Violence and Silence in the Home

by Raina DeFonza

In Purple Hibiscus, “violence” and “silence” are two important themes. The Achike household, comprised of father Eugene, mother Beatrice, daughter Kambili and son Jaja, is always full of quiet tension. The family is a wealthy and privileged Nigerian family, headed by Eugene, a successful businessman and a devout Catholic convert. Eugene is a loving and generous father and husband, however, he has a terrible violent streak; he often flies into a fit of rage at the hint of religious indiscretion, lashing out at the perpetrating individual with painful punishments. Beatrice, Kambili and Jaja have all suffered at the hands of the father and husband. Eugene’s violent patriarchal power has stolen the voices of the other family members, causing a deep rooted silence ingrained in each family member. His outbursts are violent and often, yet the family does not openly discuss any of this tension. They ignore it, pretending it does not happen, and quickly resume their activities.  The silence is strange and thick, and Kambili feels “suffocated” by it (Adichie, 7).

The atrocious violence is treated with a frighteningly casual attitude.  Ogaga Okuyade explains this in the essay Changing Borders and Creating Voices: Silence as Character in Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus; “When Kambili narrates the issues of spouse beating, she does so with a sense of ordinariness and opacity that one can hardly describe Eugene’s home as a domestic war zone. From her narrative it seems as if spouse beating is a normal phenomenon” (Okuyade, 249).  After one incident of Beatrice being brutally beaten by Eugene, the children watch as he slings her limp body over his shoulder, dripping blood through the hallway and down the stairs, to which Jaja remarks, “There’s blood on the floor. I’ll get the brush from the bathroom”.  The children then sit and scrub their mother’s blood off the hallway floor, and Kambili imagines to herself that it is simply paint from “a leaking jar of red watercolor” (Adichie, 33). They have become desensitized to the violence and aggression and remain silent, anesthetized and afraid.

Jaja and Kambili only hint to one another about the obvious cruelty they suffer, speaking through what Kambili calls “the language of the eyes” (Adichie, 305) or through subtle remarks that need no elaboration. When discussing their mother’s pregnancy, Jaja says to Kambili, “We will protect him”, and Kambili thinks to herself, “I knew that Jaja meant from Papa, but I did not say anything about protecting the baby” (Adichie, 23).  Jaja does not have to explicitly name the threat from which they must protect the unborn baby; the meaning of his words is tacit.

In Heather Hewett’s article Finding her voice, she expresses that Kambili has become so paralyzed by fear that she struggles to even speak about the most mundane of things. Hewett says, “These secrets weigh most heavily on Kambili herself, whose frequent inability to speak suggests how deeply her fear has sunk” (Hewett, 9). When visiting her Aunty in Nsukka, Kambili often finds herself stuttering out muffled replies to anyone who dares ask her a question. When Father Amadi makes a comment to Kambili about not having seen her smile even once during the whole day, she looks away and does not reply.  She thinks, “I looked down at my corn. I wanted to say I was sorry that I did not smile or laugh, but my words would not come” (Adichie, 139).  Aunty Ifeoma steps in to save her by replying, “She is shy”.

Of course, Kambili is more than shy; she is petrified, wanting to speak but too afraid that her words will get her in trouble, a fear deeply instilled in her by her father. Her silence is a symbol of her powerlessness and her struggle to find both her literal and figurative voice. 

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.

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