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Shades of Domestic Violence in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Purple Hibiscus”

Close-up picture a light purple hibiscus.

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Adichie’s novel “Purple Hibiscus” is like her other novels: a close look at family dynamics with a particular focus on women and the conflict of Nigerian traditions versus the influences of the British West. I am a huge fan of Adichie’s work and I love to read the variety of female characters coming to terms with womanhood, life, family, the past, and the future. “Purple Hibiscus” is particularly interesting as it adds a layer of domestic violence and looks at the complicated nature of living with and dealing with violence in the home.

Book cover of “Purple Hibiscus”

The main protagonist, Kambili has to deal with teenage life and the demands of her Father’s controlling rule in the house. She is torn between wanting to break free from her Father’s demands and violence as well as wanting to please him and make him proud, however, I wonder if these feelings come from a fear of not wanting to provoke him and his wrath, which eventually puts Kambili in hospital with internal and head injuries. Kambili’s father, Eugene, provides schedules for her and her brother, Jaja, that involve study, prayer, family time, and sleep. There is very little room for joy, laughter, play, and being a kid.

Aunty Ifeoma is a university woman and many times throughout the novel, Kambili’s mother implies she is too smart for her own good. Her ‘university thinking’ gets Ifeoma in trouble with the university and with her brother, Eugene. The key role of Ifeoma is that her home becomes a catalyst for Jaja and Kambili. In Nsukka, Kambili and Jaja are allowed to be children. They are allowed to smile, breath, and enjoy their days without fear of violence.

Kambili’s mother is a very weak character for two reasons: she is not very present in the narrative, and she is also very passive throughout. It is only towards the end of the novel that we learn that she actually poisoned her husband, Eugene, and ultimately saved the children from his wrath. Yet it is Jaja that takes the blame for this crime and the novel ends ambiguously and the reader never learns if Jaja will be freed.

The domestic violence represented in the novel is both vivid and silent. This seemed to be one of the most effective writing tools that Adichie uses throughout the novel. The domestic violence scenes are sometimes explained vividly, like the scene in the bath where Kambili has boiling water poured over her feet. And yet, when Eugene finds the portrait of his father, Kambili blacks out as Eugene kicks into her whilst she is on the ground.

Kambili struggles with wanting to please her father and escape his terror. She is constantly torn between these two desires and even after her father dies she is unsure what to think of it all. Father Amadi is the only strong male character in Kambili’s life and he also becomes her first love interest. Whilst nothing romantic really transpires between the two, there is a deep understanding of love, respect, and affection between the two of them. I believe that it is through Father Amadi’s guidance and support that Kambili is able to start to figure out her own identity away from her father, religion, and family.

Kambili, whilst staying with her aunty learns that Nigerian traditions and Christian beliefs are not so black and white, wrong and right. Similarly, she learns that love does not always mean complete submission and relinquishment of personal agency. In the end, she learns that things often seen in opposition of each other can actually exist together, in a strange kind of harmony.

This book, like Adichie’s others, is beautifully written. It is extremely accessible and despite its 300-odd pages, the book feels too short, too quick. Adichie, if you’re reading: a sequel would be great. As always, share the reading love.

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