Things Fall Apart and Purple Hibiscus: A Case of Organic Inter-textuality
Athira Mohan, Guest Lecturer, BCM College, Kottayam
The two celebrated works in African literature, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are separated by the forces and friction of half a century. But the two works bear some inexplicable links, certain common ebbs and currents which make it seem that time has flowed from one to the other, resulting in a peculiar deja vu felt by the reader.
Adichie has a self-professed admiration for Achebe, and admittedly, her works show signs of inspiration. But the question would be, who is not? Achebe is one of the greatest African voices in literature, and the set of shared African experiences voiced by him is looked up to by many writers. “He has become a dominant point of origin, a hyper pre cursor in whose aftermath virtually every African author self-consciously writes” (Boehmer 142). The loss of native customs and symbols of colonial culture are themes to be found in any post-colonial literature. But in no other pair of works we see an organic link which connects their souls.
Purple Hibiscus starts with the line “Things started to fall apart at home” (Adichie 5) which is obviously, a conscious and seemingly deliberate device to pin point to the organic relationship between the texts. The chapters titled “Breaking Gods” and “Speaking with our Spirits” definitely resonate to Achebe’s novel, the organic continuity being maintained when Adichie’s novel starts with the chapter ‘Breaking Gods.” Things Fall Apart ends on the note when the white men slowly subvert the indigenous culture of the Igbo tradition and Purple Hibiscus opens where the subversion has almost reached a complete cycle. In Things Fall Apart, in the crucial chapter twenty, the following line occurs, towards the end, “The two men sat in silence for a long while afterwards”(Achebe, 121). In Purple Hibiscus, the crucial final chapter is titled “A Different Silence.”
Adichie not just continues the story, but places it in a definite context. As she puts in her seminal essay Danger of a Single Story, she fights against the stereotypes which present African society in a specific colour to the world. In many respects her novel goes beyond Things Fall Apart, attempts to fill the gaps left by the latter. When Things Fall Apart focuses primarily on the traditional Igbo customs and the erosion of the same due to the hegemony of the white, Purple Hibiscus focuses on multiple issues and presents myriad characters.
On the first reading, the character Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart and Eugene in Purple Hibiscus seem to be representing opposite systems of belief, but on closer inspection, there are strong similarities between them. Both are men of strong conviction in their belief systems, and both have earned a big name in their societies. While Okonkwo is embarrassed about his long deceased father Unoka, who was a light hearted man who liked his drink, whom the former regarded to be effeminate. Eugene does not associate himself with his pagan father, Papa-nnukwu, whose conversion he prays for but refuses to pay him a visit. Both men are representations of chauvinist, self-absorbed beings, though kind inside, are much misunderstood. Similarly, both take out their anger physically abusing their wives. The concept that physical infliction of pain can change a person, or it can cleanse a person, though originating from two separate belief systems are equally absurd. Both are self-made men, who take pride in being the producers for their families. The similarities do not end here. Both of them rebel against the political environment of their times, Okonkwo against the colonial government and Eugene against the Nigerian autocratic regime.
Similarly their sons Nwoye and Jaja share some common features. Both are disillusioned young men whose likes and interests are at odds from that of their fathers. Both are seen to be fighting against certain societal notions of masculinity and religious virtues; Nwoye is considered an effeminate young boy whereas Jaja takes a liking towards gardening and rebels against his father.
If Things Fall Apart does not have any notable woman characters, mainly owing to the temporal phase it was set, Purple Hibiscus has a female protagonist, Kambili who is not the regular strong female character in feminist narratives. She is a stifled and suffocated person who barely makes a presence, who slowly grows to learn laughter and finds her voice. There is a marked resemblance between Ezinma of Things Fall Apart and Amaka of Purple Hibiscus. Aunt Ifeoma is the strongest presence in the novel, who shows the face of the modern Nigerian woman. Perhaps, this can be seen as the two versions, or two angles tackled by a male and female authors, “alteration of perspective, technically known as trans-focalization…” (Sanders 49)
How does she bring about a continuity?
