Kambili and Jaja Achike’s story will stick with you forever. Their father, papa, is an abusive Catholic extremist, who values how he appears to those outside of his home, versus how he treats his family. At home, he is a violent dictator, but in public, he is a well-respected philanthropist.
Jaja’s disobedience at church, not getting up to take communion, stirs up the story. Kambili, the narrator, takes readers back to the events that triggered Jaja’s eventual defiance.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is essential reading for several reasons. Most important, however, is how she uses the Achike family to discuss larger societal themes. Chimamanda is able to write about whiteness and colonialism; silence and freedom; religion; and violence and war, topics that are resounding throughout the novel.
Whiteness and colonialism
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie contrasts papa with his sister Ifeoma. While papa believes Whiteness is superior and even fakes a British accent when speaking to White people, Aunty ifeoma, an outspoken professor at the University of Lagos, Nsukka, questions the notion that everything from the White man is superior.
The profound impact of colonialism in Nigeria is on full display in their interactions with each other.
Silence and freedom
The theme of silence is dominant in the novel. As the story unfolds, we observe as Kambili and Jaja are silenced under their father’s tyrannical rule. It is not until Aunty Ifeoma, and her children show up that we see the extent of Kambili and Jaja’s inability to express themselves. Aunty Ieoma’s children are outspoken, laugh a lot, and are free. Their speech is not silenced, and they are encouraged and supported to voice their opinions. In essence, there is freedom of speech.
The concept of freedom of speech comes up both metaphorically and literally when we learn about the standard, the only newspaper in Nigeria to speak out about the government. In the end, however, this freedom of speech comes with a severe price, it is interesting to learn that Kambili’s father runs the newspaper.
Chimamanda contrasts the freedom of speech that papa enjoys via his newspaper to the silence he demands from his children at home.
Religion is another important theme. Kambili and Jaja are not allowed to visit their grandfather—a pagan worshiper—who still practices traditional Igbo rituals. According to papa, their grandfather is a heathen, and Kambili and Jaja are forbidden from visiting him.
However, when Kambili and Jaja visit Aunty ifeoma in Nsukka, they are introduced to a softer experience of their Catholic faith. Chimamanda highlights the idea that there are multiple ways to practice the same religion. While one way may cause harm to others, another approach may be one of love and acceptance.
Ultimately, both Kambili and Jaja have to choose the path that they believe is best for them.
Violence and war
The personal and familial war that each character endures is parallel to the turmoil that Nigeria, in its post-colonial infancy, faces.
Purple Hibiscus was a wonderfully written book; partly because Chimananda created space for the reader to emote on Kambili’s behalf. For the majority of the novel, Kambili is distant as she narrates the events that followed Jaja’s defiance.
Purple Hibiscus reveals quite eloquently what it means to be free.