On Christmas Papa takes the family to Mass, but beforehand they see Aunty Ifeoma and her children. Ifeoma and Amaka are both wearing bright red lipstick. During Mass Kambili thinks about that lipstick, and imagines wearing it herself. At Mass the priest doesn’t discuss anything religious, but instead complains about the lack of money and building materials for the priest’s new house. Kambili can tell that Papa is displeased. The family sits in the front with the other “important” people.
Ifeoma and Amaka go to the same church, but they don’t abide by the rules Papa has decreed for the women of his house. Kambili’s awakening as a young woman coincides with her experience of starting to doubt Papa for the first time. Even something as simple as lipstick becomes an important image she can cling to, a symbol of a life and freedom she has never known before.
After Mass there is a fundraising event at the hall next to the church. Papa writes a single check and gives it to an usher. When the amount is read out, the priest starts to dance and Papa leaves with the family. As he walks out of the hall, people touch Papa’s tunic as if it might heal them.
Papa is clearly shown as a Christ-figure here, as he modestly funds the whole church and then leaves, with people touching his tunic just as they did to Jesus. In public he does indeed do much good, which adds to the complexity of his character.
The family gets home and their house is full of people. The wives of their umunna (large extended family in the village) are cooking huge amounts of food in the backyard. Kambili goes upstairs, and while she is changing she hears her cousins and Aunty Ifeoma arrive. She can hear them all laughing. Kambili goes out, pacing her breathing so she won’t stutter. Amaka asks her and Jaja about their stereo, wondering if they are bored with it like the TV. They don’t admit that they never play it, but only listen to the news on Papa’s radio during “family time.”
Kambili and Jaja still don’t admit that they never use their expensive gadgets, and so Amaka continues to think that they are spoiled and snobbish. Kambili admires her cousins’ easy laughter, but for now she has to plan ahead and pace her breathing just so she won’t stutter. The poor villagers take advantage of Papa’s hospitality.
Obiora puts on a record of choirs singing. Chima goes to the bathroom and exclaims about how nice it is. Sisi comes up to say that the Igwe (local royalty) has arrived to visit Papa, and so the family goes downstairs to greet him. Kambili remembers the last time they had visited the Igwe’s palace, and Mama had greeted him in the traditional way for women, by bowing low to him. Later Papa told her it was sinful to bow to another ruler, and they did not visit the Igwe again. Hoping to impress Papa, Kambili had later refused to kiss a bishop’s ring, but Papa pulled her ear for this and said the bishop was a man of God.
Papa’s view of the Igwe versus the bishop shows his pro-Western worldview—the Igwe is a “heathen” ruler and not worthy of being bowed to, while the bishop is a civilized and Godly man, so it isn’t sinful to kiss his ring. Papa is important enough that the Igwe will even come to visit him after Papa refused to return to the Igwe’s palace. Here we also see more examples of Papa casually using violence as punishment for a perceived sin.
The family goes downstairs and greets the Igwe. Aunty Ifeoma bows to him, but Mama shakes his hand. Then they go back upstairs, leaving Papa with the Igwe. Amaka and Jaja go off to discuss a book, and Chima and Obiora play a card game, laughing. Kambili stands outside Mama’s door, listening to her whisper to Aunty Ifeoma, trying to convince her to ask Papa for a gas tank. Ifeoma reminds her that Papa offered to buy her a car years ago, but only if she sent Amaka to convent school, stopped wearing makeup, and joined a Catholic society. Ifeoma says she wants the things Papa’s money can buy, but she won’t “lick his buttocks” to get them.
Mama only seems able to confide in Ifeoma, though always in whispers and behind closed doors. Mama keeps everything hushed up and respectable, while Ifeoma is willing to speak her mind and be rude—something that is confusing to Kambili’s usual world of violence-enforced silence. We see that like Papa-Nnukwu, Ifeoma was offered money from Papa as long as she started to follow his strict rules. Ifeoma is proud and independent enough to stand up to Papa, though it means a harder life for her and her children. She chose independence over wealth.
