By John Chukwuma Ajakah
Nigerian born author, Chimamanda NgozAdichie unveils the portrait of a tyrant in her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, first published in 2003 by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. The novel is an amazing exploration of the psyche of a highly militarized society. It portrays the family as a microcosm of the larger society. The compelling narrative reveals the dynamics of group behavior in a militarized society, where many family units and interpersonal relationships at various levels are conditioned to re-enact the unhealthy pattern set by the political gladiators who use draconic rules to perpetuate themselves in power. The protagonist in this novel is portrayed as a tyrant with enormous power to crush every form of opposition. However, rebellion erupts from unlikely quarters and he eventually becomes a victim of the obnoxious system he had created.
Purple Hibiscus is set in South-Eastern Nigeria, but it captures the prevailing socio-economic and political climate in the country during the military regimes of Generals Ibrahim Babaginda and Sani Abacha with the ill contrived,’ Interim Government’ of Chief Ernest Shonekan in between. The dispensation covered reveals reigns of terror fraught with unpopular policies, blatant disregard for the rule of law, abuse of human rights, financial indiscipline, senseless killings and other atrocities. The prevailing socio-economic environment captured in the narrative, echoes the era of incessant industrial actions by labour unions and high cost of living-hyper-inflation, scarcity of fuel with long unending queues at filling stations. Most of the events in the novel occur in the protagonist’s residence in Enugu. Some of the incidents take place in his country home in the village, where his aged father resides while others occur at the university community of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where Aunty Ifeoma, his only sister lectures.
The novel revolves around an elitist family, whose head, Eugene, was raised from obscurity to prominence through personal struggles. The protagonist is portrayed as a successful business mogul – an industrialist and entrepreneur with chains of business concerns and international connections. His immediate family members live a regimented life as he regulates their behavior, schedules the daily routines and imposes his Catholic dogmas on them. His morbid fear for failure and poverty is the catalyst for his unrivaled success. His father had been so poor that he had to work extremely hard to win scholarships ahead of other students to go through school. Now a millionaire and success by every standard, Eugene wants nothing less from his children, Kambili and Jaja. They must be the best among their equals, taking the first position in every examination they sit for. He provides them with every resource and even serves as a patron to the schools. No excuse for failure. To him, failure includes being the second best in any contest. Perhaps, he means well, but this obsession for excellence places the children under avoidable pressure. The resulting stress sometimes, leads to a breakdown which Kambili experiences once and ends the term in the unpardonable second position forcing Eugene to visit the school and tells his children that ‘he did not spend so much money on Daughters of the Immaculate Heart and St. Nicholas to have other children come first’( p.39).
The protagonist masquerades as a devout Catholic, philanthropist, moralist and social crusader in public purview. At home, he sets an unrealistic standard of behavior. As a disciplinarian, he rules the family with the vehemence of a despot subjecting his wife, Beatrice, and children to traumatic experiences that eventually tear the family apart. Eugene dies of poisoning administered in his tea by his supposedly docile and submissive wife with the connivance of the amiable home help, Sisi. Jaja claims responsibility for the murder to exonerate his mother and save her from further trauma.
The novel portrays diverse thematic concerns. These include hypocrisy which is realized through the main character, Eugene who generously gives and serves the public in various capacities and projects the image of a benevolent philanthropist, but cruelly maltreats members of his household. For instance, he gives bags of rice to the church, schools and widows, but could not provide a cup of rice for his impoverished father whom he condemns as a pagan.
Political instability, occasioned by incessant military incursions into politics is another theme explored in the novel. The arrest, torture and killing of journalists and other forms of human rights abuses as evidenced in the incarceration of the editor of The Standard, Ade Coker, exemplifies this era. There are also, the clandestine meetings of politicians – represented by members of the Democratic Coalition, with men of influence like Eugene. There is also the theme of tradition and cultural heritage as revealed in the traditional village life setting and infusion of folklores in the novel. Cultural clash occurs in Eugene’s futile efforts to indoctrinate members of his extended family into Catholicism. The theme of perfectionism is captured through Eugene’s high expectations of his children who must take the first position in every examination at school, the products from his factories sell more than any other brand in the market just as his newspaper, The Standard maintains the lead over its contemporaries. The theme of death and destruction is explored through the death and burial of Papa-Nnuku, the poisoning and subsequent death of the hero, Eugene, the disintegration of his wealthy family as well as the callous murder of perceived opponents of the dictatorial government.
The novel features many characters, whose roles are very significant in the development of its plot. However, the emphasis is on the unveiling of the portrait of the protagonist, Eugene, as a tyrant. Most of the characters are members of his nuclear and extended family. Minor characters in the story appear to complement his personality. The writer portrays him as a two- faced masquerade, who shows the attractive feminine face to the public while concealing the scary ugly side known to the family. Eugene uses his newspaper, The Standard to fight the government especially against human rights abuses, but he often beats his wife, Beatrice, to a pulp. After the beating, he rushes her to a hospital. Sometimes, she loses a pregnancy before recuperating to resume duties as a wife and mother.
The complete picture emerges from the narrator’s vivid description of Eugene as a father, whose ideals she innocently tries to imbibe with the passion of a loving daughter. Kambili, with the innocence of a child, tries to tell of a loving father, her hero, and leaves the reader to identify the flaws without berating him for being brutish. For instance, she reveals Eugene’s attitude to his aged father, Papa- Nnuku, her grandfather. Eugene neglects the old man, leaving him in abject poverty while donating foodstuff and materials worth millions of naira to charitable organizations, schools, churches and strangers. He despicably describes his father as a pagan and warns his children to avoid any close contact with him. He gets enraged on learning that the children had slept in the same apartment with their grandfather and drives to Nsukka the next day to cut short their holiday with Ifeoma who had brought the old man for medical observation.
On their return, he adopts cruel cleansing measures to cleanse them of the contamination and what he refers to as ‘sin of omission’. He calls Kambili into the bathroom and after coercing her to confess, gets her into the bathtub and pours scalding hot water on her feet. As she waits for the imminent peeling that would follow this assault, the sadist returns to say, ‘Everything I do for you, I do for your own good…’ (p.196).
The protagonist maintains a pious posture through the narrative, taking the family regularly to Father Benedict at the church for confession, communion, Ash Wednesday, and other religious rituals. He would almost kill anyone who fails to adhere strictly to his well outlined routine. Though he provides enough money for a lavish ceremony, he would not participate in his own father’s funeral because he considers him a heathen.