Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Purple Hibiscus is a coming-of-age novel set in postcolonial Nigeria. The narrator, Kambili Achike, is fifteen. She lives with her older brother, Jaja, and their parents, Eugene and Beatrice (referred to as “Papa” and “Mama”), in a grand home in the city of Enugu.
Life in the family home is very privileged but highly restricted—Kambili and Jaja are held to extremely high academic and behavioral standards by their father, whose strict adherence to religious doctrine governs every part of the family’s life. If they fail to meet his expectations, he is psychologically and physically abusive toward them. In public, the family’s difficult dynamic is hidden from view—Papa is a very prominent member of the city’s Catholic church, a respected businessman, and a newspaper publisher. When the area experiences a military coup, he’s lauded by the community as a brave bastion of free, honest press in a time of political turmoil.
The family’s narrative begins with tension as they return home from church one Palm Sunday. Jaja has just refused to take communion during the service, and when he is confronted about this, Jaja informs Papa that he is no longer interested in taking it at all. Papa is furious with Jaja, and he throws a leatherbound church missal at a shelf of fragile figurines to punctuate his fury. The shelf breaks, and everything on it is destroyed. Jaja leaves the table, and Kambili is sick with worry over what his impending punishment will be.
As she stares out the window of her bedroom, noticing the family’s remarkable purple hibiscus flowers, Kambili recalls the circumstances of their growth. The story flashes back to the events leading up to Palm Sunday: Kambili is studying in her room, per the strict daily schedule of activities her father gives her at the beginning of each day. Mama comes in and reveals that Kambili is going to be a big sister soon, despite Mama’s multiple previous miscarriages. When Jaja and Kambili discuss the new baby, Jaja implies grimly that the two of them will need to work together to protect it from Papa.
Later in her pregnancy, Mama starts experiencing unusual nausea. Kambili hears thumping coming from her parents’ bedroom one night, and she knows that her father must be beating her mother. When Papa takes Mama out the front door slung over his shoulder, she fears the worst. Her worries are confirmed when Mama returns home a few days later, saying only, “There was an accident. The baby is gone.”
The family travels to their hometown for the Christmas holiday, and Papa gives money freely to everyone they see. They bring food to feed the whole community and receive a constant stream of visits from members of his umunna—his extended family. Aunty Ifeoma, Papa’s sister, visits from Nsukka with her three children, and they invite Kambili and Jaja for a visit. Aunty Ifeoma is Papa’s opposite—a kind, open-minded, and humorous university lecturer. Her children, too, differ greatly from Kambili—they speak up, ask questions, argue, and laugh freely. After initially hesitating, Papa decides to allow the visit.
When Kambili and Jaja arrive in Nsukka, they find themselves bewildered by the new environment. The flat is small and cramped, the family shares rooms, and though they’re also Catholic, they worship with unfamiliar, joyous songs. In contrast to the easy, warm communication of the rest of the family, Kambili and Jaja are incredibly shy. Kambili, especially, struggles to communicate—when her family members speak to her, she often stutters or mumbles and, ultimately, says nothing. Instead, she tells the reader what she wishes she could say. When...
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Jaja notices the purple hibiscuses in the garden out front, Aunty Ifeoma tells him that it’s an experimental plant from her colleague at the university.
Aunty Ifeoma invites her friend Father Amadi for dinner, and Kambili is instantly drawn to him. He is thoughtful and kind, and she begins to develop romantic feelings toward him as he spends more and more time around the family. He is clearly drawn to her, too, and he makes it a point to help her feel more comfortable. As Kambili opens up, so does Jaja—he takes to tending the flat’s garden, and he finds a new sense of purpose in the work.
While they are in Nsukka, Aunty Ifeoma hears that Papa-Nnukwu, her father, is very sick, and she decides to bring him to her flat. This makes Kambili and Jaja nervous—their grandfather is a heathen in their father’s eyes, and they’re not supposed to be around him. When Papa-Nnukwu comes, they keep the secret. Kambili observes the closeness between her grandfather and her cousins as they tend to him, and she is envious of the kind, easy relationship they share. When her own father learns that Papa-Nnukwu is at the flat in Nsukka, he is livid and demands his children come home.
Before they can return, Papa-Nnukwu passes away in his sleep. Aunty Ifeoma tells Papa what has happened when he comes to collect Kambili and Jaja, and the two have a heated argument about the funeral. As they leave, Aunty Ifeoma’s daughter, Amaka, slips Kambili a half-finished watercolor portrait of Papa-Nnukwu. Kambili hides it, knowing her father will never allow her to keep it. Jaja shows Kambili that he, too, has a secret souvenir—some purple hibiscuses to plant outside.
Eventually, Papa stumbles upon his children looking at the painting of Papa-Nnukwu. Furiously, he tears it into tiny pieces. He soon begins to beat Kambili, kicking her as hard as he can. She blacks out and later wakes up in the hospital—she had nearly died.
Aunty Ifeoma visits, and she insists that Kambili and Jaja return to Nsukka when Kambili is able to travel again. When they arrive, they learn that the university is in turmoil and Ifeoma’s job is at risk; if the family can get a visa, they’re planning to move to the United States. Kambili is heartbroken to learn of this possible change. Mama comes to Nsukka unexpectedly to say that she’s had another miscarriage, and the visit is cut short when Papa comes the next day to collect them. The next day is Palm Sunday.
In the days following the figurine incident, Kambili notices that Papa seems weaker than he used to. When Ifeoma calls to tell them that she’s been terminated at the university and is preparing for a visa interview, Jaja and Kambili visit her one last time. While they’re saying their goodbyes, Ifeoma receives a call from Mama—Papa has been found dead on his desk at one of his factories.
Kambili and Jaja return to Enugu, and Mama tells them that she has been slowly poisoning their father. Before Kambili and Mama can protest, Jaja tells the authorities that he is responsible, and he is arrested.
Time shifts one last time: three years have passed, and it’s now the present day. Kambili and Mama are on their way to visit Jaja in prison. As they drive, Kambili reflects on the changes of the past few years in her family, her growth, and her love for Father Amadi and all the bribes she and Mama have orchestrated by using Papa’s estate to pay for Jaja’s release. Upon their arrival at the prison, they tell Jaja that he’ll be released the following week.