Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1009
Oppression and Control
Themes of oppression and control are explored in Purple Hibiscus at varying orders of magnitude. At the widest scale is the country itself, as the story takes place during a military coup. There are protests in the streets, and Kambili and Jaja witness multiple instances of state violence against the people: they see a woman being whipped on the ground for running a produce stand without permission and a corpse at a checkpoint who presumably failed to pay an adequate bribe.
This is mirrored somewhat by the turmoil at the university where Aunty Ifeoma is a lecturer. During one of Kambili and Jaja’s visits to Nsukka, the university shuts down and the students riot violently in the streets. Ultimately, they burn down the home of the oppressive administrator to try to regain some autonomy as a student body.
At another level, issues of oppression and control are explored through the dynamics of the Achike family. Papa writes obsessive daily schedules for his children so that every minute is accounted for, ensuring that they stay busy and complacent. He also uses the schedules to keep them apart so that they stay independently vulnerable. He insists that they be the top students in their class, not because it is his will, but because it is God’s will. He thus manipulates church doctrine to justify his expectations.
At any instance of perceived disobedience or embarrassment, Papa physically abuses his wife and children. When he does this, it’s not because he enjoys the acts of abuse themselves—it’s because he enjoys the control that the capacity for abuse gives him. This is evident toward the end of the story: as Papa weakens physically, Jaja becomes less and less obedient. When Aunty Ifeoma calls on Good Friday to let the family know that she’s planning to leave, for example, Jaja doesn’t ask Papa if they can go for a visit. He tells them they’re going, whether or not permission is granted.
At a smaller, much more personal level, Kambili’s struggle with speech can be seen as a struggle for control within her own body. Her brain simply will not trigger her mouth. In this way, Kambili’s powerlessness over her own words demonstrates the detrimental effects oppression can have: her father’s oppression is so great that it acts on her in his interest from within her own body and mind.
Silence and Speech
In Purple Hibiscus, a distinct line is often drawn between those who do and do not speak. Those living with Papa’s abuse—Mama, Kambili, and Jaja—speak little. Early on, when Mama tells Kambili that she’s pregnant and mentions her prior miscarriages, Kambili notes how unusual it is for Mama to speak this much, remarking, “She did not usually say so much at one time. She spoke the way a bird eats, in small amounts.”
There is some irony here—Papa is lauded in the community for his commitment to journalistic integrity and his refusal to accede to the pressure of those in power. His paper, The Standard, is the only publication that continues to run content criticizing the government. His very legacy is built on his commitment to honest, critical speech. At home, though, his strength and commitment have the opposite effect. His wife and children are terrified to speak at all.
When Ade Coker visits over Christmas, he comments on how quiet Papa’s children are. Papa indicates that this is by design and that he’s raising them right. Ade, though, seems a little concerned, joking, “Imagine what The Standard would be like if we were all quiet.”
Kambili, in particular, struggles with her speech at a pathological level: she simply cannot say the words she’s thinking. She repeatedly tells the reader what she’s not saying—what she can’t say. When others say something that pleases her father, she regrets that she wasn’t the one to say it.
When Kambili begins to spend time in Nsukka, Amaka is so surprised by her lack of speech that she thinks there’s something medically wrong with her. As Kambili interacts more with her her aunt and her cousins, all of whom speak freely and openly, she’s deeply overwhelmed by the sheer amount of talking among them, and she instead prefers to listen and observe. It takes direct prompting for her to participate; when Amaka provokes her, Aunty Ifeoma angrily insists that Kambili argue back.
Though Papa’s stance on the benefits of free speech is hypocritical, considering the silence he imposes on his family, Purple Hibiscus demonstrates through Kambili the advantages of free speech and conversation: when Kambili finally speaks up and argues with Amaka, she and Amaka begin to develop a close friendship.
Coming of Age
The personal growth of Kambili and Jaja is central to Purple Hibiscus. When the story begins, they are conforming themselves to their father’s rigid expectations. They know nothing else—their home has always been quiet, their lives have always been scheduled, and they have grown only as far as they needed in order to meet their father’s standards.
As the story progresses and the siblings venture further and further outside their comfort zones, they find themselves challenged by new perspectives, new behaviors, and new conceptions of love. It takes work, time, and pain, but as they meet these challenges, they begin to develop and transition into their adult selves.
The titular purple hibiscus flowers can be seen as a representation of the growth of the characters. Kambili and Jaja grow in Nsukka, just as the flowers do; and the development they experience in Nsukka allows them to develop in other areas of their lives, just as the flowers thrive when Jaja transports them home to Enugu. Kambili and Jaja have grown up in an oppressive environment, but when they are allowed to develop in a healthier home and experience greater freedom than they had ever known before, they flourish like the flowers.
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