Purple Hibiscus

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Themes and Colors
Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Theme Icon
Religion and Belief Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Freedom vs. Tyranny Theme Icon
Silence and Speech Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Purple Hibiscus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Family Theme Icon

Purple Hibiscus takes place mostly on the familial level, dealing with the relations between Papa, Mama, Jaja, and Kambili, and then their relations with Papa-Nnukwu, Aunty Ifeoma, and her children. First we see the family dynamic of Kambili’s family, where they all live in silence and fear, following Papa’s strict rules and schedules. This quiet order is based around the terror of Papa’s sporadic violence for anything he sees as sinful or disobedient. Kambili and Jaja are very close, though they rarely speak. They also have very little contact with their grandfather, aunt, or cousins, and live secluded in their immediate family. In contrast, Aunty Ifeoma and her children—Amaka, Obiora, and Chima—all speak their minds, laugh often, and are encouraged to debate and question. They are also close with Papa-Nnukwu, as they don’t see him as a “heathen” like Papa does.

These two families overlap when Kambili and Jaja go to stay with Aunty Ifeoma. They see how different they are from Ifeoma’s family, and start to realize how unhealthy and rigid their own family dynamic is. Jaja and Kambili first discover freedom and joy there, and they don’t want to leave. Through Aunty Ifeoma and her children, Adichie represents her idea of a healthy family—one that creates community and love, but also accepts differences and supports individuals as they grow and change.

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Family ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Family appears in each chapter of Purple Hibiscus. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Family Quotes in Purple Hibiscus

Below you will find the important quotes in Purple Hibiscus related to the theme of Family.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I waited for him to ask Jaja and me to take a sip, as he always did. A love sip, he called it, because you shared the little things you loved with the people you loved. Have a love sip, he would say, and Jaja would go first. Then I would hold the cup with both hands and raise it to my lips. One sip. The tea was always too hot, always burned my tongue, and if lunch was something peppery, my raw tongue suffered. But it didn’t matter, because I knew that when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa’s love into me.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Papa (Eugene Achike)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In this symbolically loaded passage, we witness Kambili, the heroine of the novel, waiting to sip a cup of her Papa's hot tea with her brother, Jaja. Kambili and Jaja are used to these "love sips," and in fact they look forward to them, as they seem to prove their Papa's love for them. The ritual is so much a part of Kambili's life that she associates her father's love itself with hot tea: they're both (supposedly) good for her, even if they hurt her in the short term.

We have yet to witness the full extent of Papa's violence to his family, but for now, the pain of hot tea foreshadows Papa's abusive behavior, and how closely connected this violence is with his children's persistent love for and worship of him. Perhaps subconsciously, he uses the hot tea ritual to teach his children that he beats them because he loves them.


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Papa was staring pointedly at Jaja. “Jaja, have you not shared a drink with us, gbo? Have you no words in your mouth?” he asked, entirely in Igbo. A bad sign. He hardly spoke Igbo, and although Jaja and I spoke it with Mama at home, he did not like us to speak it in public. We had to sound civilized in public, he told us; we had to speak English. Papa’s sister, Aunty Ifeoma, said once that Papa was too much of a colonial product. She had said this about Papa in a mild, forgiving way, as if it were not Papa’s fault…
Mba, there are no words in my mouth,” Jaja replied.
“What?” There was a shadow clouding Papa’s eyes, a shadow that had been in Jaja’s eyes. Fear. It had left Jaja’s eyes and entered Papa’s.
“I have nothing to say,” Jaja said.

Related Characters: Papa (Eugene Achike) (speaker), Kambili Achike, Jaja (Chukwuka Achike)
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Papa--who has just made his family members try his company's new batch of cashew juice--notices that his son, Jaja, is conspicuously silent. Jaja seems to finally be standing up to his abusive, tyrannical father by refusing to parrot the usual praise that is expected of him.

We will see that Kambili and Jaja are known for their silence and obedience, but here Jaja starts to turn that silence into a weapon against Papa--by refusing to even speak to Papa, Jaja robs his father of some of his power.

