A Masculinist Reading of CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE’S PURPLE HIBISCUS | Paul Liam

Abstract

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus has been discussed largely as a feminist text by scholars and critics alike; however, I have argued in this essay, that beyond its feministic interpretations, the text assumes a masculine consciousness that has not yet received critical inquiry. I have equally argued that Purple Hibiscus, far from being a feminist narrative, is a subtle reordering of patriarchy intended to produce an egalitarian society of less hegemonic males. The foregrounding argument therefore, is that Adichie is not anti-patriarchy, at least not in this text, but is more open to a society in which the man is still the head of the house, but less aggressive, considerate, kind and gentle towards women. This ideology is harnessed by the contrast that exists between Jaja and Papa (Uncle Eugene); and in Jaja, taking the fall for his mother’s murder of his father. Thus, the old order is replaced by a new order of more compassionate and sensitive men. Based on these constructs, this paper argues in favour of a masculinist reading of the novel. Keywords: Masculinity, Feminism, Gender, Patriarchy, Purple Hibiscus.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus has received critical attention and global reckoning since its publication in 2006; it is an important and impactful novel. The text has gained wide recognition as a work of great feminist leanings, particularly in its exploration of the intricate effect and conflict of gender relations in an African patriarchal society. The inimical implications of patriarchy on the society are projected in the text and are shown to be catastrophic for women and children alike. Thus, Adichie advances a feminist agenda, while x-raying religious extremism and Catholicism in a postcolonial cultural milieu. The text equally highlights the culture clash between tradition and Western modernity the African religion verse Christianity, as the aftereffects of colonialism.

Purple Habiscus Covers

However, this exercise seeks to digress from the already established interpretations associated with the text by proposing a new perspective to the already enriching body of discourses. It is clear that a masculinist’s reading of the text as opposed to the already existing feminist interpretations should be attempted. It is clear that far from being a predominant feminist narrative, the text makes a profound case for patriarchy. Drawing largely from the text, Adichie x-rays patriarchy as a cultural phenomenon that is central to the life of African societies, even amongst postmodern families. Thus, a masculinist’s reading involves the accentuation of those elements of maleness that are regarded as ideal in a patriarchal society.

In most traditional African societies, the male child is not just a child, but a child born with a special sense of importance and responsibility; to provide, protect and defend the females in his life. The African male child is born into a hegemonic male role already defined by the society and his upbringing is tailored towards attaining and fulfilling those prescribed ideals. Francesco Maria Morettini in his work, Hegemonic Masculinity: How the Dominant Man Subjugates Other Men, Women, and Society, provides a succinct explication on the dynamism of masculinity. He asserts that:

The concept of hegemonic masculinity is premised on the existence of a dominant form of masculinity. All men position themselves in relation to it, and therefore internalize personal codes of behaviour that contribute to its reproduction. The pressure to conform and relate to this ideal dominant masculinity perpetuates this structure of gender-biased hierarchy in society. (1)

Morettini’s explication illustrates how society conditions the male child to adopt and internalize certain behavioural patterns that facilitate their continuation of dominance over other members of the society. This research will show how this consciousness plays out in Jaja’s life, in the text.

The male child does not undervalue his female siblings but regards them with a special sense of affection; he is groomed to become the defender in all situations. Little wonder then that Jaja is filled with a sense of guilt for his inability to protect his sister Kambili and his mother, Mama (Beatrice), from the physical, emotional and psychological abuse they endure in the hands of his father, Papa (Eugene). It is this belief that culminates in Jaja’s martyrdom in the end of the text when he takes the fall for his mother’s crime of murdering his father. Jaja’s consciousness towards his mother and sister develops with time as the novel itself progresses, it doesn’t happen suddenly. The significance of Jaja’s representation would be made manifest in this reading.

Jaja, at first is unaware of the hegemonic masculine roles on his shoulders as the only male child in the family; he is initially just upset with his father’s autocratic leadership style in the home. He finds his father’s ways repulsive and flouts his rules occasionally, manifesting dissident traits. But his full consciousness of his masculinity dawns on him after their visit to Aunty Ifeoma’s place in Nsukka, where he is challenged by his cousin, Obiora’s strategic interventions in the family. At that moment, Jaja begins to realize his failure as a man for his inability to protect his mother and sister. Jaja’s feeling of guilt and sense of failure ensues from his preconditioned mindset occasioned by a masculine morality which presupposes that it is his duty to fend for women, the supposed weaklings. It only took a simple encounter with another male for him to remember his place and responsibility to his family. Nobody had to remind him, his subconscious mind triggered it and he activates it at once and to redeem himself, he takes the fall for the murder for his father committed by his mother.

