The Theme of Freedom in the novel ‘Purple Hibiscus’
Art classes taught at an early age teach the little learners about the color wheel and mixing colors; when the calming color of blue is mixed with the bold energy of red, a new color called purple is produced. It comes as no surprise that the title of the novel written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Purple Hibiscus leads the readers through page after page of the rich symbolism of flowers, especially the hibiscus flower in both the color red and the unusual color of purple.
As the hibiscus flowers bloom throughout the book, some a fierce red, in contrast to others of a peaceful purple, so does Jaja; rebelling as he searches for hope and the freedom to be and to do without the strict Catholic rule of his traditionalist father. From the very beginning, we are introduced to the red hibiscus flower where they are in full bloom in the garden at Enugu. The deep red flower caught the attention of many as they passed by the house “…when all the hibiscuses in our front yard were a startling red” (Adichie 16). No matter how many people cut them down, the flowers always grew back stronger and redder. The red hibiscus, which can be found all around the outside of their home, was a symbol of the freedom the family seeks on the inside of their home.
“Closer to the house, vibrant bushes of hibiscus reached out and touched one another as if they were exchanging their petals. The purple plants had started to push out sleepy buds but most of the flowers were still on the red ones. They seem to bloom so fast, those red hibiscuses, considering how often Mama cut them to decorate the church altar and how often visitors plucked them as they walked past to their parked cars” (9). The vibrant color of the red; a symbol of anger and violence, hibiscus symbolizes the oppressed family members living under the control and violence of Papa. The beautiful fiery red hibiscus that adorned their yard was deceiving since passersby most likely presumed that the house was just as beautiful on the inside. Fiery red hibiscuses are the only color hibiscus Jaja has seen so far. It is not until he visits Aunty Ifeoma in Nsukka and is surprised to see purple hibiscus because he didn’t even know such a color of hibiscus existed. “Roses and hibiscuses and lilies and Ixora and croton grew side by side like a hand-painted wreath” (112). It is in this garden that Jaja and Kambili saw a purple hibiscus for the first time: “‘that’s a hibiscus, isn’t it, Aunty?’ Jaja asked, staring at a plant close to the barbed wire fencing. ‘I didn’t know there were purple hibiscuses’(128).
The purple hibiscus is more than just a beautiful flower at Aunty Ifeoma’s. These flowers represent the beginning of rebellion, defiance, and the courage to initiate a change. Aunty Ifeoma’s piece of wisdom that “being defiant can be a good thing sometimes,” that “defiance is like marijuana — it is not a bad thing when it is used right” (144). After living with Aunty and their cousins, it doesn’t take Jaja long to discern that things weren’t right in his own home, and came to see how strict and controlling their Papa really was. Sadly, Jaja also knew Papa was never penitent about what he was doing to their family. Jaja knew it was time to make a change. Along with this new realization that change had to happen, Jaja also takes great interest in the unusual purple blooms and brings some home with the hopes of changing the landscaping at Enugu as well.
When the purple hibiscus is brought to Enugu, this is the moment we can see that the family is no longer going to tolerate the physical control and violence of Papa. The purple flowers have been described as “rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom” (16), which also conveys their importance and uniqueness. Aunty Ifeoma has given Jaja specific instructions on how to take care of the purple hibiscus. “…Aunty Ifeoma explains, is that “Hibiscuses [do] not like too much water, but they [do] not like to be too dry, either” (197). They are to be handled with caution, like Mama’s figurines on the delicate glass étagère. Not too much water and not too dry means that the hibiscuses, just like people, need a balance required to survive. After the stalks were planted, Jaja wasn’t sure if they would survive or not.
In a conversation with Aunty Ifeoma, he told her that “the gardener had planted the hibiscus stalks, but that it was still too early to tell if they would live” (202). However, when they do start to bloom, signifying a change, Jaja is first to see it and shows his sister, Kambili, “See, the purple hibiscuses are about to bloom,” Jaja said, as we got out of the car. He was pointing, although I did not need him to. I could see the sleepy, oval-shape buds in the front yard as they swayed in the evening breeze” (253). Jaja has begun to build up his courage and while his actions might appear flippant, he knows he must help his family free themselves from their father’s desecrating actions. Jaja was blooming and beginning to change, just like the purple hibiscus.
Fully bloomed and mature, Jaja has won freedom from his father, symbolized by the purple hibiscus. From beginning to end, we can see the parallel between Jaja and the purple hibiscus. Jaja builds up his courage slowly and carefully almost in sync; as the purple hibiscus, he has planted, takes its time to grow. Not only has Jaja discovered a new flower when he arrived in Nsukka, but he also finds out what true freedom is. Jaja’s disrespectful ways seemed to relate to Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. Freedom to be, to do, and intercede for those you love.
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