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Chimamanda Adichie’s “Purple Hibiscus” revolves around a fifteen-year-old girl named Kambili living during a colonial period in Nigeria. The book showcases how the characters are marginalized, excluded, or silenced based on their social groups. Kambili, Jaja, and their mother Beatrice, all belonging to the high-class, are suppressed at the beginning of the book. Aunty Ifeoma and her children, Amaka, and Ohiora, from the lower class, are excluded throughout the book and silenced toward the end. Papa Nnukwu, also from the lower class, is excluded in the middle of the book. There seems to be a system of exclusion or silencing that is dependent on the characters’ social group.
As readers, we learn that Kambili is a timid and shy girl, often silent and occasionally stuttering in her speech. Her silence originates from her fear of her father Eugene, who is highly religious and austere. His strict religious beliefs and pride lead him to be abusive toward his family. For instance, as described between pages 100 and 103, Kambili is required to eat in order to take a Panadol for her period cramps even before Mass. But when her father finds her eating the cornflakes, as instructed by her mother, he beats her, Jaja, and Mama Beatrice. The volatile relationship she has with her father silences her due to fear. Kambili lives in perpetual fear that her words might disappoint her father, or worse, instigate his wrath. She also suffers from public censure; her classmates call her a “backyard,” and Amaka and her friends label her a “snob” and a “sheep,” misunderstanding the true reason behind her silence.
How it works
Mama Beatrice rarely speaks out, as she too is silenced by Eugene. She endures recurrent miscarriages due to his violence. It is striking to note that every time she is accosted by Eugene, she polishes her ballet figurines. For instance, on page 192, Kambili notices her polishing the etagere while nursing a swollen face. When asked about it, she simply replies, “yesterday.” She never discusses Eugene’s violence, and neither do her children. Adichie thereby illustrates that even individuals of high social status can be silenced by those who hold power over them.
Secondly, Aunty Ifeoma, a widow, works at a university and raises three kids. Judging from Kambili’s description of her home, she seems to be living a low-class life. For example, Kambili said she noticed “the ceiling, how low it was (…) unlike home” (p.112), and that the air smelled like kerosene. It seems like Ifeoma has excluded herself and her children from the affluent lifestyle that Eugene’s family leads, even though Eugene’s wealth could potentially have been shared with her. She remains true to her country’s traditions, unlike her brother. She once said “sometimes life begins when marriage ends” (p.75), meaning that despite her husband’s death and lack of money, she manages her life quite well. On the contrary, her father, Papa Nnukwu, is excluded from Eugene’s life because he is a traditionalist and “not Catholic”. Papa Eugene perceives him as “a pagan” and doesn’t want his children to be close to him. For instance, on page 61, he didn’t want his children to stay at Nnukwu’s home longer than fifteen minutes. The exclusion of low-class people can sometimes be imposed by the superior class, or they might choose to exclude themselves to avoid potential problems.
Suddenly, the pattern begins to shift. After Papa Eugene’s death, Kambili emerges as more talkative and independent as her father’s oppressive silence is no longer present. However, Mama Beatrice fell silent because of the crime she committed. Despite confessing to everyone, including the media, that she murdered Papa Eugene, no one believed her. Consequently, she became silent. During the flashbacks, we see Jaja change: he began talking back to his father and became independent. However, his brutal experiences in prison rendered him mute. He even lost the ability to communicate with his eyes, which was how he used to connect with Kambili when she visited him at the prison. Among the wealthy class, Kambili is the only one who is no longer silent. In the low class, not much has been heard about Aunty Ifeoma, but she has integrated herself into the family despite being afar as she moved to America. In the last chapter, she sent Jaja a recording of the family’s voices to comfort him, which demonstrates that she will always be a part of Kambili’s family.
In conclusion, there are times when the high-class people can be either silent or silenced while the low class can be excluded based on their beliefs. This pattern can alter due to the absence of the cause. Adichie highlights how social groups can have their disadvantages.
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