Multiplicity of Voices in Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus is discussed here as a dialogic novel, with a focus on multiple consciousness and the multi-voiced perspective of the characters, and the interpretation of the characters and the novel based on the ensuing consciousnesses. Bakhtin’s idea of dialogism and polyphony is a new way of critical thinking, which literally means many voiced and enables the voices of the characters to be liberated from the influence of the authorial or an authoritative voice which is seen predominant in a monologic novel. A brief idea of the concept of Dialogism and multiplicity of voices are initially discussed before actually probing into the actual discussion of plurality of voices in Purple Hibiscus.
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in one of her TED talks cautioned her readers about the ‘dangers of a single story’. Her immediate concern, in fact, was the stereotypes of Africa disseminated throughout the world through stories, opinions and observations that apparently contributed to constructing the image of Africa and relegated its people to a marginalized stature which they do not deserve. It is probably true that Adichie has contested the prevalence of single stories through her fictional works as well, in the sense that she brings out in her works an atmosphere of polyvocality. Thus viewed, in order to contest the ‘single story’ she makes deliberate attempts to make multiple voices and perspectives prevail in her fictional realms. This inclination to celebrate multiplicity of voices in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus can be approached using some of the key concepts in Bakhtin’s study of the novel, particularly his idea of dialogism. Apparently, considering an overview of Dialogism and a dialogic novel will be appropriate, before moving on to the subject of analyzing different consciousness and polyphony in Purple Hibiscus.
Dialogism is a concept used by the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin to study, in a piece of literary work, the interconnectedness of the instances of past and present, and among the characters which leaves the understanding and meaning open without any authoritative control. In contrast with a dialogic novel, a monologic novel is one where a single voice is heard throughout. It could be the author directly or the narrator/protagonist in the novel. That could be the final voice too. Other characters become or act merely as puppets in the hands of the main character. Whereas in a dialogic or polyphonic novel, the protagonist’s consciousness is constructed upon the consciousness of the self and of the world and people around. Thus each character, associated directly or indirectly with the protagonist, becomes important in its own way and enjoys democracy of voices and a freedom from authorial manipulations. Each character’s voice is heard distinctly without which the decoding of the ideology becomes constrained. What culminates finally is a multiple consciousness and hence a multiplicity of voices.
Adichie’s debut novel Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003, deals with the post-colonial Nigeria, the conflict between traditional Igbo culture and Christianity, the civil wars and coups and its impact on the political stability of the then Nigerian government and more specifically the impact it had on the University of Nigeria. The novel centres on a fifteen-year-old homodiegetic female narrator Kambili Achike, who compares the dreary life in her house which is crippled and suffocated under the influence of her patriarchal father and the life in her cousins’ house which is full of gaiety and freedom under the governance of her aunt Ifeoma, who is an epitome of feminism. No character in the novel is judged either good or bad, neither by the narrator nor by the readers who can merely pass rather critical comments than judging the characters as can be seen in a monologic novel. Nevertheless, the meaning is evolved by a complete participation of the author, the narrator and the reader together. This trait has been pointed out by Bakhtin in his work Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics: … a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the others; this interaction provides no support for the viewer who would objectify an entire event according to some ordinary monologic category (thematically, lyrically or cognitively)-and this consequently makes the viewer also a participant.
In a monologic novel, the author uses the narrator in the novel as a tool to express his/her thematic idea or philosophy. Eventually, the narrator takes the major part in describing a character and tends to create an objectified world, and the consciousness that has evolved is essentially authorial or a mere projection of the author. Bakhtin in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, observes that in a monologic novel only the authorial consciousness prevails instead of the presence of different consciousnesses and interactions between them. And what resulted, instead of an event of interaction between fully valid consciousnesses, was in the first instance a philosophical monologue, and in the second instance a monologically understood, objectified world, a world corresponding to a single and unified authorial consciousness. There are many instances in Purple Hibiscus that affirms that the novel is dialogic not monologic. The reader is able to hear a multitude of voices prevalent within and around the narrator Kambili, who, instead of commenting on the other characters and the prevailing situation in her own perspective, allows a democracy of voices. This deliberation focusses on how the narrator’s consciousness is constructed upon the voices of the self and other major characters – her father Eugene, her aunt Ifeoma and a native church priest Father Amadi, who influence her at various planes.
Firstly, Kambili, though she’s at the threshold of her youth, she is yet treated as a small child by her father Eugene and for the most part of the novel she idolizes her father and lets her father decide upon what is best for her. Karen Bruce in her essay points out that ‘Kambili has internalised her father’s authority to such an extent that it has become an unquestioned part of the way she experiences and interacts with the world’. Eventually, because of the father’s intimidating attitude, she becomes tongue-tied and stuttered whenever she was made to talk. When Mother Lucy asked her to say the pledge after the National Anthem, she could not immediately respond. Kambili says “I cleared my throat, willed the words to come. I knew them, thought them. But they would not come.” This nature forced her mates in her class mistake her for being headstrong and to call her as ‘backyard snob’. She says “I remained a backyard snob to most of my class girls until the end of term.”
