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.
Religion and Belief Theme Icon

Religion and belief are central to the novel, particularly in the contrasts between Papa, Papa-Nnukwu, and Aunty Ifeoma/Father Amadi. The plot begins with descriptions of Papa’s religious belief, which were molded by Catholic missionaries and are incredibly strict. He prefers that Igbo not be spoken (or sung) in church, and believes that priests should be very traditional. He befriends and admires the white, conservative Father Benedict. Papa imposes his strict rules on his family, and when they commit what he perceives as a sin, he punishes them with violence, as he himself was as a boy and which he sees as being for their own benefit. Kambili and Mama aren’t allowed to wear pants, prayers over meals are long-winded and formal, and non-Christians aren’t even allowed onto Papa’s land. These beliefs have led to a deep rift between Papa and his father, Papa-Nnukwu, who still follows traditional Igbo rituals. Papa-Nnukwu attends the festival of mmuo (spirits), offers food to the gods, and performs a morning declaration of innocence. This makes him a “Godless heathen” in Papa’s eyes, yet Adichie portrays his rituals as equally valid to Catholic ones. Aunty Ifeoma practices a sort of blend between the two extremes, as she is a Catholic who includes Igbo songs in her prayers and doesn’t judge her father for his traditional beliefs. Ifeoma’s priest is the open-minded, lighthearted Nigerian Father Amadi.

Adichie ultimately presents Ifeoma’s and Papa-Nnukwu’s religion in a much kinder light than Papa’s, as Adichie too rejects Western domination over Nigerian culture, and the suppression of joy and acceptance that comes with too strict a dogma. We see this stance through the character of Father Amadi—a young Nigerian priest embracing both the old ways and the new—and also in the positive changes to Jaja and Kambili as they are exposed to beliefs other than Papa’s. Jaja and Kambili have grown up seeing their father as a godlike figure, awe-inspiring but also terrifying, and changing their strict Catholic faith also means struggling with losing their faith in Papa. But once they are both freed of this blind belief (Jaja more so than Kambili), they have the freedom to choose their own faith. Kambili finds herself reaffirming her Catholicism with her visions of the Virgin Mary, while Jaja loses his faith altogether. Though they choose different paths, the important thing is that with Aunty Ifeoma and Father Amadi they find a place of religious acceptance, and so have the freedom to choose without risking punishment.

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Religion and Belief ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Purple Hibiscus related to the theme of Religion and Belief.
Chapter 4 Quotes

Papa changed his accent when he spoke, sounding British, just as he did when he spoke to Father Benedict. He was gracious, in the eager-to-please way that he always assumed with the religious, especially with the white religious.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Father Benedict
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, we see how submissive and toadying Papa is around representatives of the colonial order. Father Benedict is a powerful white priest, who was trained in European schools and embodies the European civilization (the Judeo-Christian values on which the Western world was built). Papa is so respectful of Western culture that he treats Father Benedict with exaggerated respect, speaking to him in a gracious "eager-to-please" way that Kambili can see through immediately (although she doesn't see anything wrong with it yet).

Papa is a mess of contradictions: he's politically brave, personally tyrannical, rigidly religious, and impressively philanthropic, and yet he ultimately accepts the dominant political order of the international stage--in other words, he supports the idea of the supremacy of Western civilization over the African world. At a time when other Nigerians were fighting for supremacy and independence from the West, Papa is satisfied to accept whiteness as superior, even in matters as supposedly universal as religion.


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Chapter 5 Quotes

“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.

Papa wanted Father Benedict to hear our confession. We had not gone in Abba because Papa did not like to make his confession in Igbo, and besides, Papa said that the parish priest in Abba was not spiritual enough. That was the problem with our people, Papa told us, our priorities were wrong; we cared too much about huge church buildings and mighty statues. You would never see white people doing that.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Father Benedict
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Papa takes his family to Father Benedict's house for confession instead of going to the Nigerian priest at their church. Papa notes that Father Benedict is more "spiritual," while the church in Abba, by contrast, is more concerned with worldly goods than heavenly ones. Outrageously, Papa notes that white people simply wouldn't be so materialistic.

Adichie is being bitterly ironic here, since 1) Western people are plenty materialistic, obviously, and 2) the religious colonization of Nigeria--i.e., the cultural movement that converted Papa to Christianity--was itself motivated by the materialistic desire to steal Nigeria's natural resources. Missionaries and priests came to Nigeria advocating frugality and moderation, and supposedly spreading God's message of love, and yet they cooperated with Western businessmen and politicians who used the opportunity to harvest Nigeria's fruit, oil, gold, etc. and oppress and kill the Nigerian people themselves.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Father Amadi led the first decade, and at the end, he started an Igbo praise song. While they sang, I opened my eyes and stared at the wall… I pressed my lips together, biting my lower lip, so my mouth would not join in the singing on its own, so my mouth would not betray me.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Father Amadi
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