Margaret W. Sallee and Frank Harris III, in their work, Gender Performance in Qualitative Studies of Masculinity provide an interesting perspective that expatiate Jaja’s feeling of guilt and failure. They submit that:

In The USA, dominant norms of hegemonic masculinity call for men to earn money, excel in the workplace, and provide for their families. Men who fail to meet these expectations are sanctioned, or accrue fewer benefits of male privilege than their peers who successfully do so. (414)

Jaja’s eventual realization of his failings as a man, who is supposed to provide for and protect his mother and sister, is intrinsically derived from a hegemonic masculine bias which places on him the responsibility of proving his manliness. As Morettini informs us on the working of masculinity, “all men position themselves in relation to it, and therefore internalize personal codes of behaviour that contribute to its reproduction”, and we see Jaja gradually assuming that awareness in the text even as nobody tells him to act or behave like a man, he tells himself it is his duty to act like a man.

Adichie constructs patriarchy perhaps without realizing that she is doing so in her projection of Jaja, which indirectly reinforces patriarchy in the text’s society. Jaja’s character is built around a new patriarchal order although it is not pronounced. His dissident behaviour is aimed at breaking away from the mundane to the profound. Jaja is not a fan of his father and wishes he had the power to do things differently, like preventing his mother from suffering in the hands of his father. Subtle patriarchy is fostered in Jaja’s character as could be seen in his desire to protect his mother and sister and to change the course of their lives. Why would Jaja, a young boy be so obsessed with the idea of defending his mother who should naturally be responsible for him unless he is driven by his maleness which has conditioned him to see it as his responsibility to protect his mother who is an adult? Thus, Jaja exhibits a natural sense of responsibility towards the women in his life, and because he is unable to achieve his wish he lives in shame and self-pity. While in a conversation with Kambili, Jaja ruminates over his inability and compares himself to Obiora, his cousin,

I should have taken care of Mama. Look how Obiora balances Aunty Ifeoma’s family on his head, and I am older than he is. I should have taken care of Mama (282).

Adichie shows quite cleverly how, in traditional societies, a male child grows into masculinist duties; it is almost always biological. Through Jaja’s remarks we are also shown that Obiora who is younger than Jaja already performs the manly duties that Jaja sees himself as destined for. He rebukes himself continuously for failing to live up to expectations. It is this belief that emboldens Jaja to take the fall for his mother’s crime by going to jail for her sake. Adichie creates a scenario in which young boys are projected as growing up, and being adults at the same time because of societal imposition of an unwritten order that makes it their responsibility as male children to fend for their families. This depiction shows that hegemonic masculinity engenders gender inequality in the society, because women are disempowered when men insist on fending for them. The most sufferers in this are the young boys who grow up with an overwhelming sense of responsibility which puts a lot of pressure on their young shoulders making them susceptible to psychological torture. The male child suffers for the comfort of society.

By design, Jaja is cosmopolitan or modern in his disposition to tradition and family values. He is a renaissance man with a deep sense of empathy and humanity in him. He is the bridge between tradition and modernity. So, while he must act like a man, he is also aware of the need for moderation and consideration towards others. These are key features lacking in his father’s character. It is significant to posit that, while Eugene represents a patriarchal generation, Jaja represents a masculine consciousness. And just as in the underlying leitmotif of the text, whereas Eugene, a Christian, symbolizes a modern consciousness in a postcolonial Africa, Jaja on the other is a post-modern man who appreciates the need for balance. Through him, the old and new orders of things are harmonized as Jaja’s consciousness indicates a potential positive change in the society. For example, Jaja expresses his emotions and is empathic, but his father, Eugene, does not express his emotions or empathy. Irked by his father’s traditional patriarchal dominance of his mother, he sets out to be different from his father. We see through his pains and frustration that even men suffer from patriarchy!

And in order to redeem the battered image of the man, Jaja aspires to a different lifestyle away from the monstrosity of his father’s extremist ways. Jaja’s decision to take the fall for his mother’s crime can be viewed from two prisms: he is moved by compassion for his mother for all the suffering she has undergone in the hands of his father and as such cannot stand her suffering again by going to jail, so he steps in to save her. The second prism is that Jaja is on a self-redemption mission, because of the negative image of his father that he has come to know, he is fueled by the passion to prove a point that he is not like his father, that he is a different kind of man. This presupposes that Jaja by going to jail recompenses for the sins of his father, Eugene, even though his mother murders him. He indirectly admits that his father is a bad man and deserves to die.  This depiction can also be interpreted to imply that all men are not the same; some men are more men than others. We see how Jaja’s experience of patriarchy transforms him into a different person even as a young boy. Jo Goodey, affirms this assertion by opining that “men’s lived experiences contribute to their ability to perform hegemonic masculinity.” Also, Sophia O. Ogwude affirms this belief in her essay, “History and Ideology in Chimamanda Adichie’s Fiction”, as she provides a perfect explanation that captures Jaja’s psychological reality in relation to his masculine choices:

Jaja’s defiance is obviously borne out of pent-up resentment against his father and his determination as the alternative male in the house, to protect his mother, sister and the unborn brother whom he had loved and sworn to protect even before it could be born. (118)

It is through Jaja’s act of bravery and altruism that his character as an ideal man is solidified in the text; he gives up his life to save his mother. His compassion is instructive and exemplary. There is however an unmistakable irony to this portrayal that deserves critical evaluation. By allowing Jaja to go to jail for Mama’s crime, the feminist agenda of the text becomes defeated. By serving a jail term for his mother’s crime, the quest for the independence of the woman in the text becomes a mirage, because by the singular act of poisoning her husband to death, Mama subtly acquires a certain kind of power and independence, but this freedom is taken away by her son. It is like ending one battle with patriarchy only to entrench another wave of patriarchy, which this depiction clearly suggests. Systemically, patriarchy is restored because the power won by the woman invariably returns to the hands of another man, even though he is a son. In order to project a feminist goal, the ideal projection would have been for Mama to go to jail for her actions as the natural law of consequence demands, and this could have been possible if the author wants this to happen but perhaps, unconsciously, Adichie does not realize that this juxtaposition contradicts her quest to emancipate Mama through the murder of Eugene. Mama should be woman enough to take responsibility for her action and not allow her innocent son take the fall for her even if he insists that he is responsible for the crime. This also calls to question the plausibility of the portrayal, for example, in a real-life situation; it is safe to assume that no mother would allow her son take the fall for her own crime. A mother would ordinarily and naturally defend her son even if he does commit the crime, because she cannot live to see her son go to jail. But of course, this slide is important in fostering the patriarchy agenda of the text. Jaja’s going to jail becomes a metaphor for the redemption of the sins of his father.

It is instructive to note that this act disempowers Mama and reduces her to a dependent woman living on the generosity of her son, another man. Suffice it to say that there is no total freedom for the woman in the text and in the actual world.  Adichie supposes that a modern society can only be possible with sensitive and responsible men who are willing to give their all for the women in their lives like Jaja. This representation fosters the image of the woman as a perpetual dependent on the man.  Adichie seems to be suggesting that the survival of the society rests with the nobility of men. Aunty Ifeoma, Eugene’s sister and sister-in-law to Mama is portrayed as the ideal feminist model; she is an educated widow and a single mother, a university teacher, she is outspoken, humane and an activist who struggles with fending for her family. Aunty Ifeoma comes off as a strong woman that can inspire other women to be independent and bold.  However, in spite of this unique image of Aunty Ifeoma, we encounter the void created by the absence of a man in her life. This void is however filled by the presence of another man Father Amadi. Although a single independent woman Aunty Ifeoma depends greatly on the company of Father Amadi who occupies a special place in the lives of her children and even in her own life because in him she finds a male support system that the death of her husband deprives her of. Thus, Father Amadi features prominently in her life as a pillar of support.  Father Amadi plays a fatherly role to her children; he takes them out for games and sees to their other needs as well. Why would a woman like Aunty Ifeoma need a manly presence in her life? Perhaps, no matter how strong a woman is she needs the company of a man. And perhaps Adichie is not a radical feminist, because it appears, she believes in a balanced society where men and women coexist with mutual benefits. At least, this is what Aunty Ifeoma’s relationship with Father Amadi suggests, and also, the two mother’s reliance on their boys for a sense of direction equally berates the idea of feminism in the text. In any case, Father Amadi might as well have being a Reverend Sister instead of a priest, if the goal was to pursue a feminist agenda.

Judging from the above there is no doubt that Adichie proposes a sublime patriarchal society in which the bravery of the man is considered as a virtue. Adichie’s representation seems at variance with Chinua Achebe’s pontification on the centrality of a mother–woman in the scheme of things in the life of the Igbo society in Things Fall Apart. Achebe has given special credence to the supremacy of the mother as a nexus of all things, this belief is accentuated by Uchendu’s words to Okonwo:

It is true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to is father when things are good and when life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness, he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you…that is why we say that mother is supreme. (134)

In Adichie, however, maleness takes prominence over femaleness, with the man as the protector. It is this fact that is dramatized in Jaja’s going to jail to save his mother. It is clearly a reversal of role, if we are to take Achebe’s words to heart. Adichie is a profound departure from Catherine Obianuju Acholonu’s “Motherism” which also upholds the supremacy and universality of motherhood.  Acholonu in Elvira Godono’s “Postcolonial Motherism: A Brand-New Woman in the African Novel” asserts that:

  Africa’s alternative to feminism is MOTHERISM and Motherism denotes motherhood (…). The Motherist is the man or woman committed to the survival of Mother Earth as a hologrammatic entity” (2).