Secondly, there is another consciousness of her which the reader observes through the voice of Aunt Ifeoma. Aunt Ifeoma is Eugene’s sister who helps Kambili to identify her blossoming youth. She tells her “You have grown so much”. Eugene differed from his sister Ifeoma in many respects. This difference can well be perceived from Kambili’s words: Every time Aunty Ifeoma spoke to Papa, my heart stopped then started again in a hurry. It was the flippant tone; she did not seem to recognize that it was Papa, that he was different, special. I wanted to reach out and press her lips shut and get some of that shiny bronze lipstick on my fingers. Though the expression seems quite simple, yet the reader is able to hear a plurality of voices, which in turn evoke multiple consciousnesses with respect to the characters and the plot. The reader is able to form contrasting opinions about Eugene and Aunt Ifeoma. From the words of Kambili, the consciousness that she gains about her father Eugene is that he is different and special, which implies that he is extraordinary and distinct from other men. Eugene is not a character who can be readily defined because of the presence of many voices that allow to form more than a single consciousness about Eugene and account for his complex and paradoxical nature in the novel. Daria Tunca in her article observes that “Eugene, is a staunch Catholic with a multifaceted personality that can only be captured in a series of paradoxes… ”. He is very orthodox in his Catholic faith and is not able to forgive anything anti-Christian especially the heathen way of living which his ancestors belonged including his own father, Papa-Nnukwu. He not only addresses his father as belonged to ‘Godless men’ but also dismissed him as a heathen who, according to Eugene, belonged to hell. Kambili tells that “When Papa prayed for Papa-Nnukwu, he asked only that God convert him and save him from the raging fires of hell.” It seems he is more attached to the faith he had embraced than to his father. He never visited his sick and old father, not even on his demise, and gave little money for his sustenance, too little compared to the Christmas bonus he offered his car driver, as the driver is a Christian.
“Papa himself never greeted Papa-Nnukwu, never visited him, but he sent slim wads of naira through Kevin or through one of our umunna members, slimmer wads than he gave Kevin as a Christmas bonus.” The reader is able to hear voices about Papa-Nnukwu, who according to Eugene, is a Pagan and his final abode is hell fire if he fails to turn towards Christianity. And, according to Aunt Ifeoma, he is a tradionalist and an adherent of traditional Igbo culture and value. “Your Papa-Nnukwu is not a pagan, Kambili, he is a traditionalist, Aunty Ifeoma said.”
As far as Eugene is concerned, he is patriarchy personified, who beat his wife and children and inflicted severe punishment upon his children when they went wrong or committed a sin. He beat his pregnant wife so much that she miscarried. Paradoxically, he carries her and admits her in the hospital and also attends her as a lovable husband. When there is a civil war, it is seen that Eugene is not able to stand military coups and he criticizes the Nigerian government for the atrocities committed against the people. “Coups begat coups, he said, telling us about the bloody coups of the sixties, which ended up in civil war…” On the flip side, he acts violently when his children made mistakes and poured hot water over Kambili’s feet and permanently injured his son Jaja’s finger.
Kambili, while commenting on Ifeoma, says that her tone was flippant when she spoke to Eugene and she was wearing a shiny bronze lipstick too. In fact, Eugene hated women wearing shorts, not covering their heads and he is also against women wearing lipstick. But, Ifeoma wore lipstick and she did not mind her teen-aged daughter Amaka wearing shorts or lipstick. Through this voice of Kambili, the consciousness one is able to form about Ifeoma is that she is an embodiment of feminism and against all the conventions and stereotypes of women. Since Kambili wants to shut Aunt Ifeoma’s lips implying that women should not talk flippantly in front of a man, and wipe off the shiny lipstick, the reader is able to witness another consciousness about Kambili which is the voice of her own inner self. This voice tells that Kambili celebrated her father and was able to fit herself comfortably into the established stereotypes of women, because when she came out she covered her head and neither did she wear lipstick nor shorts. But when Kambili and her brother Jaja went and stayed with Aunt Ifeoma’s family in Nsukka, after she invited them, they realized the value of freedom, that was rampant in Ifeoma’s house. Adichie uses images of hibiscus to create consciousness that voice for freedom. Kambili says that Aunt Ifeoma grew hibiscus plants that produced purple flowers which imply change and deviation from accepted codes. When Jaja defied his father Eugene, Kambili compared his defiance to the purple hibiscus in Aunt Ifeoma’s house. She says “Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, … A freedom to be, to do.”
At the same time, Kambili says that hibiscuses grown in her father’s compound produced usual red flowers which illustrate convention and stereotypes. Kambili says “But my memories did not start at Nsukka. They started before, when all the hibiscuses in our front yard were a startling red.” (16) She uses the term ‘startling red’ which also implies the impending danger. Finally, a third voice is heard through the character of Father Amadi that identifies the inherent positive qualities in Kambili that were long repressed, and evokes a new consciousness about her. Kambili meets Father Amadi, who is the priest of a local parish in Nsukka, while she was on a vacation to Aunt Ifeoma’s house. Father Amadi notices that she has good legs for running and capable of many things. She develops an adolescent love for Father Amadi and allows him to bring the changes he desired in her. After this meeting she played volleyball in her school and was no more called a ‘backyard snob’. She says that “I joined the group of girls on the volleyball field on the second day of school. I did not hear the whispers of ‘backyard snob’ or the ridiculing laughter. I did not notice the amused pinches they gave one another. I stood waiting with my hands clasped until I was picked. I saw only Father Amadi’s clay-colored face and heard only ‘You have good legs for running.’”
It is seen that Purple Hibiscus glorifies a multiplicity of voices allowing all the characters to interact with each other, that are neither streamlined by the narrator nor by an authorial voice, enabling the reader to appreciate and admire Purple Hibiscus as a polyphonic novel. As Adichie says a single story is dangerous, she made all her characters in Purple Hibiscus independent and thus rendered the novel, as Bakhtin puts, “dialogic through and through”.
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