|Purple Hibiscus Study Guide
Understanding Nigeria and Its Role in the Novel
The British took control of Nigeria during the late 1800s and early 1900s and it remained a British colony until 1960 when Nigeria gained its independence. After years of colonization and long-standing regional tensions, Nigeria’s newly declared independent government lacked stability and a series of military coups ensued.
Kambili and her family are members of one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Igbo. After a coup in 1966, army leaders suspended the national and regional constitutions causing even more turmoil. Later that year, another coup established a new leader, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon. The turmoil in the country eventually resulted in the politically-motivated massacre of Igbo people in the North. The leader of the Igbo, Chukwuemeka O. Ojukwu, declared the Igbo region the independent Republic of Biafra, resulting in a bloody civil war between Biafra and Nigeria. The secession effort eventually failed, and Biafra was reintegrated into Nigeria in 1970.
While the country’s economic situation improved after this civil war due to its oil reserves, corruption and unemployment persisted, which led to further instability and successive coups. The chaos and violence under the leader Big Oga in Purple Hibiscus echoes the atmosphere during the reign of General Sani Abacha who took over Nigeria in 1993. During this time, a well-known writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed along with other human rights activists and Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations. Abacha died in 1998 and was succeeded by General Abdul salam Abubakar who attempted to restore order. He released political prisoners and held elections. A former leader who was imprisoned during the rule of Abacha, General Olusegun Obasanjo, was inaugurated as president of Nigeria in 1999.
Culturally, Nigeria has over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups, but the three largest are the Igbo (or Ibo) in the East, the Hausa in the North, and the Yoruba in the West. As for religion, about half the country is Muslim and approximately forty percent is Christian. Traditional religion, based on the worship of many gods and spirits, is still practiced today.
DISCUSSION AND WRITING
Structure, Technique, and Plot
1. In an interview with the author on public radio, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains why she chose to have a younger narrator, “I think a younger narrator made me more careful not to overburden my fiction with polemics, or with my own politics. It is also more believable to see the complexities and absurdities of religion through the eyes of a younger person who is not cynical or jaded.” Discuss the advantages in using a younger narrator. How does it affect the way that the reader understands the story?
2. The novel begins with a flashback. Is this an effective narrative device? Does it suggest the narrator has a better grasp of the meaning of the various events as they unfold in the novel?
3. The novel is composed of four sections. Explain the significance of the four section headings, focusing on the key words and concepts: “gods” and “spirits,” “breaking” and “pieces,” and “speaking” and “silence.” Why is the novel structured around Palm Sunday?
4. In some respects, Kambili’s story is similar to a traditional form of the novel called a bildungsroman. A bildungsroman follows the intellectual and moral development of a young character, usually a boy, as he discovers a place for himself in the world. While this novel is more modern than traditional, Purple Hibiscus is the story of a young character who seeks to define herself in a world beyond the one her father created for her. Discuss how the book might be seen as an example of a bildungsroman.
Character and Conflict
1. How does Kambili change during the course of the novel? Discuss, in general, ways in which Kambili needs to change and the events and characters that bring about the changes.
2. Silence is almost another character in the novel.
• Discuss the types of silence in the novel, specifically regarding Kambili. For example, she mentions early in the story that her family asked “each other questions whose answers we already knew. Perhaps it was so that we would not ask the other questions, the ones whose answers we did not want to know”[p.23]. Characterize this silence and why it exists in her family. How does this silence interfere with Kambili’s maturation?
• Does this kind of silence persist until the end of the novel?
• At another point early in the story, Kambili must speak in front of her classmates, “I cleared my throat, willed the words to come. I knew them, thought them. But they would not come”[p.48]. How is this silence different from the silence described above? When does Kambili begin to find her voice?
• Is it problematic to have a narrator who is always struggling to find her words?
3. In what ways is Kambili isolated by silence? Prior to Nsukka, is there any community that Kambili feels a part of?
4. As a result of her need to discover her own voice, Kambili is sensitive to the voices of others. It is not only what they say that is important, but how they say it. What are her first impressions of her aunt’s voice? Of the voices of her cousins? Of Father Amadi? Why are these voices so important to Kambili?
