Purple Hibiscus

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Freedom vs. Tyranny Theme Analysis

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.
Freedom vs. Tyranny Theme Icon

Related to the strictness of Papa’s beliefs and the corruption of the Nigerian government is an important theme of freedom, and its opposite, tyranny. Politically, Papa and Ade Coker represent a freedom of the press that protests against the censorship and corruption of the Head of State. Aunty Ifeoma, a university professor, also speaks her mind and criticizes those in power. The political tyranny in the Nigerian government responds to this assertion of freedom with brutal action. Ade Coker is assassinated, the Standard and Papa’s factories are shut down, and Ifeoma is fired from the university. Hope for political freedom only comes in the novel’s last section, when the Head of State dies and democracy is tentatively restored.

Freedom and tyranny exists among Adichie’s individual characters as well. Though Papa bravely stands up for political freedom, in the world of his own family—where he is the one in control—he acts like a tyrant. He allows no freedom or independence for Mama, Kambili, or Jaja. He schedules his children’s every minute and even chooses the color of the drapes. When anyone acts out or tries to assert their freedom, he responds with violence. Kambili and Jaja thus get their first real taste of freedom at Aunty Ifeoma’s house. After seeing this totally different family dynamic—one where all the children are encouraged to speak their minds and question everything—Kambili and Jaja start feeling more rebellious and independent. Kambili’s assertion of freedom begins by keeping the painting of Papa-Nnukwu, while Jaja grows more openly rebellious, refusing to speak to his father and then refusing to go to church on Palm Sunday. Jaja’s Palm Sunday actions signal a turning point for the family. The most surprising twist comes at the end, however, as Mama turns to her own kind of tyranny—murder—to assert her freedom from Papa. This leads to prison for Jaja, which ends up as just another version of the cycle of freedom and oppression. There is finally some hope with Jaja’s impending release, which also coincides with the Head of State’s death, as both Nigeria and Kambili’s family hope to find true freedom at last.

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Freedom vs. Tyranny ThemeTracker

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

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

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."


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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.

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

“Kambili, you are precious.” His voice quavered now, like someone speaking at a funeral, choked with emotion. “You should strive for perfection. You should not see sin and walk right into it.” He lowered the kettle into the tub, tilted it toward my feet. He poured the hot water on my feet, slowly, as if he were conducting an experiment and wanted to see what would happen. He was crying now, tears streaming down his face… I watched the water leave the kettle, flowing almost in slow motion in an arc to my feet. The pain of contact was so pure, so scalding, I felt nothing for a second. And then I screamed.
“That is what you do to yourself when you walk into sin. You burn your feet,” he said.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike) (speaker)
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chilling, emotional passage, Papa punishes Kambili for not telling him that she was spending time with her "heathen" grandfather, Papa-Nnukwu, and was even sharing a room with him. With tears in his eyes, Papa pours boiling water on Kambili's feet, telling her that she must avoid sin at all costs.

Papa is a tragic character--he seems to be motivated by his sincere love of religion, not just his sadistic need for control. Thus, he tells Kambili that she's precious and hurts her in the same instant: he's so concerned for her soul that he's willing to "condition" her to avoid sin (in the same way that he was conditioned, as we learn). One can recognize Papa's sincerity without agreeing with his methods: he's horribly violent, to the point where he's willing to torture his own family, thus undercutting the very religious ideals and freedom that he's otherwise trying to promote.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Ade Coker was at breakfast with his family when a courier delivered a package to him. His daughter, in her primary school uniform, was sitting across the table from him. The baby was nearby, in a high chair. His wife was spooning Cerelac into the baby’s mouth. Ade Coker was blown up when he opened the package—a package everybody would have known was from the Head of State even if his wife Yewande had not said that Ade Coker looked at the envelope and said “It has the State House seal” before he opened it.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Ade Coker, Yewande Coker, The Head of State (“Big Oga”)
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

Ade Coker, whose character was inspired by real-life Nigerian journalist Dele Giwa, is assassinated in his own home (just as Giwa was). Ade is a courageous editor and journalist who uses his influence to criticize the Nigerian leadership, like Papa himself. Here, the Nigerian Head of State (never named, but probably based on real-life dictator Ibrahim Babangida) sends Ade a package, marked with his official seal. Ade opens the package, not thinking that the head of state would try to murder him with so little subterfuge. But the package turns out to be a bomb, which ends Ade's life. The scene reminds us that the Head of State has almost unlimited power in his own country: he doesn't have to hide his assassination plots--instead, he can simply send a bomb in the mail, bearing his official seal. This assassination is also a major turning point in the plot, as it is a sign that Papa's political activities have real, deadly consequences, and it is also a symbol of "silencing" on a political level--Ade is literally killed for speaking out against tyranny.