Aunty Ifeoma goes on, saying that her husband, Ifediora, did not get along with Papa because Ifediora was willing to tell the truth to Papa’s face, and Papa does not want to hear truths he doesn’t like. Ifeoma says that Papa-Nnukwu is dying, and Papa still won’t let him into the house. She says that Papa should stop trying to do God’s job—he should let God do the judging. Ifeoma says that the umunna will tell Papa whatever he wants to hear, as long as he provides them with food and money.
Ifeoma speaks the hard truths that no one is willing to say to Papa, and that Kambili has never even considered. Kambili still sees Papa as a godlike figure, whose violent punishments are frightening but not undeserved. To Ifeoma, however, Papa is just a man too obsessed with Western Catholic dogma and unwilling to hear views that contradict his own.
Amaka catches Kambili eavesdropping but doesn’t say anything. She tells her that Papa has come up to have lunch. They sit down and Papa prays for more than twenty minutes over the meal. Ifeoma mutters about the rice getting cold, but Papa ignores her. As they eat, Ifeoma insists that Papa let Jaja and Kambili visit her in Nsukka to get to know their cousins better. Papa tries to change the subject, but Ifeoma presses on, and asks Papa why he never picks up a phone and calls her.
Kambili only has experience with twenty-minute prayers before meals, but to Ifeoma Papa’s long prayers are ridiculous. In Papa’s house, meals are usually silent or polite, but here Ifeoma immediately confronts Papa with a hard truth—that he never calls her, and that his children have never gotten to know hers.
Sisi brings more juice, the kind Papa’s factories make. Amaka tries it and politely suggests that Papa make it less sweet. Kambili is so nervous that she knocks over her glass. Amaka keeps talking to Papa, asking him about the rumored appearances of the Virgin Mary at the tiny village of Aokpe. Aunty Ifeoma suggests that Jaja and Kambili should come visit her, so she can take them and her own children to Aokpe. Papa looks pleased, and offers to let Jaja and Kambili visit for a day or two. Ifeoma insists that they stay for a week.
The family dynamic at Ifeoma’s house is clearly very different. Amaka sees no problem with speaking her mind and critiquing Papa’s juice. The comment that the juice is too sweet can be taken as a metaphor for how Papa conducts his family life in general: making it artificial, controlled, isolating it from any bitter outside forces. We have already seen, from the Palm Sunday meal, that Mama, Kambili, and Jaja are supposed to politely compliment the juice when it is served. Ifeoma knows that Papa can only be convinced by something religious.
The next day is Sunday, and the family plans to go to early Mass. Kambili wakes up and sees that her period has started. She showers and dresses, making sure to cover her hair properly as Papa and Father Benedict like. Kambili’s cramps start to hurt, and she asks Mama for Panadol, a painkiller. She must eat food with the pill, but it is only twenty minutes before Mass, and the Eucharist fast demands an hour of fasting before communion. Mama whispers that Kambili should eat a few cornflakes quickly.
Part of Papa and Father Benedict’s strict Catholicism involves demonizing of women’s’ bodies. Women are not allowed to show their legs or their hair; Mama is beaten for feeling sick from her pregnancy; and there is no accommodation for Kambili’s cramps on the morning of Mass. Mama sympathizes with Kambili, but knows they must be secretive.
Jaja makes Kambili a bowl of cereal, saying that they will hear Papa before he comes upstairs. Kambili is almost finished eating when Papa enters. He quietly asks what is going on. Mama and Jaja both try to take the blame, and Papa asks if the devil has infected them all. He takes off his belt and beats all of them. Afterward he asks sadly why they like sin, and then he hugs Jaja and Kambili, asking if they are hurt. Everyone changes clothes, and they go to later Mass.