The ideas of speech and silence here are also heavily influenced by Nigeria's colonial history. Papa's sister Ifeoma (whom we have yet to meet) is the only one who really tells it like it is about Papa, and calls him a "colonial product"--he has internalized the colonialist mindset that whiteness and Westernness always equals superiority. Thus Papa always speaks English, and wants his children to as well--he sees English as naturally superior to Igbo. Papa's slip into Igbo in this scene, then, is a sign of his sudden anger and desperation. He feels his son slipping away from him, and he simultaneously loses some of the tyrannical power of the English language over its Nigerian "subjects."

I lay in bed after Mama left and let my mind rake through the past, through the years when Jaja and Mama and I spoke more with our spirits than with our lips. Until Nsukka. Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma’s little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence. Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like 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. A freedom to be, to do.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Mama (Beatrice Achike), Aunty Ifeoma
Related Symbols: The Purple Hibiscus
Page Number: 15-16
Explanation and Analysis:

As the first chapter draws to a close, we're introduced to the basic structure of the novel, as well as its dominant motif. The novel will be narrated in flashback, so that by the end, we'll fully understand why Papa broke Mama's figurines, and how their family came to be so divided. Furthermore, Adichie introduces us to the purple hibiscus that will come to stand for the characters' sense of freedom and creativity--a freedom that can't be destroyed by repressive parents or governors, try as they might.

The purple hibiscus, Kambili tells us, is free and "experimental"--a sure sign of its symbolic meaning. It's worth noting that although Kambili is seemingly under her father's thumb--living in his house, ex.--in her mind she's now free of his influence.  By the same token, the hibiscus seems to be powerless and domestic, when in reality it's secretly wild and free.

Chapter 5 Quotes

“They are always so quiet,” he said, turning to Papa. “So quiet.”
“They are not like those loud children people are raising these days, with no home training and no fear of God,” Papa said, and I was certain that it was pride that stretched Papa’s lips and tightened his eyes.
“Imagine what the Standard would be if we were all quiet.”
It was a joke. Ade Coker was laughing; so was his wife, Yewanda. But Papa did not laugh. Jaja and I turned and went back upstairs, silently.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike) (speaker), Ade Coker (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Yewande Coker
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Papa talks with his friend and business partner Ade Coker about child-rearing policies. Ade points out that Papa's children, including Kambili, are always very quiet--to the point where they never make a sound in public. Papa is clearly very proud of his children; he thinks that his violent parenting methods are justified, since by beating his children they'll be calm and well-behaved at all times (not like other children "these days". Ade points out the strange contradiction in Papa's life: he's a political advocate who uses journalism and his voice (the Standard) to criticize the existing political leadership in Nigeria. And yet Papa tolerates no such criticism or debate at home: in short, he's a personal tyrant who challenges political tyrants. Papa's behavior suggests that in his home life, he's more interested in power and control than in doing the right thing: he's willing to use journalism to fight for political freedom, but he refuses to see that beating and silencing his children isn't a good or virtuous thing to do.

“Ifeoma could not afford it.” Papa-Nnukwu shook his head. “Since the father of her children died, she has seen hard times. But she will bring them this year. You will see them. It is not right that you don’t know them well, your cousins. It is not right.”
Jaja and I said nothing. We did not know Aunty Ifeoma or her children very well because she and Papa had quarreled about Papa-Nnukwu. Mama told us. Aunty Ifeoma stopped speaking to Papa after he barred Papa-Nnukwu from coming to his house, and a few years passed before they finally started speaking to each other.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa-Nnukwu (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Papa (Eugene Achike), Mama (Beatrice Achike), Aunty Ifeoma
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote reaffirms the schism within Kambili's family--a split that is based around Papa's pride and rigid adherence to his own brand of religious dogma. Kambili and Jaja are only allowed to visit their grandfather, Papa-Nnukwu, for fifteen minutes each Christmas, and never to accept food or drink from him. Here Papa-Nnukwu's brief update highlights how different Papa is from his sister, Aunty Ifeoma. Papa is rich; Ifeoma is poor and widowed. Papa is dogmatic and strict; Ifeoma is openminded and independent. Papa places religion over family; Ifeoma does the opposite (she is a Christian too, but still loves and takes care of her "pagan" father). While Kambili and Jaja are still very much under their father's thumb at this point, every fact they learn about the outside world, and even about their own family, seems to go against Papa's narrow-minded worldview.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“…But you know Eugene quarrels with the truths that he does not like. Our father is dying, do you hear me? Dying. He is an old man, how much longer does he have, gbo? Yet Eugene will not let him into this house, will not even greet him… Eugene has to stop doing God’s job. God is big enough to do his own job. If God will judge our father for choosing to follow the way of our ancestors, then let God do the judging, not Eugene.”