Kambili and Jaja have had their eyes opened during their brief time with Aunty Ifeoma and her family. Unlike Father Benedict, Ifeoma's priest Father Amadi is young, openminded, and, most importantly, is accepting of Nigerian and Igbo traditions as being equally valuable to Western Catholic doctrine. As we've already learned, Papa considers Igbo to be a language that is inferior to English, and is even "heathen" in its origins, but Father Amadi embraces Igbo as another language of praise for a universal, life-affirming God. This worldview is obviously more appealing than Papa's, but at this point Kambili is still very much under her father's influence. We see this fact especially in this scene, as she "silences" herself by biting her lip, instead of singing along with the rest of her family. According to Papa, Kambili would be doing the good Christian thing, but from an outside perspective this seems repressive and ridiculous--she is purposefully keeping herself from praising the very God she professes to love, as well as refusing to join in an expression of communal love, joy, and celebration.

Chapter 10 Quotes

“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.

I laughed. It sounded strange, as if I were listening to the recorded laughter of a stranger being played back. I was not sure I had ever heard myself laugh.
“Why did you become a priest?” I blurted out, then wished I had not asked, that the bubbles in my throat had not let that through. Of course he had gotten the call, the same call that all the Reverend Sisters in school talked about when they asked us to always listen for the call when we prayed. Sometimes I imagined God calling me, his rumbling voice British-accented. He would not say my name right; like Father Benedict, he would place the emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Father Amadi, Father Benedict
Page Number: 179-180
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili begins to reluctantly shed some of her preconceptions about life and religion, while moving on to accept others. She's spending time with Father Amadi, who she seems to like a lot. Amadi gets Kambili to loosen up and stop being so silent, and before long, Kambili is laughing for the first time in the entire novel. Kambili asks Amadi why he became a priest, but then regrets this and tells us, the readers, that she knows the answer: God calls priests to the profession.

Kambili's idea of God's "calling" shows us how Eurocentric her worldview is because of Papa's upbringing. She's been taught to embrace a Christian God who listens to all Catholics, but who doesn't really fit with her own culture and country. Kambili can't even imagine God pronouncing her name correctly, or speaking in any way other than with a white British accent--a clear symbol for the discord between Kambili's religion and her culture.

“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.

“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 15 Quotes

“When the missionaries first came, they didn’t think Igbo names were good enough. They insisted that people take English names to be baptized. Shouldn’t we be moving ahead?”
“It’s different now, Amaka, don’t make this what it’s not,” Father Amadi said calmly…
“But what’s the point, then?” Amaka said… “What the church is saying is that only an English name will make your confirmation valid. ‘Chiamaka’ says God is beautiful. ‘Chima’ says God knows best, ‘Chiebuka’ says God is the greatest. Don’t they all glorify God as much as ‘Paul’ and ‘Peter’ and ‘Simon’?”

Related Characters: Amaka (speaker), Father Amadi
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Amaka, the teenaged child of Aunty Ifeoma, is preparing for her confirmation. As Adichie explains it, in Nigeria the Catholic confirmation ritual usually involves the priest giving the young man or woman a "Christian name"--i.e., a Western name. Amaka, a budding political activist and Nigerian nationalist, argues that she shouldn't have to take a Christian name; names of Nigerian origin are just as holy and appropriate for the confirmation ritual. Amaka's argument reinforces the notion that a truly spiritual and political person sometimes must be a pluralist--i.e., must embrace many different cultures and ideologies. Amaka is willing to go through confirmation--a European transplant--and yet she also wants to hang on to her Nigerian identity during the process. 

The sun turned white, the color and shape of the host. And then I saw her, the Blessed Virgin: an image in the pale sun, a red glow on the back of my hand, a smile on the face of the rosary-bedecked man whose arm rubbed against mine. She was everywhere.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker)
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili's faith in Catholicism is reconfirmed. She  and her family have gone on a pilgrimage, and here she seems to see the image of the Virgin Mary everywhere. Kambili has been questioning her Catholic faith at times, particularly as it connects to her father's rule--and yet here, she seems to be more of a Catholic than ever before. Unlike her brother, Jaja, Kambili embraces the concept of the Virgin Mary: she thinks that religion, and specifically Christianity, are crucial parts of life, no matter how Papa has misinterpreted them.

It's important to notice how greatly Kambili's concept of Catholicism has changed over the course of the book. At first, Kambili's vision of Catholicism was colored by her father's brutal, tyrannical parenting: Adichie's descriptions favored claustrophobic interiors, symbolizing Kambili's sheltered view of the world. Now, Kambili has synthesized Catholicism with her aunt's pluralistic worldview: as a result, she sees the glory of religion "everywhere." Kambili has found new freedom and independence from her father and her family. She doesn't turn her back on religion altogether; she just modifies it to fit with her own life (a good metaphor for the way Nigeria might want to alter Western culture to fit with its own).

“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 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.