Papa holds the purity of the ritual of Mass higher than the physical well being of his daughter. They all try to take the blame, but no one defends themselves or fights back against Papa. His sense of sin and punishment is so deeply instilled in his children that they almost feel they deserve his punishments. Papa himself always cries or is upset afterwards, but it doesn’t stop him from being violent again.
The family leaves after New Year’s. The wives of the umunna take all the leftover food, even what seems spoiled. As they drive away, the gate man waves at them, and Kambili remembers him telling them that Papa had paid for his children’s school and helped get his wife a job. Papa recites the rosary as he drives. Soon they come to a checkpoint, where there has been an accident. A dead man is lying beside the road. Papa says that the police set up checkpoints in wooded areas so that they can hide the money they extort.
Once again Adichie juxtaposes Papa’s domestic violence with his public philanthropy, as he goes out of his way to support his workers and their families. Kambili is still mostly sheltered from the government’s corruption, but she gets glimpses of the violence and oppression that come with a military regime.
The family returns to Enugu, and two days later Papa takes the family to confession at Father Benedict’s house. He hadn’t wanted to go to confession in Abba, because the priest there wasn’t “spiritual” enough, and was too concerned with building churches and statues. Papa says that white people would not be concerned with such things.
Adichie is bitingly ironic here, as Papa thinks of white people as being more spiritual and never concerned with material things, when the very “Christian” colonizing of Nigeria was based on material gain of exploiting African resources—not to mention Europe’s long history of building extravagant churches instead of feeding the poor.
Papa, Mama, and then Jaja go in. Kambili asks Jaja with her eyes if he remembered his words to Papa-Nnukwu about offering to drink in his house, and Jaja nods. Kambili goes into the room. It is a more personal interaction than a confessional, as she and Father Benedict are face to face. Kambili confesses, but Father Benedict keeps asking her if she has something else. Kambili cannot think of anything, until Father Benedict leads her into saying that she enjoyed looking at the mmuo. Father Benedict says that it is wrong to “take joy in pagan rituals,” and gives Kambili her penance.
Jaja and Kambili still share their “language of the eyes,” and also a sense of guilt whenever they break one of Papa’s rules. In this interaction with Father Benedict, we see that the British priest supports Papa in his strict set of rules about sin and punishment. Father Benedict believes that any traditional Nigerian ceremony is “heathen” and therefore sinful.
As the family drives home, Papa happily declares that they are all “spotless” now, and that if they died they would go straight to heaven. When he gets home he is still in a good mood, and he calls Aunty Ifeoma. He says that Jaja and Kambili can go to Aokpe as long as they remember that the sightings of the Virgin have not been verified by the church. They will go to Nsukka the next day and stay for five days.
While Papa enforces his religion on his family with violence and control, he still seems to take some joy in Christianity on occasion—or at least after confession, when there is a moment without guilt or fear of punishment.
Jaja and Kambili pack their things, and Mama suggests that they bring food and gas cylinders from the factory. Papa is suspicious of this suggestion, but then agrees. Jaja and Kambili both nervously admit to each other that they want to go to Nsukka, but Kambili feels afraid of spending time away from Papa’s presence.
Mama remains meek and submissive, but she still manages to assert a small amount of control in persuading, or tricking, Papa into give Ifeoma some gas cylinders. Despite his violence, Papa is still the center and foundation of his children’s’ lives, and it’s scary for them to leave him.
The next morning Kevin puts two gas cylinders in the car, along with lots of food. Papa gives Jaja and Kambili schedules for their time in Nsukka. They include two hours each day for “time with your cousins.” He hugs them, his hands shaking, and says that he has never been without them for more than a day. As they drive away Kambili sees that Papa is crying.
Papa tries to control his children from afar via their schedules, but he also weeps when they leave—they are the center of his life too, even though he mistreats them. Jaja and Kambili leave Papa for the first time, and are about to experience a new kind of freedom and independence.