Related Characters: Aunty Ifeoma (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Mama (Beatrice Achike), Papa-Nnukwu
Page Number: 95-96
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Kamibili overhears her mother talking with Papa's sister, Aunty Ifeoma. Ifeoma is immediately shown to be a strong, confident woman, in contrast with the (relatively) submissive Mama. Ifeoma is the only one willing to tell the truth about Papa--that his ideals and rigid obsession with rules are getting in the way of real familial love and basic human concerns. Papa-Nnukwu, Papa and Ifeoma's father, is dying, but Papa won't visit or help him because Papa-Nnukwu refuses to give up practicing traditional Igbo rituals. (Ifeoma, for her part, is still a Christian, but an openminded one willing to blend Western and Nigerian beliefs.) Here Ifeoma essentially lays it all on the line--Papa (Eugene) is trying to play God, instead of letting God take care of his own business. Ifeoma prefers a more humanistic approach to Christianity, while Papa clearly clings to order, control, and rigid dogma. And in perspective, Papa's refusal to visit his own dying father because of religious differences seems like a very un-Christian thing to do.

Chapter 8 Quotes

I did not say anything else until lunch was over, but I listened to every word spoken, followed every cackle of laughter and line of banter. Mostly, my cousins did the talking and Aunty Ifeoma sat back and watched them, eating slowly. She looked like a football coach who had done a good job with her team and was satisfied to stand next to the eighteen-yard box and watch.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Aunty Ifeoma
Page Number: 120-121
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Kambili has gone to visit Aunty Ifeoma in her home. There, Kambili is shocked to find a very different kind of household than the one she is used to. Unlike Papa, Aunty Ifeoma encourages noise and conversation--indeed, she seems to enjoy sitting back and listening to her children argue and bicker, as if she's done a "good job" raising them and teaching them to debate about issues freely. Papa, of course, acts like a god in his own home--a tyrant with moral authority in all things--and prefers his wife and children to remain silent at all times, unless they're praying or agreeing with him.

Ifeoma's behavior in this passage indicates that she values open discourse and freedom of speech; not only in Nigerian society but in her home (versus her brother, who values political freedom, but not personal or religious freedom in his house). Furthermore, Kambili's surprise with Ifeoma reminds us how severe her own upbringing is: Papa doesn't let her speak her mind, let alone talk at the dinner table. It is only through their interactions with Ifeoma and her family that Kambili and Jaja will start to escape their father's influence.

“I hear he’s very involved in the editorial decisions. The Standard is the only paper that dares to tell the truth these days.”
“Yes,” Aunty Ifeoma said. “And he has a brilliant editor, Ade Coker, although I wonder how much longer before they lock him up for good. Even Eugene’s money will not buy everything.”
“I was reading somewhere that Amnesty World is giving your brother an award,” Father Amadi said. He was nodding slowly, admiringly, and I felt myself go warm all over, with pride, with a desire to be associated with Papa.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Aunty Ifeoma (speaker), Father Amadi (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Ade Coker
Page Number: 136-137
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili meets Father Amadi, a young, handsome priest. Amadi is impressed to hear that Kambili's father is Eugene Achike, since he knows Eugene to be an important philanthropist and advocate for political freedom: Eugene is regarded as something of a hero among the Nigerian people. Amadi tells Kambili about some of her father's most impressive achievements: as a writer and journalist, he's one of the only figures in the country who dares to criticize the Nigerian leadership, a decision that might eventually lead him into prison (along with his editor, Ade Coker).

