Narrating Justice and Fairness
In its conceptions of justice, fairness, freedom, and equality in society, Purple Hibiscus bears a remarkable resemblance to “Tomorrow is Too Far.” The novel dramatizes the ugliness of systems that allow for absolute patriarchal control over reality, where the male agent determines right and wrong, fairness and unfairness. This observation is in line with Cheryl Stobie’s remarks that patriarchy is one of the infallible systems that Adichie sets out to dethrone in Purple Hibiscus44 The first section, “Breaking Gods” sets the stage for the confrontation in the narrative, a confrontation that attempts to destroy the concept of patriarchal infallibility. “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere.”45 The allusion to Things Fall Apart not only situates Purple Hibiscus in an easily recognizable canon, but also allows us to see the correlation between the patriarchal order in the world of Okonkwo (Things Fall Apart) during colonial times, and that of Eugene (Purple Hibiscus), decades after independence. The confrontation itself is between individuals and the ideology that conceives of power and right as issuing from the paterfamilias. The very existence of family members is contingent upon that of the paterfamilias; their rights, if they have any, issue from his. The typical patriarchal order stands in contrast to the conception of marriage as a union of loving partners who enter into a relationship that presupposes equal rights and mutual respect. It is no accident that things start to fall apart at home and not, for example, in the church or at work. Deji Toye suggests that Eugene is a recreation of Okonkwo.46 Just as Okonkwo brought about the disintegration of his family, so does Eugene cause his family to fall apart. The figurines on the etagere are symbolic ofthe members of the family breaking under the unbearable patriarchal pressure of his presence. Patriarchy literally breaks things up.
Eugene’s adherence to patriarchal thinking is further complicated by his religious fundamentalism. Adichie seems to suggest that these two ideologies destroy the basis for recognition and a meaningful gender relationship in Africa, relationships based on equality and mutual respect between men and women, Cynthia R. Wallace argues that Purple Hibiscus:
certainly participates in a critique of Christian religion, aligning colonial whiteness, conservative Catholicism, and the rule of the father, and exposing their destructive power in the psyche (and body) of the novel’s young narrator Kambili as well as her brother, Jaja and mother Beatrice.47
Wallace’s observation is true, especially when seen from the perspectives of Beatrice and her children. Patriarchy incapacitates the psyche and the body of the subordinates. Kambili feels stifled and disabled by the system that grants her father absolute power over his family. She is horrified to see her father abuse her mother, whose swollen eye is often like the “black-purple color of an overripe avocado.”48 It is not accidental that the figurines are Beatrice’s special possessions and that she is devoted to them just as she is devoted to her children, Kambili and Jaja, who are little more than ordinary statuettes in the eyes of Eugene, the patriarch.
In a touching scene suggestive of the solidarity between mother and daughter, Kambili addresses her mother shortly after her father has thrown his missal at Jaja: “I’m sorry your figurines broke, Mama.”49 This immediate identification with the oppressed is both an invitation to the reader to empathize with her mother and an indication of Kambili’s growing selfawareness. She too might be condemned to the same fate as her mother. Her suspicions are realized soon enough. When Beatrice tells Kambili that she is expecting another child, she also reveals that she has had some miscarriages in her efforts to give birth to another male heir. The Igbo
have a proverb in that regard: Ofu anyaji ishi ugwo-having just one eye
is close to blindness. The more male heirs the more secure a woman is in her husband’s home. Given that only males can be the legitimate heirs to their fathers, any woman who does not give birth to a son is considered a guest in her own home. She can be “sent back to her parents,” meaning that she can be divorced any time, and left without means. Indeed, Eugene’s relatives have urged him to marry other wives or to have concubines, which would assure him more male heirs. The story thus far explains Adichie’s call for a revaluation of the moral fabric of African societies in “We Should All Be Feminists.” A simple switching of perspectives could bring men, who had never imagined themselves in such situations, to question that system.
Adichie paints a sarcastic picture when Beatrice highlights Eugene’s good-heartedness in not marrying another woman.50 It is ironic that she would show such respect for the man who has abused her; this is in line with what Butler describes as a subjects’ psychic identification with their subjection. The irony in this relationship exposes Beatrice’s weakness and allows us to interrogate the system that would tolerate such a situation. Kambili, in a moment of epiphany, following her mother’s disclosure of her efforts to secure legitimate heirs to her father, realizes that she, like her mother, is living a tenuous life created by that culture. Strictly speaking, she has no place in it. It is the awareness of the fragility of the lives of women in Igbo culture that links the narratives of “Tomorrow Is Too Far” and Purple Hibiscus and lends them their most powerful feminist and ethical tenor. Like the protagonist in “Tomorrow Is Too Far,” Kambili accuses her culture, and asks: Why do you hate my body?
In a further feminist emphasis, Eugene leads Kambili and Jaja to believe that his wife is guilty of her own miscarriage and of the beating that preceded it.51 He asks them to pray that God will forgive her. He not only disables his wife physically, he seeks to do so morally. Kambili, perceptive, but still timid, wonders about this: “I did not even think to think what Mama needed to be forgiven for.”52 This narrative suggests that Eugene believes his wife should be forgiven for being a woman because to be a woman is to be in the wrong. Eugene’s train of thought is consistent with the Christian belief that sin came into the world through a woman, Eve, whereas salvation came through a man, Christ. For Eugene, Beatrice’s world is stuck in the image of women derived from his religious faith. In Eugene’s world, conservative Catholic teaching and the Igbo patriarchal tradition are mutually reinforcing.
Besides highlighting the pain inflicted on women, Purple Hibiscus achieves its ethical authority indirectly through the disempowerment of its characters, their silences. We are drawn into the family circle and are allowed to see that Eugene beats his wife badly enough to cause a miscarriage. Then, in the belief that he is keeping Kambili safe from sin, he pours hot water on her feet.53 We feel compelled to challenge the wife to do something, to fight back, to run away, to resist this abuse, to do anything to defy Eugene’s violence. Beatrice’s annoying lethargy compels us to step in to defend her. Her defenselessness confronts our moral world because we have empathized with her and her children as victims of patriarchal violence. In the introductory chapter, I asked a Levinasian question that might aid our reading of these feminist texts: How does the face (the body) of the woman in pain urge us to confront the totality (abstraction) that put her in that condition? This question helps us to appreciate Adichie’s vision in this text. We come face to face with Beatrice and our spontaneity is arrested by her fragility. Would Rawls’s concept of the original position enable Eugene to reexamine the moral consequences of his violent actions toward his wife and children? Could he change his ways if he were to fully confront the needless pain he had inflicted on his wife? If he were to “dream” and imagine himself in the position of his wife and children? Could a switching of perspectives have led him to be fair-minded? These questions are as much for Eugene as they are for the reader (society) whom Adichie invites to think of feminism as fairness.