By: Eman Simms ’19, an English and German Studies double major.
The following work was created for ENG 336: Postcolonial Literature.
Brief description: ” ‘Coexistence of Creeds’ examines the beneficial and adverse effects of Catholicism in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus. The essay argues that the outcome of following a religion depends on one’s intention: it can be used to improve the lives of others or to manipulate and control them. “
For many people, religion is an essential part of their existence. Followers may understand religion as a gateway to life meaning, a morally fulfilling life, and an improved self. They may also view religious communities as a haven of unconditional love, support, and belonging or a movement for potential world peace. But while this benevolent concept of religion is shared by many, not all people would agree. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus explores the adverse and beneficial effects of Catholicism on her Nigerian characters, as well as the coexistence of the European religion alongside Igbo tradition and culture. From the start of the novel, Catholicism is very much depicted as a tool of authoritarian power and control. Main characters Kambili, Jaja, and mother Beatrice, for instance, are subjected to oppression and manipulation by father Eugene, who expects them to adhere to his strict rules and ridiculously high standards. As loyal followers of the Catholic church, Kambili and Jaja initially think the harshness of their father’s discipline is justified by his strong faith and supposed paternal love for them. However, their opinion of him changes when they spend time with their aunt Ifeoma and a young missionary priest, Father Amadi. Aunty Ifeoma and Father Amadi redefine the children’s notion of Catholicism. Instead of emphasizing spiritual perfection, they promote an open mind, unconditional love, and acceptance; they incorporate native Igbo tradition into their religious practice as opposed to shunning them. Therefore, Adichie demonstrates that religion has the potential to be either beneficial or hurtful, depending on the intention of the person who abides by it.
As much as religion can be beneficial, it also has the potential to be quite perilous if taken out of context or to extremes. For example, abuse of authoritative power is a classic danger across multiple religions; one where over-authoritative figures often rationalize their behavior. Such instances are often overlooked by those who follow such authoritative figures in the name of an unshakable faith; yet that faith may also be fueled by fear—fear of failing the expectations of friends, family, and the religious community as a whole. Eugene can attest to this well-known peril as he himself is responsible for abusing his authoritative power, at the same time conforming to the lofty expectation of others. Lauded for his wealthy reputation and devout Catholic faith, Eugene Achike is regarded by society to be a man of perfection—an expectation he imposes on his wife and children. They are to conform to the rigid doctrine of the Catholic church, remain obedient to Eugene, and follow his strict regulations in order to meet his self-ascribed standards. Otherwise, they are subjected to Eugene’s violent outbursts as punishment, which he justifies as righteousness granted him by the Catholic faith. When Beatrice gives Kambili a bowl of cornflakes along with medication to combat painful cramps on a coincidental day of Mass, Eugene does not hesitate to chastise not only Kambili but also Beatrice and Jaja for aiding her and going against Mass. Eugene uses the threat of violence to keep his family in line. It is a threat that should incite fear in his victims; but as his family becomes accustomed to this type of vicious behavior, they do not even try to avoid Eugene’s wrath: “We did not move more than two steps away from the leather belt that swished through the air” (Adichie 102). Right after their punishment, however, Eugene changes from hostile to sympathetic.
“Why do you walk into sin?” he asked. “Why do you like sin?”
Papa crushed Jaja and me to his body. “Did the belt hurt you? Did it break your skin?” he asked, examining our faces. I felt a throbbing on my back, but I said no, that I was not hurt. It was the way Papa shook his head when he talked about liking sin, as if something weighed him down, something he could not throw off. (102)
Nonetheless, Eugene does not take responsibility for his aggression. He does not even admit that it was he, but instead the belt that hurt them. He also implicitly blames his wife and children for their “sinful” behavior—behavior, which he feels is his duty as a devout Catholic to rectify. And it is because of their behavior that he feels saddened. Eugene’s beatings are also implied to have caused Beatrice to miscarry more than once. Nevertheless, Eugene holds her responsible for her “sin”, being unable to carry a child to term. Therefore, he instructs Kambili and Jaja to pray for Beatrice—not because it is what Eugene wants, but because it is what God wants.