Adichie demystifies the supremacy of the woman in her text by projecting the bravery of the man, while indirectly undermining the woman. Even the young narrator, Kambili finds solace in the eyes of a man, Father Amadi. She considers Father Amadi beyond her innocent fantasies; he becomes for her a source of hope and escape from the darkness she faces at home. She longs for him and his presence is therapeutic to her healing process. In Father Amadi, Kambili finds the affection she has always craved for but never gets from her father. Father Amadi becomes to her a caring and loving man who knows how to treat her and unnerve her worrying soul. As if to corroborate my submission, Kambili posits:

Father Amadi’s last days sneaked up on me. He came in the morning, smelling of that Masculine cologne I had come to smell even when he was not there, wearing the same boyish smile, wearing the same soutane (273)

Even the supposedly independent and educated Aunty Ifeoma still depends on her brother’s support when he remembers. For example, upon the death of Papa Nnukwu, Kambili’s grandfather, Aunty Ifeoma alone cannot take care of the burial rites even though she wants to and does not mind that her father is a pagan. Eugene, who is at first reluctant to finance his father’s burial because according to him it is paganism, ends up giving her money with which she gives their father a befitting burial. Why would Adichie make her female characters so powerful and powerless at the same time that even the educated and working-class Aunty Ifeoma has to depend on her brother to bury her father? Why does Aunty Ifeoma have to be helpless and need the help of her brother in spite of her being a working-class woman? Adichie could have chosen to empower Aunty Ifeoma by giving her financial independence as that is the only true instrument of freedom. Having the financial power to fend for herself and being able to bury their father without begging her brother for help would have genuinely accentuated her humanity as a woman. It is a shortcoming that the women in Purple Hibiscus are dependent and in one way or the other, they look up to the men for the essence of their being. Thus, there is no utopia in sight for women in the text.

In conclusion, Adichie, by putting the moral trust of the fictional society of Purple Hibiscus on the shoulder of a male instead of a female implicitly suggests that a utopian society in which sensitive and responsible men would co-exist amicably with women is possible. Thus, beyond its feminist toga, Purple Hibiscus is a patriarchal text. As highlighted already, the attainment of a functional society for everyone is possible through the compassion, sacrifice and altruistic resolve of quality men like Jaja, Obiora and Father Amadi who in the text have been shown to be excellent gentlemen, they provide inspiration and strength to the women in their lives. In other words, if we have good men, we will have a society of happy people and happy women.

Works Cited:

Achebe, Chinua. In “Power of Women in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

    htt://www.bartleby.com/…/power-of-women in Chinua-Achebe-things

-fall-apart fk5wj5yvc. Sourced on 25-10-2019

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus. Lagos: Farafina, 2006

Acholonu, C.O.  Quoted in “Postcolonial Motherism: A Brand-New Woman in the African

Novel” by Elvira Godono, (University of Naples Federico II, Division of Filologia Moderna, 2005), sourced online 25-10-2019

Morettini, F.M. “Hegemonic Masculinity: How the Dominant Man Subjugates Other Men,

Women, and the Society” published online at www.globalpolicyjournal.com, 27 October, 2016

Goodey, J. quoted in “Constructing Masculinities in Juvenile Corrections” by Laura S.

Abrahams, Ben Anderson-Nathe, Jamel Aguila, 2008, Sage Publications, https://en.jmm.sagepub.com

Sallee, M.W. and Harris III, F. “Gender Performance in Qualitative Studies of Masculinity!”

Qualitative Research Journal, 2011, https://en.qrjsagepub.com

Ogwude, S.O. “History and Ideology in Chimamanda Adichie’s Fiction”, 2011, TYDSKRIF

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Short Bio

Paul Liam is a poet, author, critic, Associate Editor at The-Arts-Muse-Fair, and Head of Operations of Isu Media Ltd. His critical essays, reviews, interviews and poems have been published in various print and online platforms. He is the author of two poetry collections: Indefinite Cravings (2012) and Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems (2014). Liam is a Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency, Iseyin, Oyo State, Nigeria, co-editor of Ebedi Review, a radio presenter and creative writing mentor. He lives in Minna, Niger state.