Purple Hibiscus by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie is a brief glimpse into the complex, beautiful, and sad life of one young girl in Nigeria. The unjust systems of government in Nigeria interweave with the unbalanced family structure within Kambili’s home. Kambili is raised to believe that she must obey all commands and follow God’s words or else she will be punished, but as the novel progresses Kambili learns that she can speak up for herself. Kambili is at first a woman who follows the orders of men and has no female friends or role models, but at the end of the novel she respects herself and has close bonds with three women. Adichie allows space for the discussion of two seemingly separate ideas: the respect of women and the respect of new nations.
Through Kambili, Adichie portrays the certain and fearful reality that come from being raised by an abusive father followed by the uncertainty and happiness of freedom.
Kambili is raised in a home where she is systematically taught to both love and fear her father as she is taught to both love and fear God. She constantly seeks her father, Eugene’s, approval, even when he is not around. Adichie’s portrayal of Eugene allows readers to see the human elements of an abuser. As it is told from his own daughter’s perspective, Eugene is seen at first as just a loving father, who cares deeply for others and even donates to multiple charitable organizations. He does love his children, as is shown through his deep embraces and long talks with them, but he also legitimately fears for their salvation. Eugene himself was abused as a child, which probably led to his own belief that in order to be pure one must beat the sin out of the sinner, but this in no way justifies his abuse. Eugene, like most abusers, is not completely good nor completely evil. Instead, by portraying this abuser as a man who is loved and respected by his family and his community, Adichie shows Eugene as a real person, rather than a caricature of how we believe evil people should be. In doing so, Adichie also frees the abused of any judgement. She shows readers the everyday life of an abused child, filled with constant affirmation of their faults and weaknesses. Kambili is told over and over again by her father that it is her fault and she has brought this punishment upon herself. This also allows the reader to understand Kambili even more fully as she grows from a meek young girl to a passionate free-thinking woman.
Most of what leads to Kambili’s transformation are the people she has in her life. Father Amadi, a man that Kambili grows to love deeply, shows his love for God through his love for others. He laughs often and believes in others, which is a direct contrast to Kambili’s domineering and judgmental father. Between these two men, Kambili outrightly chooses Father Amadi because he always allows her to be herself. Kambili’s mother and her aunt are also mirrored. Her mother is quiet and follows Eugene’s commands, even when she clearly disagrees with him. Through her mother, Kambili learns that she must be respectful and quiet as a woman. She learns that a wife must follow what her husband says, even when he beats her. But, from her Aunt Ifeoma and her cousin, Amaka, Kambili learns that a woman can be strong and passionate. A woman can speak her mind and defy the men around her. Through these contrasting mirrors, Adichie shows the power of role models and the persistence of free will. At the beginning of the novel, Kambili has no female friends or role models and by at the end she has three. All three of these women are strong and passionate in their own ways and guide Kambili. Although she continues to be quiet and respectful, she begins to argue and speak her mind because of what Father Amadi, Ifeoma, and Amaka taught her. Her father’s disapproving voice continues to ring in her ears, but she is no longer controlled by it.
As Kambili changes , Nigeria is also changing politically. In the beginning of the novel, the current government is overthrown and replaced by a new one, and throughout the novel this continues to change. Adichie is able to work in the political atmosphere of Nigeria at the time, without allowing it to become it’s own subplot, by highlighting the correlation between the chaotic politics in Nigeria and Kambili’s own uncertain future. What Kambili and the people of Nigeria share is determination. Although some people unjustly view them as weak, they continue to try. Ifeoma summarizes this perfectly when she recounts how others view Nigeria:
“There are people who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times we tried we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it wrong the first time. It’s like telling a crawling baby who tries to walk and then falls back on his buttocks to stay there. As if the adults walking past him didn’t all crawl once.”
There is never a right way to live one’s life or a right way to rule a government. The way others view Nigeria is similar to the way women are viewed in society. They are given some power and when they make a mistake the naysayers see it as confirmation that women should not have power. Or, in Kambili’s case, the sinner is always a sinner and must constantly fight the sin within them.
Kambili eventually stops trying to search for the right and the wrong. She realizes that certainty does not matter. In the beginning of the novel, everything is certain, and by the end everything is uncertain. Certainty may have provided her with comfort and stability, but uncertainty provides her with freedom. Uncertainty allows her to explore what she actually believes is right and wrong and how she wishes to live her life. Because no matter what happens, “the new rains will come down soon” and the purple hibiscus will grow.
Chimananda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian novelist, poet, playwright, and public speaker. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, The O. Henry Prize Stories, the Financial Times, and Zoetrope. She won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Purple Hibiscus. She has written Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), which won the Orange Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle Award, a New York Times Notable Book, and a People and Black Issues Book Review Best Book of the Year. Her latest novel, Americanah was published around the world in 2013 and has received numerous awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction. Her essay, “We Should All be Feminists” (2014), was originally delivered as a TedX speech and has now been published in ebook format. Adichie divides her time between Nigeria and the United States.