Later, at dinner, Papa said we would recite sixteen different novenas. For Mama’s forgiveness…If Papa felt Jaja or me beginning to drift off at the thirteenth recitation of the Plea to St. Jude, he suggested we start all over. We had to get it right. I did not think, I did not even think to think, what Mama needed to be forgiven for. (35)
Here, Eugene drills Kambili and Jaja to pray for their mother, even if they do not understand what wrong she has done. They do not think to question their father as they trust his authority and judgment. They assume that whatever their mother has done, there must be a good reason for their father to request she need prayer to rectify her wrong. However, not knowing what exactly their mother did to necessitate forgiveness from God reinforces a sense of fear in them, as well as the notion that God does not take lightly to sin, whatever that may be. Thus, Kambili and Jaja recite the novenas repeatedly with the understanding that they must do it flawlessly.
This leads me to Eugene’s second form of abuse: manipulation. What actually makes Kambili, Jaja, and Beatrice so passive to Eugene’s cruelty is his psychological and emotional manipulation—a subtler, yet more effective way of controlling them. In addition to all the systematic rules and strict schedules he concocts for Kambili and Jaja, Eugene also creates what he calls “love sips”, a custom over which he and his children have grown to bond:
I waited for him to ask Jaja and me to take a sip, as he always did. A love sip, he called it, because you shared the little things you loved with the people you loved. Have a love sip, he would say, and Jaja would go first. Then I would hold the cup with both hands and raise it to my lips. One sip. The tea was always too hot, always burned my tongue, and if lunch was something peppery, my raw tongue suffered. But it didn’t matter, because I knew that when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa’s love into me. (8)
This habit may seem harmless at first; nonetheless, these “love sips” are a telltale sign of the domestic abuse they overlook. Kambili uses this fitting analogy to describe her relationship with their father. The perpetual hotness of the tea represents the air of the relationship. Kambili and Jaja are always concerned with pleasing Eugene, and are constantly hyperconscious and anxious but never calm, as the tea never is cool. Because they are always hyperconscious, they are silent and do not dare speak as freely as their cousins, knowing it might displease their father. The tea’s hotness could also connote Eugene’s aggression. Therefore, the tea never fails to burn Kambili’s tongue, as Eugene continues to hurt her and her brother, which is sometimes worse or “peppery” than other times, resulting in redness from the pain. Nevertheless, Kambili takes this as a sign of love. This love, however, is unhealthy as it is doing harm to Kambili and Jaja. No love should entail suffering, but Kambili does not know any different; this has always been her father’s way of expressing it. Since Eugene often expresses his love for the Catholic church alongside his family, his harsh rules and cruel disciple in the name of religion could be the “little thing”, or rather big thing, he shares with the people he loves. It appears as though Eugene wants the best for his children – to be morally upright people. But his alleged good intentions do not validate his abusive behavior. Beatrice, on the other hand, feels indebted to Eugene for maintaining their marriage despite her inability to carry a child to term.
The members of our umunna even sent people to your father to urge him to have children with someone else. So many people had willing daughters, and many of them were university graduates, too. They might have borne many sons and taken over our home and driven us out…But your father stayed with me, with us.” She did not usually say so much at one time. She spoke the way a bird eats, in small amounts. (20)
Beatrice feels quite fortunate to have Eugene as her husband. However, perhaps that is what Eugene intended. Beatrice compares herself to the women who were university graduates and their ability to potentially bear many children successfully. Although it is not clear why Eugene decided to stay with Beatrice, that fact that the other women have university degrees might suggest that Eugene did not want to deal with a women who would question his authority. His outspoken and free-spirited sister Ifeoma, for instance, teaches at the university in Nsukka and constantly urges Eugene to be less cruel to their father, Papa-Nnukwu, and not so strict with Kambili and Jaja. Considering Eugene and Ifeoma’s rather tense relationship, it would make sense for Eugene to avoid an educated wife. By staying with Beatrice, he fosters her hope for a child and uses this hope to manipulate her into believing she needs him to achieve this. Thus, Beatrice endures Eugene’s brutality. By treating his family in such an atrocious way, he conditions them to be weak in body and mind. In essence, he is stealing their souls. Eugene’s physical and psychological harm represses their sense of identity and any chance for their self-development. This is especially true for his children. Kambili, Jaja, and Beatrice are imprisoned by their dependency on Eugene’s poor display of love and affection, deceiving them into ignoring any help from the world outside their dysfunctional home.
