A Little Look Into “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Brief Analysis: Themes

Journey and Growth

Within Purple Hibiscus, the main characters, Kambili and Jaja experience change, not only in environment but in character. Although journeying does not necessarily mean transformation, for Kambili and Jaja, their visit to Nsukka alters the way they live and think. In the first half of the text, Kambili and Jaja typically travel from home to school, from home to church. Their lives at home is a ritual: the children have to literally follow a schedule laid out by their father. Their father ensures they follow the plan precisely, so much so that Kambili wonders if their unborn sibling would get a schedule too right after he/she is born. Even the game they play with their father, chess (24), does not seem fun; it is dependent on strategy, order and silence, as are nearly all their activities and movements in the house (31). They long for freedom, revealed in the way they try to create pseudo-freedom[1] by often asking each other questions about their day when they already knew the answers (23). They do not get the chance to socialize with their friends at school or anywhere else. The description of their home also gives the impression of a prison and hints at a kind of order: Their home is wide and spacious, “the compound walls, topped by coiled electric wires, were so high [Kambili] could not see the cars driving by on the street…[there is] a row of purple bougainvillea, cut smooth and straight…” (9).  (see page 41 also).

In Nsukka, the Achike children discover people who are happy, even in the midst of poverty; their aunt’s community hints at togetherness rather than artificial isolation;: “The street gradually lost its tarred smoothness and its cultivated hedges, and the houses became low and narrow, their front doors so close together that you could stand at one, stretch out, and touch the next door. There was no pretense at hedges here, no pretense at separation or privacy…” (130). In Nsukka, they learn to live without a schedule; they learn to laugh, joke, love, sing, defy and choose. Kambili discovers a lightheartedness missing from her own home where one cannot speak without purpose (120) or pray for laughter (127). She, along with her brother, learn the necessity of freedom and experimentation as symbolized by the purple hibiscuses their aunt plants in her garden.

When Kambili returns to Enugu, she notes how lifeless, cold and unfeeling her home is. Thereafter, a series of rebellions by her and Jaja slowly demolish the power of their father. The fear that he placed for years in Jaja’s eyes had now left and entered his (13). Kambili and Jaja’s routines does not remain the same as before as Jaja becomes defiant: he rebels by not attending communion on Palm Sunday and disagreeing with his father’s religious logic; Kambili wonders if “something [came] loose in his head” (6), but Jaja is possessed of self, he is no longer mechanical.  In anger, their father throws his missal and it breaks their mother’s ceramic figurines but as noted by Kambili, “it was not just the figurines that came tumbling down, it was everything” (15). The confrontation marks the end of Papa’s reign over his family; also indicated by the rash on his face which tells of his future death by slow poisoning. Prior to the events leading up to this scene, Jaja tested his rebellion by asking for a key so that he may have privacy in his room and Kambili joined a group of girls at school in volleyball. Although Eugene pours boiling water on their feet after they return from Nsukka for failing to tell him that they spent time with Papa-Nnukwu, they decide to look at an unfinished painting of their grandfather in Kambili’s room (given to her by Amaka after he dies). They know that they would most likely be caught with the painting but the consequences of defying their father’s will does not scare them as much as it once did.

When Eugene, the man who had seemed immortal to Kambili is poisoned by her mother and dies, she feels conflicted, yearning for his presence yet feeling released by his absence. We are not told how Jaja feels but he expresses his regret at not doing enough to protect his mother. Afterwards, Kambili tells him, ““God knows best…[He] works in mysterious ways” and she thought Papa would be proud and approve of her saying that” (289). Jaja replies but his response reveals that he is transformed even more than she is: He uses satire to question her statement and asks her, “have you ever wondered why [God] has to murder his own son so that we could be saved? Why didn’t He just go ahead and save them?” (289). He now questions what he had always been told by his father, he wonders why his father, who was like a god, had to harm them in order to help them. He later pleads guilty, telling the police he killed his father so that his mother would not have to go to prison.

