Domesticity

by Raina DeFonza

Postcolonial feminism is a prominent theme in Purple Hibiscus; because this prominence, it is important to acknowledge the role of domesticity in the novel. Domesticity and the kitchen are important aspects of postcolonial feminism. Often, postcolonial women have little influence and presence in the public sphere. However, within the private sphere and specifically the kitchen, women find a certain level of control and empowerment. Women are traditionally in charge of foodstuffs and the domestic duties. Because of their traditional roles in the kitchen, in this only space where they have control.  The women in Purple Hibiscus, namely the characters Beatrice and Aunty Ifeoma, exhibit both the empowerment and the oppression the domestic role achieves for the postcolonial woman.

Beatrice, the mother of the narrator Kambili, is the privileged wife of businessman Eugene. Eugene is domineering and Beatrice has very little influence within their household. However, she works very closely with their house servant Sisi is preparing food, cooking the meals and choosing the menus. The control she has over the domestic sphere turns out to be her source of liberation, as she poisons her husband’s food over time, eventually killing him. Her domestic role, while oppressive, is also her source of liberation.

Beatrice does not work outside of the home and only has her domestic role; she decorates the house, helps to cook the meals and takes care of the children.  As Mary Drake McFeely discusses in her book Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, women’s contribution to the home is considered unpaid labor and is not valued financially despite the fact that domestic work is what keeps the household running and thus contributes to its earnings (McFeely, 24). Cooking, food and domestic activities are the only aspects of their lives together in which Beatrice has an upper hand over Eugene.

As the woman of the house, she controls the food that is provided for the family (along with liberal help from their house servant, Sisi). In the article, Women’s Quest For Rights:  African Feminist Theory In Fiction, author Helen Chukwuma states that there exists “domestic revolution through the wife who slowly and methodically poisoned her husband.  She freed herself and her children from the yoke” (Chukwuma, 6).  It is through her control of the food and nourishment for the family that Beatrice finds her freedom; she slowly poisons Eugene in his meals and his daily tea, killing him little by little.

In The ‘Kitchen’ as Women’s Space in Rural Hausaland, Northern Nigeria, Elsbeth Robson discusses the kitchen as a place of power for women in Hausaland in Nigeria; “The responsibilities of meal preparation give women the ability to exercise power over what is prepared and when, how it is distributed and to whom”. Women may use food as a way of showing affection, jealousy or even use it as a way to exact revenge. “Women can easily express favour or displeasure to their husbands, co-wives and other immediate kin within their ‘eating household’.  For example, women may prepare disliked or favourite foods, prepare them well or badly, in a timely or untimely manner, distribute food equally or unfairly, and so on, thus expressing reward or retribution” (Robson, 671). Ironically, it is through her limited, domestic position that Beatrice finds freedom.

Aunty Ifeoma, Beatrice’s sister-in-law, is a major source of feminist power and torque within the novel.  A widow and professor, Ifeoma is a strong and intellectual woman.  She and her three children live in the rather primitive university housing in Nsukka. A single woman and mother, Ifeoma is a symbol the postcolonial Nigerian woman’s struggle.  Yet, she is a consistently powerful and aware feminist voice, speaking freely and confidently about the patriarchal and tyrannical powers controlling contemporary Nigeria, both politically and domestically.

While Beatrice’s home is meticulously cleaned, organized and run on a strict schedule, Aunty Ifeoma’s house is not a place of order and traditional domesticity.  Instead, she runs her kitchen with significant help from her children — no one is exempt.  During Kambili’s and her brother Jaja’s first meal in Nsukka, Aunty Ifeoma says, “Today we will treat Kambili and Jaja as guests, but tomorrow they will be family and join in the work” (Adichie, 119). Kambili also remarks on the cramped and dilapidated yet clean conditions of her aunt’s kitchen. “I stood by the door because there was hardly enough room in the kitchen for me to not get in her way…the light blue kitchen tiles were worn and chipped at the corners, but they looked scrubbed clean, as did the pots whose lids did not fit” (Adichie, 115). Her domesticity is certainly present, but in a very different way from Beatrice’s. Her domesticity is not central to her life; she has work outside of the home and thus domestic activities are not her first priority.

Ultimately, the postcolonial woman has an equivocal relationship with the kitchenspace. In one sense it is a place of oppression and marginalization, but for many of the same reasons it is a source of liberation and empowerment. The characters Beatrice and Ifeoma serve as commentary on the postcolonial feminist perspective on the kitchenspace.

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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