5. As opposed to her home, Kambili says of her aunt’s house, “Words spurted from everyone, often not seeking and not getting any response”[p.120]. Why does Kambili finally speak up at her aunt’s house?
6. Why is it important for Kambili to make connections with other people in order to learn more about herself?
7. Discuss the final paragraph of the novel. What does it signify about how she feels about herself and her future?
8. In the first chapter, Kambili describes sipping her father’s tea. He asks his children if they would like what he calls a “love sip.” Kambili says, “The tea was always too hot, always burned my tongue. . . . But it didn’t matter, because I knew that when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa’s love into me”[p.8]. How does this experience help to characterize the relationship between Kambili and her father?
9. Kambili fears her father, yet she also loves and admires him. That love and fear persist until the end of the novel. After all his abuse, why does she still feel this way? In turn, after her father beats his children, he shows tremendous remorse. How does Kambili feel about his remorse? Do her feelings about her father’s behavior change during the course of the novel?
10. Her father is an important figure in the local church and in the community. Why is there such a stark contrast between his public persona and his behavior at home? Discuss the possible reasons for the contradiction in his behavior. Does this contradiction address any larger questions about the political situation in Nigeria?
11. How does her father react to news of what is going on in Nigeria and the killing of his editor? Despite all his power at home, does he have any real power in the country’s politics?
12. Why does her Aunty Ifeoma say that Kambili’s father is a “colonial product?” In what ways does her father show the influence of colonialism?
13. Discuss the incident in which her father almost beats Kambili to death. What precipitates this beating? What does this incident represent for Kambili? In what ways does it show that Kambili has changed after her visit to Nsukka? What does this moment mean for Kambili’s relationship with her father?
14. What does Kambili learn from her father? How has he damaged her? Has he helped her in any way?
15. How does Kambili react to the news of her father’s death? Is it surprising that after all that she has suffered that she feels sadness?
16. What role does her mother play in Kambili’s life? In what ways does she influence Kambili?
17. How does her mother deal with the abuse of both herself and her children? Kambili says of her mother, “there is so much that she did not mind”[p.19] and that her mother “spoke the way a bird eats, in small amounts”[p.20]. What does Kambili think of her mother? Does she fully understand her parent’s relationship?
18. The opening of the book describes the breaking of her mother’s figurines. Why does her mother pay such loving attention to them? At one moment, Kambili describes her mother “needing” the figurines. Why would she “need” them? Is it significant that they are delicate figures of ballet dancers?
19. What is her mother’s attitude toward her father and marriage in general? For example, early in the novel, she explains to Kambili that her father stayed with her even though she had difficulty having more children. How does her perception differ from Kambili’s Aunty Ifeoma?
20. Why does Kambili’s mother come to Nsukka? Why does she go back to her husband? At one point, she says to Aunty Ifeoma, “Where would I go if I leave Eugene’s house? Tell me, where would I go?”[p.250] Does her situation speak to any larger issues about the situation for some women in Nigeria?
21. Why does Kambili’s mother poison her husband? How has she changed by the end of the novel? In what ways does she still suffer after her husband’s death? Kambili speculates that people don’t question her mother’s physical deterioration because they believe it is caused by grief and denial. This implies that Kambili thinks it is something other than grief and denial. Discuss what else could have caused the dramatic changes in her mother’s appearance and in her demeanor.
22. How has Kambili’s relationship with her mother evolved?
23. What does it mean to Kambili when her mother thanks her at the end of the novel? Why does it make Kambili so happy? Does it show that their relationship has changed?
24. How does Kambili feel about her brother? How does her perception of him change during the course of the novel? Discuss their relationship and his importance to Kambili.
25. What incidents show her that her brother yearns for change in his life? This is clear in his fierce defiance of his father on Palm Sunday, but find other examples which lead up to this moment.
26. In what ways does Jaja differ from his sister in how he finally asserts his independence?
27. The book begins with Jaja’s rebellion against his father. Do his actions really precipitate everything falling apart, and why?
28. When Jaja stands up to his father, he says “‘Then I will die.’ Fear had darkened Jaja’s eyes to the color of coal tar, but he looked Papa in the face now”[p.7]. Even though the reader isn’t yet acquainted fully with Kambili and her family, it is clear how important Jaja’s words and actions are. How can the reader tell that this is a pivotal moment? How does Kambili react?