Kambili, in contrast, has a way to go before she departs from the negative aspects of her upbringing but closing chapters of the text reveals that she is changing and has more changing to do. At one time, she had never considered university, where she would go or what she would study: “When the time came, Papa would decide” (130); now she could reflect on the future. By the close of the novel, they visit Jaja in prison to inform him that he will be released. The good news allows Jaja to briefly “connect with Mama and Kambili even in the simplest observation[2], and Mama breaks her silence with a simple “thank you,” which seems to thank him both for his sacrifice in taking responsibility for Papa’s death and for not holding that sacrifice against Mama” (www.litcharts.com). Kambili soon after tells her mother of her plans: she wants Jaja and her mother to accompany her to America where they will visit Aunt Ifeoma. She also wants them to plant orange trees in Abba, “and Jaja will plant purple hibiscus, too, and [she will] plant ixora so [they] can suck the juices of the flowers” (307). She is still able to laugh, and she does so while placing her arm on her mother’s shoulder and her mother leans towards her and smiles; Kambili then observes “…the new rains [that] will come down soon” (307). These final lines, through nature/tree-planting references, foreshadow possibilities for their family beyond the drought of imprisonment and silence they had once endured.

 

Family/Relationships and Belonging

Within the Achike family, “belonging” means turning a blind eye to abuse. Beatrice, Kambili and Jaja want to belong, Kambili mainly yearns for her father’s love and approval. Her father is hard to please, nonetheless, proven by how he is deeply disappointed when Kambili comes second in her class. She “needed him to smile at [her]., in that way that lit up his face, that warmed something inside [her]. But [she] had come second. [She] is stained by failure” (39). She remembers fond memories of him holding her as a child, but as she and her brother grew older, the abuse seemed to dominate their knowledge of him. “There were stories in his eyes that [she] would never know” (42), stories that perhaps could explain his shifting “love”. He burdens them, mentally (53) and physically and they are only able to get away from his wrath temporarily when their aunt request their presence in Nsukka. There, at their aunt’s home, Jaja matures into a thoughtful and brave young man. His aunt welcomes him wholly in a way his father has not, calling Jaja “my father” which is what she sometimes calls her sons (155); his young cousin Obiola also provides an example of how to be daring and outspoken. Kambili likewise develops as a person from the feelings of acceptance she gets from her Aunt, cousins and a priest by the name of Amadi. She additionally finds sisterhood with her cousin Amaka who once believed she and Jaja were “abnormal”. When Amaka learns more about Kambili, along with why she is reserved, their cold hugs turned into warm physical contact and playful conversations. By observing Amaka and Papa-Nnukwu interact, their voices twining together, Kambili realizes that “they understood each other, using the sparest words. Watching them, [she] felt a longing for something [she] knew [she] would never have” (165). Yet, she did have it by the close of the novel with her cousins; they all laughed together, “it seemed so easy now, laughter. Jaja was laughing too…” (284). What the Achike children lack at home is fulfilled by their extended family who not only reveal history to them through orality[3] but fight for them and encourage their true selves to manifest.

 

Silence

Papa looked at me and then at Mama, searched our faces as if looking for letters beneath our noses, above our foreheads, on our lips, that would spell something he would not like (77)

The Achike children endure their father’s abuse in silence; the cause of the pain, their father is never named, as can be seen on page 10 when Kambili “meant to say I am sorry Papa broke your figurines, but the words that came out were, “I’m sorry your figurines broke, Mama” (10). Or we can use another example when Jaja says “we will take care of the baby; we will protect him.” [Kambili] knew that Jaja meant from Papa…” (23). Kambili and Jaja’s voices are mainly utilized to pray, answer to, praise and compliment their father. The children speak in low tones or through eye contact; their mother, Beatrice, also has a low voice as she is conditioned to speak that way in order to express submissiveness, avoid punishment and maintain peace. Criticism, blame and individual thought[4] is not encouraged in the household. Through Kambili’s narration, we see that she wants her father to approve of her actions/words since her life is only centered on his desires. Thus, she often wishes she had complimented or agreed with her father before her brother or mother did, using their exact words. She is awed by his character, “and sometimes she forgot herself, sometimes [she] wanted to stay like that forever, listening to his voice, to the important things he said.” (25). But that is the problem, he makes her forget herself, thus, when she goes outside of the home she is confused; she does not know what she wants, why she wants it. She only has his opinion as her guide. Eugene does not mind his family’s silence, yet, this is ironic If one observes how he is troubled by the silence and lack of truth in journalism(58)[5].