The passage is notable because it reminds us of the paradoxes of Papa's behavior. He's an incredibly generous and noble-spirited man, who donates his time and money to fighting for other people. And yet he's also a severe, brutal dictator in his own house: he sincerely believes that children should be beaten and punished harshly when they do anything wrong. While Papa's behavior might be hard for readers to understand, Adichie uses his contradictions to make him a deeply human and fascinating character, both admirable and reprehensible at once.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Amaka and Papa-Nnukwu spoke sometimes, their voices low, twining together. They understood each other, using the sparest words. Watching them, I felt a longing for something I knew I would never have.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa-Nnukwu, Amaka
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

Amaka, Kambili's cousin, and Papa-Nnukwu, Kambili's grandfather, are very close: they clearly love each other deeply, and over the years have developed a close personal language, to the point where they can speak only a few words and understand each other completely. Kambili is jealous of her cousin's close relationship with her grandfather; she wishes that Papa had allowed her to spend more time with Papa-Nnukwu growing up. In short, Kambili is seeing the consequences of his own father's close-mindedness: because Papa didn't get along with his father, Kambili never got to visit her grandfather growing up. She feels that she's missed out on an intimate family connection. By contrast, Kambili's rapport with her own father is almost nonexistent, consisting mostly of her own silence and Papa's lecturing, praying, or moralizing.

“How can Our Lady intercede on behalf of a heathen, Aunty?”
Aunty Ifeoma was silent as she ladled the thick cocoyam paste into the soup pot; then she looked up and said Papa-Nnukwu was not a heathen but a traditionalist, that sometimes what was different was just as good as what was familiar, that when Papa-Nnukwu did his itu-nzu, his declaration of innocence, in the morning, it was the same as our saying the rosary.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Aunty Ifeoma, Papa-Nnukwu
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

The divide within Kambili's family couldn't be clearer in this passage. Kambili has been raised by her Papa to believe in the strictest interpretation of Catholicism; she believes that God doesn't respond to heathens--i.e., those who haven't taken communion and who don't interpret Catholicism correctly. Thus, when Kambili hears Ifeoma praising the Virgin Mary for Papa-Nnukwu's improving health, she doubts that God will listen to prayers on the behalf of a "heathen." Aunty Ifeoma pauses, as if trying to keep from saying something too harsh, and then diplomatically tries to correct some of Kambili's beliefs without attacking Papa too directly: she claims that it's possible to worship God in many different ways. In short, Ifeoma subscribes to the belief that many religions have their good points; she's a pluralist who embraces many different points of view. Furthermore, she suggests, a truly loving God wouldn't entirely abandon his creation, no matter their beliefs. Kambili, on the other hand, has been raised on a stricter, narrower point of view.

“Ifeoma, did you call a priest?” Papa asked.
“Is that all you can say, eh, Eugene? Have you nothing else to say, gbo? Our father has died! Has your head turned upside down? Will you not help me to bury our father?”
“I cannot participate in a pagan funeral, but we can discuss with the parish priest and arrange a Catholic funeral.”
Aunty Ifeoma got up and started to shout. Her voice was unsteady. “I will put my dead husband’s grave up for sale, Eugene, before I give our father a Catholic funeral. Do you hear me? I said I will sell Ifediora’s grave first! Was our father a Catholic? I ask you, Eugene, was he a Catholic? Uchu gba gi!” Aunty Ifeoma snapped her fingers at Papa; she was throwing a curse at him. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

Related Characters: Papa (Eugene Achike) (speaker), Aunty Ifeoma (speaker), Papa-Nnukwu, Ifediora
Page Number: 188-189
Explanation and Analysis:

Papa-Nnukwu has died, and Papa has also arrived to pick up his children. In the immediate aftermath of Papa-Nnukwu's death, we're reminded of the discord within his family: as soon as he hears the news, Papa argues with Aunty Ifeoma about how their father should be buried. Papa is so strict in his religious beliefs that he refuses to give his father a "pagan"--i.e., not totally Catholic--funeral, despite the fact that Papa-Nnukwu was a "pagan" for his entire life. Papa seems more upset that his father didn't convert to Catholicism before death than he is with his father's death itself. Ifeoma, by contrast, is willing to honor her father's religion by giving him the proper funeral he would have wanted. Furthermore, Ifeoma seems genuinely upset by her father's death, finally losing the confidence and control she has exhibited throughout the novel, and shouting at and cursing Eugene.

