuratively dead to Jaja at this point.
’We will take Jaja to Nsukka first, and then we’ll go to America to visit Aunty Ifeoma,’ I said. ‘We’ll plant new orange trees in Abba when we come back, and Jaja will plant purple hibiscus, too, and I’ll plant ixora so we can suck the juices of the flowers.’ I am laughing. I reach out and place my arm around Mama’s shoulder and she leans toward me and smiles.
Above, clouds like dyed cotton wool hang low, so low I feel I can reach out and squeeze the moisture from them. The new rains will come down soon.
Several themes are at play in this quote. Kambili’s laughter signals that she has fully come in to her own, able to support herself as well as Mama. Her reverence for nature comes across in her planting of new orange trees in her ancestral town, a symbol of new life and new beginnings. Jaja’s purple hibiscus, a symbol of freedom, will bloom again. The ixora plants were a favorite of Father Amadi, and the memories of when Kambili felt most whole will spring to life with a new planting of ixora. The “new rains” symbolize the hope of a new beginning, as the environment plays a major symbolic role in this novel. This book ends on a hopeful note.
Purple Hibiscus Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Purple Hibiscus is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Papa was abusive to mama. She puts up with his violent and emotional abuse but cannot accept the abuse being directed at her children. Mama feels she has no option but to kill her husband to safeguard her children.
Aunty Ifeoma grows the purple hibiscus, a rare hybrid created by a botanist friend of hers. Jaja is drawn to the flowers when he arrives in Nsukka. For Jaja, the flowers represent freedom. Instead of just following what must be, Aunty Ifeoma's...