Threats to the Institution of the Family

Introduction

The author seems to have chosen the title “purple hibiscus” deliberately. Purple hibiscus is one of the rarest flowers which many people cherish. The author has used the purple hibiscus as a powerful tool to draw the interest of the readers into reading the text. However, upon reading the first paragraph, readers soon realize that the purple hibiscus takes on a rather curious role. It represents the main character in the novel, and who is also the narrator. She tells of her experiences amid turbulent political and social times in Nigeria, soon after independence.

The novel details the trials and tribulations that the family, in which the narrator is a member, undergoes under the hands of a father who is a religious zealot. The narrator’s father, Eugene, is an overzealous catholic who constantly over-reaches himself in matters of religion. He does not hesitate to violently punish members of his family, including his wife for any wrong-doing. In his blind and obsessive application of what he believes is Christian doctrine, he sets the family on the down-hill path towards self-destruction.

Eugene’s twisted view of Christianity, in particular and the world, in general, sharply contrasts with that of another Catholic priest, Father Amadi. The latter’s approach to issues is sober and more intelligent than the former. It is possibly for this reason that the narrator cannot help falling in love with him. The narrator lacks a father-figure, which she cannot find in her own father. This drives her into falling in love with the young priest at a tender age. She is hardly eighteen years old.

The novel details other factors that threaten the stability of the family unit. Apart from religious fanaticism, the political and social maladjustments are also bearing down hard on the family. The tyranny exhibited by the government has trickled down to individuals such as Eugene, to the detriment of the family (Basu 23). At the end, the tyrants have to be eliminated and that is exactly what happens to Eugene. Beatrice, his long suffering wife, takes it upon herself to bring to an end the era of tyranny by poisoning her husband.

My Reactions to the Novel

I reacted with shock and disbelief at the first reading of this novel. It is rather shocking that the narrator’s father, who is a catholic priest, rules the family with an iron hand. Many a times, Kambili and her brother receive severe beatings from their father for no apparent reason. This is quite ironical, coming from a person expected to portray the ideals of Christian life. Being a Catholic father, I would have expected him to lead by example. It is also quite shocking that he does not spare even his own wife. Consequently, the family is on the verge of collapsing.

This kind of treatment is shocking to me because I have been raised in a Christian family, in which everybody tries to uphold the ethics of Christianity. The fundamental concepts such as understanding, love and forgiveness reign supreme in my family background. However, a closer examination of the novel has shoved me back into harsh reality. The institution of the family is currently facing threat from all quarters, including religion. In fact, religion seems to be combining with other factors such as political and social maladjustment to vanquish the hallowed institution of the family.

Nevertheless, after reading the text a number of times, it dawned on me that that was exactly how the author intended it to be: to shock her readers into reality. I realized that the situation in many families today is actually shocking. What the author has resented is a microcosm of the sorry situation the world is undergoing. This is because they are many problems besetting families today. Apart from the tyrannies of religion and socio-politics, there other factors such as infidelity, poverty and others.

This novel has also impressed upon me the fact that when marriages are shaken, the children bear the worst brunt. In this novel, the narrator and her brother lack filial affection. This is further heightened when they pay their aunt a visit. Unlike the oppressive atmosphere back home, the young teens find tranquility, ease and comfort at their aunt’s place. The aunt’s family lives happily yet they also devout Catholics like the narrator’s parents.

The narrator’s visit to the aunt provides a critical avenue to the author to push an important point forward. It is clear that all is not lost. Families can still be at peace and be united and happy under the prevailing circumstances. This is a critical opportunity for the author to offer a window of hope to her readers. The author, therefore, presents a perfect family so that readers can work towards emulating it. The question jogging my mind is how it is possible for two families under the same circumstances to lead two different lives.

Reading through the text for the umpteenth time, the answer began to take shape in my mind. The writer implies that it is everybody’s responsibility to make the family happy. Parents need to create an enabling environment for their children to grow and develop morally, socially and psychologically. The narrator and her brother have been denied the opportunity to grow socially and psychologically by their indignant father (Mabura 4). It is as if they are trapped: “…topped by coiled electric wires…so high she could not see cars driving by on their street” (Adichie 9). Their aunt and her husband have given their children freedom to express themselves, giving them an edge over the perpetually inhibited narrator and her brother.

However, this novel tends to lay the blame for the collapse of the institution of family in Africa to the west (Adesokan 3). For this reason, the west and its effects form the background of the storyline. The novel is set in Nigeria soon after independence. After independence, a new crop of leaders come in and it does take long for them to be inherently corrupt, dishonest and despotic. This is the kind of political dispensation that Nigeria is undergoing in this novel.

This is evident in the character of Eugene, which has been affected to a great extent by the western learning and the culture that he has undergone. Adesokan says: “For complex institutional reasons, the west remains the primary context for the reception of these works.” (Adesokan 3) Adesokan is simply acknowledging the impact of the west on characters such as Kambili’s father. Kambili, therefore, suffers as a result of her father having been alienated and brain-washed in such a manner that he believes that anything from the west is better.

Kambili inevitably draws comparison between her father and aunt. Her sharp and keen mind is able to dissect the two personalities. She notices that although both of them are principled, their character has a dialectically different impact on their families. While Papa is largely aggressive and high-handed to his family, the aunt rules her family with affection and understanding. Kambili describes the atmosphere at the aunt’s place as “rare, fragrant with undertones of freedom” (Adichie 16). She describes the atmosphere at the aunt’s place as rare because she has been exposed to a harsh environment most of her life.