While Eugene ensures that his family remains submissive to his authority in his presence, he also tries to extend his control beyond the bounds of his home and church. He demands that his family refrain from speaking Igbo, for instance, and insists they speak English “to sound civilized in public” (13). Eugene also forbids his wife and children from visiting Papa-Nnukwu, Kambili and Jaja’s grandfather who follows traditional Igbo beliefs and customs. Despite being his own father, Eugene abhors the old man, refusing contact with him and accusing him of heathenism. Therefore, when Kambili and Jaja are caught spending time with their grandfather, Eugene punished them by pouring boiling water over their feet, for they “walked right into sin” (194). Eugene even goes as far as beating Kambili to the point of needing critical medical attention (210-1). Eugene’s exploitation of Catholicism accompanied by his broad social influence on the Nigerian community demonstrates just how detrimental religion can be used in manipulating the lives of others. He, therefore, represents the dark side of religion —authority taken to an extreme with an emphasis on absolute obedience, or else suffer the wrath of judgment. As a man who embodies a hatred for those outside his Catholic religion, including his own family, one might venture to question Eugene’s choice of allegiance. He chooses to serve an institution run by white priests, abandoning his own Igbo culture and traditions. In regard to colonialization, one could ironically view Eugene as a victim of authoritative abuse, as well. It was the goal of the white colonizers to “civilize” nations they deemed primitive and barbarous, such as Nigeria. In the process, they succeeded in brainwashing natives into conforming to Western ideology and renouncing their own culture and traditions (Baharvand 43). By instilling the notion into the indigenous people that their native culture and traditions are barbaric and inferior, they begin to see Western culture and religion as superior. As Ifeoma remarks, Eugene is “too much of a colonial product” (Adichie 13). He follows in the footsteps of the white priests with unwavering faith in their religion and an over-eagerness to speak their English language. When Eugene makes an appearance at Kambili’s school, for example, he instantly mimics a British accent, which he also uses when speaking to Father Benedict (46). According to Frantz Fanon, “a Negro suffers from inferiority complex when coming into contact with the whites, because he has been constantly reminded of his barbarity by white colonizers who place him at the bottom of the great chain of being;” thus he may “try to imitate the whites in all manners to expedite their advancement and elevate themselves to the status of a dignified man” (Baharvand 43). This could explain Eugene’s steadfast devotion to the Catholic church and the white priests – to compensate for his inferiority complex. Perhaps subconsciously, Eugene sees his relationship with the church as part of his social climbing, hence survival. As a large influence on the Igbo people already, joining the Catholic church would be not only beneficial for Eugene’s self-esteem but also his social status. His assumed inferiority complex could also explain his abusive behavior toward his family. Because he was subjected to colonial rule and made to feel belittled for his cultural and ethnic identity, Eugene buries his insecurities and shame to the extent that self-justified violence becomes his only outlet. This not only impacts his relationship with his family but also shapes his notion of Catholicism as a strict, judgmental, and dominating religion – ironically, a role he takes on himself. Eugene bumps up his self-esteem, knowing that he is an avid follower of a civilized religion—a perfect religion. However, the values of Catholicism and Igbo traditions are not so different as both endorse achievement, purity, and patriarchy (Salamone 42). Neither is superior to the other; yet one’s chosen practice determines whether a religion or tradition is beneficial or harmful.
While Eugene exploits Catholicism as major part of his authoritative power, characters like Ifeoma and Father Amadi practice the religion differently. Unlike Eugene, Ifeoma embraces Catholicism with an open heart and mind. She respects Papa-Nnukwu’s adherence to Igbo traditions and beliefs, even if she might not share the same beliefs. Instead of renouncing Igbo culture and traditions, Ifeoma incorporates them into her Catholic faith, such as singing Igbo songs with her family while holding a rosary (Adichie 125). During Kambili and Jaja’s time at her home, Ifeoma attempts to ease the two into her hybrid Catholic-Igbo lifestyle, which they initially object. She also enlightens the siblings on the differences and similarities of their Catholic faith and Papa-Nnukwu’s rituals in hopes that they will break away from the strict solitary view of Catholicism Eugene preaches: “…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” (166). Consequent observations cause Kambili and Jaja to alter their opinion on what Catholicism means to them. Father Amadi also aids in their journey to a new identity. Like Ifeoma, Father Amadi integrates Igbo tradition into his Catholic practices, as well. Nevertheless, it is the lightheartedness and kindness of his nature that captivates Kambili and eventually makes her question all that her father has taught her. While Kambili watches Father Amadi coach his team of boys, she reflects on his belief in the boys’ athletic abilities.
