Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus Summary and Analysis of Chapter Three


In the weeks following the coup, Kambili notices a change in the atmosphere. As articles in the Standard are growing more critical and questioning, the other papers read at family time seem more subdued than usual. When Kevin, the driver, takes the kids to school, they pass demonstrators at the Government Center. The car bears green branches, a symbol of solidarity with the activists, so that they may pass through the fray. Kambili wonders what it would be like to join their cause, but she can only watch from the car window. In later weeks, Kambili notes an escalation of military presence. Soldiers line the main road armed with guns. They search cars at will, holding the drivers at the side of the road at gunpoint.

But nothing changes at home except for Mama’s growing belly. The family goes to mass on Pentecost Sunday. Mama wears a red wrapper the same color as the visiting priest’s robe. The priest gives his sermon but does not openly praise St. Agnes as other visiting priests have in the past. He also sings a song in Igbo and the congregation is shocked. Many sing along, but Papa eyes his family to make sure their lips are sealed.

On the way to visit Father Benedict after mass, Papa derides the visiting priest. He claims he is godless and people like him who blend traditional African ways with the church are troublemakers. When they arrive, Mama decides to stay in the car because she feels ill. Papa stares at her, then asks again if she will come in to see Father Benedict. She insists that she doesn’t feel right but after a stern silence, she finally agrees to get out of the car.

Papa talks to Father Benedict in hushed tones while the rest of the family waits in the living room. Father Benedict asks Mama if she is okay because she looks so ashen. She says her allergies are bothering her but she is fine. Father Benedict then asks Kambili and Jaja if they enjoyed the sermon. As if rehearsed, they both answer the same way at the same time, with a simple “Yes, Father.” After the visit, Mama insists on serving Papa his tea even though this duty usually falls to Sisi.

Papa gives Jaja and Kambili “love sips” of the tea and then the children go to their rooms to change out of their church clothes. They follow Mama up the stairs in silence. All Sunday activities are quiet – the children are scheduled reflection time to study a particular passage in the Bible in addition to evening rosary. Jaja tells Mama that she should rest and before she can answer, she covers her mouth and runs to her room to vomit.

Lunch is silent as well. Kambili waits for the prayer, thinking about the birds outside and looking at a portrait of her Grandfather. Her father finally speaks, offering first thanks for the food. He then asks God to forgive those who wish to thwart His will by not wanting to visit His servant. Mama’s “Amen” resonates throughout the room.

After lunch, Kambili is in her room studying the Bible when she hears loud thuds coming from her parents’ room. This is a familiar sound. She sits and closes her eyes while counting. Usually the noises end by the time she reaches twenty. By nineteen, her father leaves his room with Mama slung over his shoulder. Jaja and Kambili watch as he takes her outside. Jaja notices there is blood on the floor. They scrub the floor clean.

Mama does not come home that evening and Kambili and Jaja eat dinner alone. They talk about a televised execution of three men. Jaja says grace, offering a small prayer for Mama. Papa comes home later, his eyes red and swollen. He hugs Kambili and tells her Mama will be fine - back tomorrow after school. Mama does come home the next day and informs her daughter that the baby is gone. Mama consoles herself by polishing her beloved ballerina figurines.

Kambili goes upstairs to study, but the words in her textbook turn to blood. She envisions blood flowing from Mama and from her own eyes. At Mass on Sunday, Papa makes his family stay in church after the service so that they can recite sixteen novenas for Mama’s forgiveness. Father Benedict douses them in holy water and Kambili tries not to think about what Mama would need to be forgiven for.


Tensions are rising both in Nigeria and in the Achike household. The political unrest is increasing, with pro-democracy activists assembling near Government Centers. The increased presence of soldiers and dangerous road blocks create an environment rife with violence. Even the televised executions don’t elicit much reaction from Kambili and Jaja. They are already living in the shadow of violence. They are so desensitized to violence that they wordlessly clean up their mother’s blood after she suffers a severe beating.

Kambili watches the protestors from the safety of her car, wondering what it would be like to join them. Her wealth protects her from the more dangerous aspects of life, but it also shelters her. However, this is a false sense of security. From inside the same car, Papa demands Mama overcomes her sickness to visit with Father Benedict. From the outside, the Achikes have a perfect existence but Kambili’s life is far from ideal.

Mama continues to keep up appearances by insisting to Father Benedict her allergies are the cause of her ashen look. She must maintain the illusion that she is strong and happy. Although she sings Igbo songs with her prayer group, she does not dare sing along with the visiting priest during the day’s mass. Papa eyes his family to make sure they stay silent. Even though Mama’s nod to her ancestral culture is permitted at home, the Achikes must maintain a colonial attitude in public. Again, the image of perfection must be upheld.

Both Mama and Kambili find outlets for escapism. Throughout a tense, silent lunch, Kambili concentrates on the picture of her maternal Grandfather and the chirping of birds in the garden. The portrait of her Grandfather in full Catholic missionary garb serves as inspiration at first. Kambili strives to hold the same position of honor as her Grandfather, who was beloved by Papa. She wants to be beloved by Papa and believes by emulating her Grandfather’s godliness, she will earn his respect. Mama polishes her figurines as a distraction from the palpable disappointment of her husband. When they break in the first chapter, the illusions come crashing down.

The reality that must not be spoken is the abuse. When Kambili hears repetitive thuds from her parents’ room, she knows what is happening. Even though the incident is told through first-person narration – ostensibly, Kambili’s thoughts – the abuse is not directly stated. Kambiil’s childlike naivete betrays itself here. As a child in need of protection, her own mind guards her from the truth. To not speak the truth is to deny its existence. Furthermore, pain and love are interwoven in her mind. When she takes a “love sip” of Papa’s tea she “feels the love burning on her tongue.” The discipline is synonymous with love.

There is a patriarchal hierarchy in the Achike household. Mama and the children do not have any power. When Mama loses her child as the result of a severe beating, Papa makes the family say a special prayer, a novena, to atone for the loss. Papa explains that they must ask for Mama’s forgiveness. Sexism is inherent in both traditional and colonial African society. Even liberated Aunty Ifeoma is told by her father in Chapter Six that she “doesn’t count” because she is a girl. But where Ifeoma, with her wisdom, intelligence and fortitude, can brush away such insults, Mama takes them to heart. Mama, raised by an austere Catholic, marries an austere Catholic and is privy to no other way of life. Mama abides the sexism and Kambili, in the end of this chapter, does not even want to think about why she needs to be forgiven. But that is about to change.