The Characters

The author has also developed characters to build on major themes in the novel. I have full admiration for the narrator, Kambili Achike, who is the central character in the novel. She is intelligent, observant and a religious young woman aspiring to mature in all areas of life. Her brother, Jaja is also likable. He even sacrifices his freedom in order to protect his mother. As a result, he has to languish in prison for a long time. He bears it all and at the end of it all, he is stronger than ever.

The narrator’s view of her father is fraught with mixed feelings. To begin with, the narrator seems to have internalized Papa’s authority to the extent that it forma part of her life. Her father basically shapes the way she interacts with the outside world. Though Papa is mostly cruel to the family, Kambili is intensely devoted to her father. She imbibes religious dogmas in respect to Papa’s views and opinions. In essence, the narrator’s view of the world is founded upon the articulations of her father. She reports: “Military men would always overthrow one another, because they could, because they were all power drunk” (Adichie 24).

Papa’s assertion that the military could not be relied upon to provide prudent leadership could not be further from the truth. After independence, Nigeria, like many other West African countries, went through violence military coups. During this period, citizens suffered bloodshed, forceful displacement from their homes and intense oppression among other ills. The narrator is, therefore, able to comprehend the political situation prevailing in the country at that time. The oppression sweeping across the land has inevitably rubbed off individuals in the country.

I have also noted the influence of Papa on the narrator’s religious outlook. Papa being a staunch Catholic, he takes great exception to protestant churches sprouting everywhere in Nigeria. This view has also infected the narrator, as can be seen from the following description: “The congregation said “Yes”…but not too loudly so they would not sound like the mushroom Pentecostal churches.”(Adichie 5). I am paying attention to the narrator’s – or the author’s - deliberate choice of words. The use of the word “mushroom” is itself indicative of Kambili’s affected negative view of the protestant churches. This is the impact of her father’s inclinations.

Eugene’s religious intolerance also stretches into the Igbo traditional religion. He refers to all those who are not devout members of the Catholic Church as pagans. He finds the practices of Igbo religion sinful and despicable. This sets him against those close to him, including his family members and his own father. The narrator adopts the same stance towards such people. “Papa Nnukwu is a pagan” (Adichie 81), she declares.

Even though Kambili is unable to support her beliefs with concrete evidence, her convictions are still unshaken at this stage, as shown in her use of "had to" to indicate certainty (Tunca 125). Despite her biases, when the heroine is in her grandfather's compound, she cannot help being attracted to the location, a place which she is not accustomed to but which nevertheless bears strange resemblance to more familiar surroundings:

The bench held me back, sucked me in. I watched a gray rooster walk into the shrine at the corner of the yard, where Papa-Nnukwu's god was, where Papa said Jaja and I were never to go near. The shrine was a low, open shed, its mud roof and walls covered with dried palm fronts. It looked like the grotto behind St. Agnes, the one dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. (Adichie 66)

This description implies that the narrator is not in control of her actions and behavior. It is clear that it is not her free will to stay away from Papa Nnukwu’s shrine. It is the environment that restricts her venturing forth into the traditional Igbo shrine. The bench acts as a physical manifestation of the narrator’s father’s influence on her actions and decisions. It is this kind of influence that creates tension among family members, dealing a blow to family unity and love.

However, this influence impacts more on the mother than the narrator. The mother, Beatrice, has been operating in fear. She lives in fear of her husband, who has been subjecting her to all manner of suffering. This is because he leads a dogmatic lifestyle that leaves no room for freedom among the members of his family.

Nevertheless, Beatrice is a rather passive and laid back mother, in sharp contrast to her voracious husband. She is the source of warmth, love and care for the children in the home. The narrator sums up her mother’s character in one terse statement: “there was so much that she did not mind” (Adichie 19).

The statement “there was so much that she did not mind” tells us a lot about Beatrice. For the sake of the family, she was ready to make sacrifices. She bears with her husband’s tyranny for the sake of the family and the children. But as the novel progresses, she finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the strain and tension between her and her husband.

Then there is Chukwuka Achike, otherwise known as Jaja, the narrator’s younger brother. Just like other members of the family, he plays meek to the father, but he is very intelligent. Other characters include Papa Nnukwu, the grandfather-figure to the family, aunty Ifeoma and Father Amadi.

Father Amadi is instrumental in the development of the narrator. Through him, the narrator is able to modify her judgment on certain issues. This is because he is able to bring to the attention of the narrator the irrationality of her actions and decisions. A good example is when Kambili goes to make a confession to the effect that she slept in the same house with her grandfather, who is considered a pagan:

"I slept in the same room as my grandfather. He is a heathen," I blurted out.

He turned to me briefly, and before he looked away, I wondered if the light in his eyes was amusement.

"Why do you say that?"

"It is a sin."

"Why is it a sin?"

I stared at him. I felt that he had missed a line in his script. "I don't know."

"Your father told you that."

I looked away, out the window. I would not implicate Papa, since Father Amadi obviously disagreed. (Adichie 175)

Father Amadi opens new vistas to the narrator. Consequently, she falls in love with the young priest. He causes her to realize her sexuality and notices for the first time that she has grown into a fine young woman.

Conclusion

The novel depicts the  impact of socio-economic and political problems on the institution of the family, as seen through the eyes of a fifteen-year old girl. After independence, the country slides into despotism, tyranny and corruption. These combine to inflict deadly blows on families and households. The most affected is Eugene’s family, where the air is rife with oppression and lack of freedom. Eugene struggles to make his home and family a unique one.

I find the novel quite informative as it is entertaining. The depiction of the characters, the plot and the timely themes is a strong point for the author (Hewett n.p.). Family problems are rampant in the world today, and maybe people reading this text will be glad to learn that it is still possible to have a happy and contented family.

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