Aunty Ifeoma and Beatrice: Diverging Paradigms of Postcolonial Feminism

by Raina DeFonza

Purple Hibiscus has a subtle yet powerful feminist thrust. The book tells the story of a Nigerian family suffering in the wake of colonization. Female empowerment plays an important role in the novel. The female characters are linked through issues of control, power, abuse and freedom. The empowerment of the postcolonial woman takes on two different forms in Purple Hibiscus through two of the characters: Beatrice, the docile and traditional wife, and her sister-in-law Aunty Ifeoma, the independent and enlightened Nigerian woman. Aunty Ifeoma, educated yet poor professor at a University in Nsukka, serves as a counter to the quiet, privileged housewife Beatrice. Yet, despite her voicelessness in the beginning of the novel, Beatrice transforms into an empowered postcolonial woman through her deadly rebellion against her violent and abusive husband, Eugene. Her interactions with Ifeoma work to strengthen her resolve and propel her towards her defining moment of resistance. Together, the two women form a complete and dynamic representation of the postcolonial women, her dilemmas and her victories.

The silent suffering as well as the empowerment of the Nigerian woman are shown through Beatrice’s character.  Beatrice, married to the wealthy businessman Eugene, is conservative, “unsophisticated and content with the economic security her husband guarantees” (Okuyade, 255).  She is shown as a traditional Nigerian-Catholic wife, stifled by the knowledge that her husband is her lifeline.  Ifeoma encourages her to leave Eugene, yet Beatrice desperately replies, “Where would I go if I leave Eugene’s house?” (Adichie, 250), a practical yet loaded question. Like many postcolonial women, Beatrice is controlled by her husband and is relegated to the domestic sphere. She expresses feelings of limitation in her life and resigns herself to her dependency on Eugene. Her identity is not easily defined apart from her family and the home. She is dependent and powerless.

However, Beatrice also represents the postcolonial woman who finds empowerment through her domesticity, eventually using her control over the foodstuffs in the home to take the life of her husband. The control she exercises adds a new dimension to her character, moving her beyond “voiceless female” towards “empowered woman”.

Aunty Ifeoma is quite the opposite of Beatrice. As a willful and intelligent professor at the University in Nsukka, Aunty Ifeoma has a strong presense in the public sphere and is quite sure of her own identity. Having been widowed, Ifeoma is left alone to care for her three children and the small home they maintain in the University town. She is independent from a male figure and her identity does not rest on being a wife, though it is greatly shaped by her role as mother. Ifeoma’s character is presented as constantly encouraging the young women in her classes to postpose marriage and develop their own selves before entering a life that will unfortunately and inevitably restrict them to the home. In constantly applying this back pressure, Ifeoma’s character is the catalyst to Beatrice’s eventual and quiet insurrection against Eugene’s power; she repeatedly urges her to leave Eugene and take a stand for herself and her children.

Ifeoma stands strong against the other characters; sure of herself and her place, she is able to clearly see others for what they are. Kambili, Ifeoma’s niece and narrator of the novel, says, “She walked fast, just like one who knew where she was going and what she was going to do there” (Adichie, 71). She is the only female character who seems to neither fear Eugene nor place him on a pedestal.  In Abba, Ifeoma casually and abruptly reprimands Eugene for dismissing her comments about the cousins spending time together.  The way in which she addresses him makes Kambili cringe; “Every time Aunty Ifeoma spoke to Papa, my heart stopped, then started again in a hurry.  It was the flippant tone; she did not seem to recognize that it was Papa, that he was different, special.  I wanted to reach out and press her lips shut” (Adichie, 77).  Ifeoma does not see herself as being on a different level than Eugene.  In fact, her attitude towards him makes it clear that she feels she is his equal and just as powerful.

Beatrice’s quiet uprising against her husband is in stark contrast to Ifeoma’s open rebellion against the conventions of gender and power in Nigeria. Ifeoma’s character is one of zealous, unapologetic strength, a strength found through an attitude of equality. Beatrice finds courage and strength through subtler, more covert and ultimately deadly ways.  Yet, in the end, her defiance is as powerful and fierce as Ifeoma’s. Beatrice uses her control over the domestic space and the food consumption in the house as a liberating tool. Over time, she slowly and methodically poisons her husband’s food and tea, killing him. She frees herself and her children from his reign of terror. Though she did not have the explicit strength of Ifeoma to leave Eugene openly, she found her own way to rebel against his rule.

The two women present a series of dichotomies: domestic and public, unsophisticated and educated, quiet resistance and overt rebellion. The image of the postcolonial woman in Adichie’s book has depth and complexity, helping to shape a postcolonial feminist identity that utilizes both the traditional domesticity of Beatrice and the fierce intellectualism of Ifeoma.  While Beatrice and Ifeoma represent different aspects of postcolonial feminism, neither character fits neatly into a simple and limited definition of the concept, rendering the Nigerian woman multifaceted and potent.

This page is part of a larger project entitled “Domesticity and Kitchens” by student researcher Raina DeFonza. Please go back to the Table of Contents to further explore this project.

Photo Credits: Motherland Nigeria

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