It was what Aunt Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t. (226)
Kambili contemplates the idea of believing in oneself as opposed to doing something out of obligation and fear. This dichotomy in religious practice, using encouragement rather than fear as motivation, creates an interesting analogy that alludes to the strict Catholic faith imposed on Kambili and Jaja. The siblings’ lives were driven by the fear of God and their father’s judgment. However, taking another look at her memory, Kambili recognizes the difference in her motivation versus her cousins’. Their motivation is incited by the support and love of someone they trust, which in return resonates within them and gives them the confidence to believe in themselves. As she slowly continues to explore herself, Kambili finds her own confidence with the help of her aunt Ifeoma and Father Amadi. By emphasizing the importance of acceptance and unconditional love through their unique form of Catholicism, Ifeoma and Father Amadi not only benefit their own lives by living happily but also the people around them. The two show Kambili and Jaja that religion does not have only one grave face but many faces, depending on how one decides to see it. Thus, Kambili and Jaja challenge their initial understanding of their Catholic faith and change it for the sake of a happier and healthier life. With an honest concern for others wellbeing, Ifeoma and Father Amadi signify the positive side of religion. They emphasize family, support, and a peaceful and healthy coexistence between faiths.
Adichie demonstrates the potentially harmful and beneficial effects of Catholicism with her main characters. She warns about the perils of blindly adhering to religion, showing how it can be used to oppress and control through her character Eugene Achike. As an authority figure, Eugene is a well-trusted man as depicted by society. Behind closed doors, however, he abuses his authority by beating and manipulating his family and justifies it through his devotion to his Catholic faith. This results in Kambili, Jaja, and Beatrice’s limited growth as individuals and their false feeling of dependency on Eugene. But Eugene, too, was a victim of similar authoritative abuse by the hands of white colonists. Adichie focuses on the benefits of religion as showed by Ifeoma and Father Amadi. Their inclusiveness of Igbo tradition and culture, in addition to their Catholic faith, portrays their individual way of thinking about religion—not a restrictive, fear-ridden routine but an individual’s way of expressing support, acceptance, and unconditional love. By mixing Igbo tradition and culture with Catholicism, Ifeoma and Father Amadi do not simply retain an essential part of their identity but also embody the coexistence of two faiths, two cultures. By exploring the benefits and adversities of religion, Adichie encourages us to challenge our own views and accept our differences. She uses religion as a method to demonstrate that strict adherence to any long-standing, unquestioned social construct has it detriments. Humankind can only move forward when they are able to question authority, accept differences, and blend together to create something new.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, NC. 2012.
Baharvand, Peiman Amanolahi. “The Role of British Missionaries in the Rejection of Igbo Religion and Culture in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus.” Journal of Novel Applied Sciences, vol. 5, no. 2, 2016, pp. 43-51.
Salamone, Frank A. “Continuity of Igbo Values after Conversion: A Study in Purity and Prestige.” Practical Anthropology, vol. 3, no. 1, 1975, pp. 33–43. doi:10.1177/009182967500300105.
Eman Simms ‘19 is a senior at Washington College, who is majoring in English and German, and minoring in Creative Writing. He has studied abroad this past summer at Universität Tübingen, Germany. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in either creative and professional writing or animation and graphic arts, and score a career in editing and publishing, story writing, or graphic design. Eman is a passionate artist, writer, and amateur music composer who has been working on his own novel series since the age of thirteen. During his freetime, he likes to write, draw comics about his fictional characters, and compose orchestras or piano pieces mainly on computer software, either as theme songs for his stories or characters or just because.