The reader stops at Things Fall Apart where the hands of colonial powers began working to change the Nigerian cultural fabric, and throws in the theme of religious conversion. In Purple Hibiscus it has reached a full cycle, where the family of Eugene is a typical self-confessed Christian family, who has inherited the colonial culture as their own, or in other words, a ‘normalization’ has taken place. But in a very interesting way, Adichie had shown us that the crude customs of the past still linger in the ‘normalized’ forms. While twin babies and babies born at a wrong time were mercilessly thrown away and killed in Things Fall Apart, Eugene kills two of his unborn children, as a result of whipping his pregnant wife. Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart is a born leader, a strong man of the clan, who has his flaws. When he breaks the ‘week of peace’ by beating his wife, he has to give money and offerings to Ani, the goddess of earth. In the modern times, Eugene tries to hide his guilt of physically assaulting his family by being generous to the other converts.
As observed earlier, the continuity is more marked when the political atmosphere has not changed much as far as the freedom of the citizens are concerned. In Things Fall Apart the white convert the culture and beliefs of the natives, and train them to look down upon their own customs and beliefs. In Purple Hibiscus the citizens of Nigeria are tormented by the autocratic regime.
While there are no strong female presences in Things Fall Apart, Purple Hibiscus, published years later, comes up with strong women presences, not just strong, but nuanced and varied. The characters are more deep and realistic. These are changes that time calls for. But there are some specific cultural undertones that have not changed. For instance, the practices of female bonding over sessions of plating hair etc.
The most striking similarity which was pointed out by many critics was the use of a folk tale in both of the novels, the story behind how the tortoise got its cracked shell, told with minor variations. An explanation for this can be sought in the folk narratives that constitute a given cultural frame, yet the resemblance seems uncanny.
Food is an element that has played a strong role in most of Achebe, and it finds an unassailing presence in Purple Hibiscus as well. In Achebe’s novel it is used for several purposes, mainly to highlight the indigenous cultural practices, even to describe the nature of people and their social status. For instance, over indulging in Koala nut or drinks is not considered manly, and welcoming people with koala hints that the person belongs to a high social status. After years, Adichie uses the same device mostly for the same purposes.
When Kambili’s regular menu consists of items of meat, fresh juice and exotic dishes, she perceives differences in cuisine very well. Papa Nnukwu’s soup is found out by her to be watery and devoid of chunks of meat. At aunt Ifeoma’s house chicken is considered to be a rare delicacy and they mainly live off on plantains and fufu. The differences in food are highlighted as well as they are used as a marker for societal rank.
Treatment of Authority- Anglophobia and Anglophilia
Both novels treat authority in almost similar ways. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo commands respect and fear from the whole tribe, whereas in Purple Hibiscus, Eugene buys respect with his wealth. The requisites of power might have changed, the pagan rituals might have melted down, but the bowing down have not changed.
The white man is practically a stranger in Things Fall Apart. So he garners a gaze, fear of the unknown, and respect from some quarters. There is equal resentment, an Anglophobia generated from a huge portion of the citizens.
In Purple Hibiscus things have changed upside down. The devout Christians look up to the white as cultured beings and learn to look down upon their black skin. A small populace like that of Amaka realize the need to give importance to the indigenous modes of music and art. This is best illustrated by the black Mary and Jesus drawn by her, of which blonde version hangs in Eugene’s house hold. The white holds a visible hegemony in Religion, Music and Arts. But there is a parallel native movement springing up.
In short, there are not just some casual resemblances, but a definite organic relation between the two texts, a case of inter textuality, in which one almost forgets where one ends and the other begins. It almost reads like a cyclic narration of events, carefully laced with myths and legends. Adichie has herself remarked that the resemblances are not deliberate, but purely unconscious. It can be a product of what T.S. Eliot has intended in his Tradition and Individual Talent, a piece of her favourite text embedded in her unconscious, which produced a polished, refined continuation of the same, invoking a peculiar deja-vu in the reader.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Penguin Modern Classics, 2001.
Adichie, Ngozi Chimamanda. Purple Hibiscus. Fourth Estate, 2007.
Adichie, Ngozi Chimamanda. Danger of a Single Story. TED Talks. 2009, lecture.
Sanders, Julie. Adaption and Appropriation. Routledge, 2005.