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.

“It is not about me, Chiaku.” Aunty Ifeoma paused. “Who will teach Amaka and Obiora in university?”
“The educated ones leave, the ones with the potential to right the wrongs. They leave the weak behind. The tyrants continue to reign because the weak cannot resist. Do you not see that it is a cycle? Who will break that cycle?”

Related Characters: Aunty Ifeoma (speaker), Chiaku (speaker), Amaka, Obiora
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learnt that Aunty Ifeoma is considering moving to America, where she could get a job teaching at university. In Ameirca, Aunty Ifeoma's work would receive more praise--and she also wouldn't be risking her life to continue her academic projects. Furthermore, Ifeoma's children could receive a real education without fear of violence, strikes, or lack of utilities. And yet Aunty Ifeoma's friend Chiaku here resents her for contemplating leaving Nigeria. Chiaku points out that Nigeria has always had a problem with maintaining its own talent: whenever somebody is talented or successful, he or she goes to the West and never comes back. Chiaku characterizes the process as a cycle: the talented grow up in Nigeria, but then leave for American or European schools, and so Nigeria stays mostly the same--having driven out its best and brightest. Chiaku has a point on a global and political level--tyranny is only perpetuated through ignorance and stagnancy--but on a personal level, Ifeoma seems to have no positive option other than leaving the country she loves.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“It’s your father. They called me from the factory, they found him lying dead on his desk.” Mama sounded like a recording…
Jaja grabbed the phone. Aunty Ifeoma led me to the bed. I sat down and stared at the bag of rice that leaned against the bedroom wall… I had never considered the possibility that Papa would die, that Papa could die. He was different from Ade Coker, from all the other people they had killed. He had seemed immortal.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Mama (Beatrice Achike) (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Papa (Eugene Achike), Aunty Ifeoma, Ade Coker
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili receives word that her father has been found dead at his desk. Kambili is shocked by the news of her father's death: he'd always seemed like an immortal to her--a harsh, tyrannical god, but still a god.

It's not yet clear why Kambili's father has died so suddenly. And yet his death is a crucial turning-point in the novel. Kambili has been moving further and further from her father's worldview throughout the last couple chapters--as if to reflect Kambili's growing independence, Papa dies, so that he can no longer control what Kambili does or thinks. Papa is a complex character, at once contemptible, admirable, and tragic: he's a brutal bully, but he also seems to love his children sincerely, and has undoubtedly done much good in the world outside his own home.

Chapter 16 Quotes

“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.

Chapter 17 Quotes

There are people, she once wrote, who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times we tried, we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it right the first time. It is like telling a crawling baby who tries to walk, and then falls back on his buttocks, to stay there. As if the adults walking past him did not all crawl, once.

Related Characters: Aunty Ifeoma (speaker)
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Aunty Ifeoma, who has moved to America to teach, writes about the history of Nigeria, and of colonialism. Ifeoma notes that there are "some" (i.e., mostly Western intellectuals) who believe that the Western world needs to control and direct Africa forever, since Africans don't know how to control their own people. Ifeoma finds such an argument illogical--African countries need to learn how to run themselves, rather than depending on Western military and economic control forever.

Ifeoma's statements bring the novel to a cautiously optimistic ending, and broaden the perspective of the story from the personal to the international. We've seen how the characters fight for control of their own minds and lives, sometimes resorting to violence to do so. Ifeoma seems to argue that the struggle for freedom is always worthwhile, because the end goal is freedom from tyrannical people--Papa, for example--or freedom from tyrannical countries--like Britain and the U.S. Essentially she's saying that it's unfair to judge Nigeria against much older, more prosperous nations like America or Western Europe, as Nigeria is still very young as a country, and still going through "growing pains." Ifeoma has gone against her friend's advice and moved to America--contributing to the cycle of Nigeria's best and brightest leaving the country--but here she is also fulfilling the tradition of the emigre who gains the best perspective and insight regarding her homeland only when she is away from it.