29. Why does Jaja always try and take the blame? For example, he takes the blame for poisoning his father and goes to jail. Is there something particular to his culture that compels Jaja to act this way?
30. When Jaja and Kambili first visit their Aunty Ifeoma, Jaja notices a beautiful flower in her yard, the purple hibiscus mentioned in the title of the novel. Why is Jaja attracted to the flower? What is the significance in Jaja bringing it back to plant in their yard at home? Why is Jaja the one who is most interested in the purple hibiscus? What does the flower represent in the book?
31. Discuss the idea of freedom as it is presented in the novel. Do Kambili, her brother, and mother ever experience freedom?
32. Does Jaja suffer more than Kambili? If so, in what way? At one point, Jaja and Kambili discuss the emotional damage suffered by the daughter of the slain editor of her father’s newspaper, “She will never heal”[p.259]. Will Jaja ever heal? Discuss the final scene with Jaja in prison. What has prison done to him?
33. Discuss how Jaja and Kambili communicate. Is it always with words?
34. Aunty Ifeoma tells her children, Kambili, and Jaja a story about another Jaja in Nigerian history. What is the significance? Why is she telling this story? How does it relate to Jaja?
35. How does Kambili initially describe her aunt to the reader?
36. Discuss Kambili’s first impressions of her aunt’s home. How does it contrast with the atmosphere of her own home? Is she taken with it at first? If not, what does she grow to appreciate?
37. What women role models does Kambili have to follow? Contrast Aunty Ifeoma with Kambili’s mother. What does she learn about being a woman from these two characters. Contrast their ideas, the way they talk, the way they dress, and, in general, the way the two women live.
38. Contrast Aunty Ifeoma with her brother, Kambili’s father. What do they think of one another? What is the most significant aspect of their relationship for Kambili? What different aspects of Nigerian culture do they represent? In what ways are they similar?
39. What does Kambili admire about her aunt? What does Kambili learn from her aunt and how does she help Kambili develop a stronger sense of self?
40. Discuss Kambili’s relationship with Amaka and how it evolves throughout the course of the novel. What are her first impressions? How is Amaka different from Kambili?
41. Why is Amaka somewhat hostile to her cousin during her visit with Kambili’s family and then again when Kambili and Jaja come to stay with them?
42. What does Kambili admire about Amaka? Why is she so important to Kambili?
43. Kambili is forbidden to have a real, substantive relationship with her grandfather. Why is her father hostile towards him? Why does he impose so many restrictions on his children’s visits? Describe their visit to their grandfather. What does Kambili notice about her grandfather during these restricted visits?
44. Kambili’s cousins are very close to their grandfather and they are delighted when he tells stories like the one about the Tortoise and the cracked shell. What does this scene reveal about Kambili?
45. Why does Aunty Ifeoma ask Kambili to watch Papa-Nnukwu pray? What does she learn? What surprises her about his prayers? Is there anything significant about the words that Kambili uses to describe his ritual?
46. How does Kambili feel when Papa-Nnukwu dies?
47. Why does the unfinished portrait of him become so important? What is the significance in her choosing to use this as her act of rebellion against her father?
48. Why is it significant that Amaka is the one who is closest to her grandfather?
49. What is different about Father Amadi? Contrast Father Amadi with Father Benedict.
50. Although Kambili meets Father Amadi when she travels to Nsukka, this is not the first time that Father Amadi appears in the novel. Where does he make his first appearance, and why is it important?
51. What attracts Kambili to Father Amadi? What does she admire about him? Why does she fall in love with him? Find examples of how she behaves differently around him? How does he make her feel?
52. Her love for Father Amadi changes as the novel progresses. Why is he so important to Kambili developing a stronger sense of self, and what important lessons does she learn from him?
Politics and Culture
53. In what ways does this novel show a clash of cultures between pre- and postcolonial Nigeria? How do the effects of colonialism manifest themselves in the various characters in the novel? Kambili’s father? Papa Nnukwu? Father Amadi?
