Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Gendered Bodies in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus*

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Gendered Bodies in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus*

Article excerpt

The novel Purple Hibiscus, by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, explores the implications of gendered bodies within (and beyond) a patriarchal nuclear family. The text is a Bildungsroman which charts the development of the fifteen-year-old protagonist and compares it with that of her seventeen-year-old brother. Adichie clearly reveals the brutality of patriarchal power, and also provides alternatives to the binary extremes of masculine dominance and feminine subordination. The novel is conceived and marketed as global literature, and it is therefore appropriate to analyse it with the theoretical aid of commentators from the African continent and outside it. The theories I employ include black feminism, or womanism, as interpreted by Alice Walker and Chikwenye Ogunyemi, postcolonialism, hybridity, and bodily symptoms associated with voicelessness, as expressed by Hélène Cixous and Marlene Nourbese Philip. I argue that over the trajectory of the novel the coming of age of the main character and that of her brother are represented in terms of gendered bodies and psyches which are appropriately complex for a novel which uses as its main symbol the hybrid purple hibiscus.

The first-person narrator of Purple Hibiscus is Kambili Achike, whose father, Eugene, is the undisputed patriarch in his family, a respected benefactor in the Roman Catholic church, and Big Man in the community. The novel begins in medias res, with a short chapter whose events occur chronologically after some three-quarters of the events in the text, and which encapsulates the major themes of the novel, including the issue of gendered bodies. The first sentence reads:

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 étagère.1

This sentence effectively sets the scene regarding Eugene's character and the gendered dynamic within the Achike family. In addition, the novel makes reference to Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which likewise focuses on a character whose inflexibility is his undoing. However, while Adichie is paying homage to her famous literary forebear she is also writing back to him from the perspective of a contemporary woman author with an interest in the representation of gendered forms of oppression and the position of women in Nigerian society. As Florence Stratton aptly notes, when Things Fall Apart is read

with a view to examining its relation to patriarchal ideology, the portrayal appears as a means of legitimizing male domination. For, despite his critical stance, Achebe does not relate the brutality of masculinity to the excess of power a patriarchal society makes available to men.2

Adichie addresses a crucial lack in Achebe's text by foregrounding the physical and psychological transformation of a female character, Kambili. As Stratton further comments,

In certain important respects, the female bildungsroman stands in opposition to the entire African male literary tradition - a tradition to which the very notion of female development is alien. For it is a form which, by its very definition, characterizes women as active and dynamic - as developing. Women are, in other words, conceptualized not as the Other but as self-defining. Furthermore, their status as historical subjects is given due recognition. This [...] form [...] seeks to subvert the Manichean allegory of gender by putting female subjectivity in process.3

Over the trajectory of Purple Hibiscus, Kambili, the female hero of the BiIdungsroman, moves from an inability to express herself for fear of her father to an ability to speak, smile, and laugh, indicating her developing control of her own body, subjectivity, and destiny. Her position shifts from adoration of the paterfamilias whose word is law to a much more ambivalent attitude towards both her parents. This shift occurs after she has been exposed to interactions with her aunt, Ifeoma, and her children, Amaka, Obiora, and Chima; her paternal grandfather, Papa-Nnukwu; and a progressive young priest, Father Amadi. …

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