Chapter 12 Quotes

It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Aunty Ifeoma
Page Number: 226
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili watches as Father Amadi teaches children how to exercise by literally "raising the bar"--i.e., putting up a rod and encouraging the children to jump over it, and then gradually raising it higher and higher. Kambili comes to see the rod as a metaphor for different methods of upbringing. She's been raised by a strict, tyrannical parent, Papa, who tries to get her to succeed by hurting her and threatening to hit her. Kambili now understands and admires the strategy that Aunty Ifeoma uses instead: instead of beating or shaming her children, she gives them praise and encouragement--more effective motivators than fear. In the end, Kambili thinks, Ifeoma's method of child-rearing is more powerful, because it encourages children to become self-motivated--they want to jump higher, rather than just jumping out of fear of punishment.

Chapter 16 Quotes

“I should have taken care of Mama. Look how Obiora balances Aunty Ifeoma’s family on his head, and I am older that he is. I should have taken care of Mama.”
“God knows best,” I said. “God works in mysterious ways.” And I thought how Papa would be proud that I had said that, how he would approve of my saying that.
Jaja laughed. It sounded like a series of snorts strung together. “Of course God does. Look what He did to his faithful servant Job, even to His own son. But have you ever wondered why? Why did He have to murder his own son so we would be saved? Why didn’t He just go ahead and save us?”

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike) (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Mama (Beatrice Achike), Obiora
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili and Jaja are still recovering from their father's sudden death. Kambili notes that with Papa dead, they'll have to take care of their mother more closely--indeed, they both feel guilty for not doing so sooner. Jaja in particular feels guilty that he didn't protect his mother from Papa's beatings--he could have saved her many times before, and he contrasts his own submissiveness to his cousin Obiora's maturity. Kambili offers up a cliched truism--God works in mysterious ways--showing that she continues to subconsciously worship her father and imitate his style of religious fervor. (He's dead, of course, but she still immediately thinks of how he would be proud of her for saying this.)

Jaja, by contrast, has entirely rejected Catholicism along with his father's authority. Instead, Jaja now believes that Christianity is just a system of domination, used to justify people's pain and suffering: there's no reason, for instance, why God had to punish Job (or even Christ himself) so harshly. Perhaps God, just like Papa, is a bully, hurting people for no particular reason. In all, the passage shows the divide between Kambili and Jaja. Both have now been freed from Papa's literal control, but they react to this freedom in different ways.

“I started putting the poison in his tea before I came to Nsukka. Sisi got it for me; her uncle is a powerful witch doctor.”
For a long, silent moment I could think of nothing… Then I thought of taking sips of Papa’s tea, love sips, the scalding liquid that burned his love onto my tongue. “Why did you put it in his tea?” I asked Mama, rising. My voice was loud. I was almost screaming. “Why in his tea?”

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Mama (Beatrice Achike) (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Sisi
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, it's revealed that Kambili's meek, submissive mother was the one who murdered Papa: she put poison in his tea, so that eventually he'd die. Kambili, who is by now deeply conflicted regarding her father--she still can't help loving and worshipping him, but she also recognizes how tyrannical and sadistic he was--is especially distraught by the fact that Papa was killed by his tea. In this moment of revelation, Adichie poignantly reminds us how Papa used to share his hot tea with his children, giving them "love sips"--and this same "love," which was both painful and alluring, is the method by which Papa himself was silently killed.

Mama's murder shows that tyranny and bullying have consequences. We can't entirely forgive Mama for her actions--any more than we can forgive Papa for his--and yet we can understand where she's coming from. After years of being beaten, she couldn't take it anymore. She never spoke out against Papa, but she did rebel against his tyranny in her own desperate way.