54. What is the role of religion in the novel? What is Kambili’s relationship to Catholicism? How does it make her feel? What is the relationship of the religion brought by colonialism to the traditional religion of ancestral worship?
55. Discuss the significance of Kambili’s pilgrimage to Aokpe. What does it reveal about her feelings toward religion?
56. How does the political situation in Nigeria affect the plot?
57. What does Kambili think about the political situation? Is she fully able to understand what is going on or does this knowledge grow during the course of the novel. Her father’s world suffocates her, but in other ways, it protects her. Does Kambili really experience what is going on in the outside world?
58. Why does the author mention the country’s current leader, Big Oga, and the politically motivated killing of Nwankiti Ogechi? What does it say about her father?
59. Does the theme of silence in the novel raise a larger question about the political situation in Nigeria?
60. In what way does Kambili’s familial situation and collapse resemble the political situation in Nigeria? Amaka and her brother, Obiora, have very different opinions about what the family should do as the political situation deteriorates. Obiora believes they should leave and go to the United States while Amaka wants to stay, “What do you mean, leave? Why do we have to run away from our own country? Why can’t we fix it?”[p.232]. Does this reflect the larger conflict that exists in Nigeria and other countries with similar political circumstances? Why does Aunty Ifeoma feel she must go to America? Discuss the incidents and issues which force her to make this decision. What will their life be like in America? How does Kambili feel about their departure?
In Depth Discussion
1. In many ways, the first chapter is a microcosm of the entire novel. Virtually every important theme and character is introduced. Document these elements in the first chapter, and discuss how they are important to Kambili’s development and what role they play in the story.
2. In one of her many descriptions of her aunt, Kambili says, “When she barged into the dining room upstairs, I imagined a proud ancient forebear, walking miles to fetch water in homemade clay pots, nursing babies until they walked and talked, fighting wars with machetes sharpened on sun-warmed stone. She filled a room”[p.80]. In contrast, the narrator in Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, says, “No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man.” These thoughts evoke very different images of women in Nigerian culture. Discuss the role of women in the novel as it is presented through Kambili’s mother and her aunt. As a young woman, how does Kambili view her choices? Is Nigeria’s patriarchal past present in the novel?
3. Discuss in detail all the key moments in the story which lead to Kambili’s development and mark its similarity to a true bildungsroman. As this traditionally refers to a male character, discuss what is different about defining one’s place in the world if you are a young woman. This might be an opportunity to introduce students to feminist literary criticism such as Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice.
BEYOND THE BOOK
1. The first line of the novel regarding things falling apart is clearly a reference to Chinua Achebe. Discuss the connection between the two writers. Compare Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart with Purple Hibiscus and discuss how Nigeria is represented in each story, how the question of gender is addressed in each story, and how Adichie incorporates aspects of Achebe’s style and concerns into her own narrative voice.
2. Read Adichie’s short stories, “The American Embassy,” “Half of a Yellow Sun,” “New Husband,” and “Light Skin,” and compare and contrast them with Purple Hibiscus.
• Do any themes recur?
• Each story explores different roles for women in Nigeria. For example, compare the women in “New Husband” and “The American Embassy” with the female characters in Purple Hibiscus.
• “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “The American Embassy” deal more explicitly with the political situation in Nigeria. Compare these stories with Purple Hibiscus. What aspects of Nigerian culture are revealed in each? What does the reader learn about the human impact of the political situation in Nigeria?
3. As with the novel, Achebe is mentioned again in the story, “Light Skin.” Discuss his influence on Adichie and why he figures so prominently in her writing.
OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST
Additional coming-of-age novels:
Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat
Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid
Lucy, Jamaica Kincaid
Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga
Graceland, Chris Abani
Aké: The Years of Childhood, Wole Soyinka
Other titles by Nigerian writers:
Waiting for an Angel, Helon Habila
The Joys of Motherhood, Buchi Emecheta
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
No Longer at Ease, Chinua Achebe
Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe
Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe
The Famished Road, Ben Okri
The Open Sore of a Continent, Wole Soyinka
The Lion and the Jewel, Wole Soyinka
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
This teacher’s guide was written by Karen Iker. Karen Iker has a master’s degree in American literature and has worked in the book publishing industry for ten years.
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