Kambili, Jaja and Beatrice “spoke more with [their] spirits than with [their] lips”, that is, until Nsukka. “Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma’s little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nuskka began to lift the silence. Jaja’s defiance seemed to [Kambili] now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom…a freedom to be, to do” (16). Ifeoma teaches them the value of affection along with the value of speech and strength. Her personality resists silence, even her tears, for “she had not learned the art of silent crying” (185). Her children, Amaka, Obiora and Chima also reveal these characteristics in their home filled with laughter, critical thinking and debates. Each child is different from the other, encouraged to be opinionated individuals by their mother (226). For instance, when Ifeoma and her children initially have dinner at the Achike’s home, Amaka offers her opinion on Eugene’s drink made at his factory. She tells him “it would be nicer if you reduced the sugar in it” (98). Kambili is shocked but later learns that at her aunt’s dinner table, “you could say anything at any time to anyone…the air was free for you to breathe as you wished” (120). Kambili first finds it hard to express herself in Nsukka unlike her brother Jaja whose attitude changes after a few days. He becomes bold as indicated by his broadened shoulders and decision to finally speak about his father’s true nature. However, Kambili’s aunt, cousins and Father Amadi eventually challenge her silence[6] and build her self-esteem, especially Amaka who misreads her personality and only tells her little so that she has to ask. Soon, Kambili starts to speak for herself and apologize less without waiting on her aunt to defend her or for her brother to rescue her with his words. In the ease of her aunt’s homely residence, Kambili also recognizes that silence can be comfortable such as the quiet moments she shares with Amaka while they clean rice or listen to music (247). By the end of the text when her father dies, she diagnoses her family and states that “Silence hangs over us, but it is a different silence, one that lets me breathe. I have nightmares about the other kind, the silence of when Papa was alive. In my nightmares, it mixes with shame and grief and so many other things…” (305). Yet, with all the burden and heartbreaks of the past, “[she] can talk about the future now” (306) with them.

 

Religion, Superstition and Society

Religion within Purple Hibiscus hints at the deeper fight in Nigeria between colonial and tradition, new and old, black and white. If you take a look at the St. Agnes church and Father Benedict, you might come to the conclusion that the author suggests that tradition is not always backwards and religion must be for the people, not against them. At the St. Agnes church for instance, the congregation is awed by their priest, Father Benedict, simply because he is white. The church reveals that although slavery is abolished and Nigerians can govern themselves, colonial thought did not perish with the laws that offered black people physical and political “freedom”. The description provided by the narrator of the St. Agnes church and Father Benedict expose how the church provokes a conflict of identity. The “blond life-size Virgin Mary” (4) and the blond white British God/Jesus whose servants believe “Igbo was not acceptable” in church (4) emphasize two things: the physical difference between the whites and blacks[7] and the hopelessness of individuals aspiring to be made into an image that they are furthest from. When Kambili describes the holy water as tasting of a “stale saltiness”, this implies how outdated and irrelevant the religion is as it cannot be applied to the lived realities of the people.

Eugene describes those who worship African gods and idols, godless/heathens, particularly his father Papa-Nnukwu. He dislikes his father for his Igbo tongue which does not speak Latin or English in the way Beatrice’s deceased father, whom he admired, did. Yet, Eugene’s church seems to profit from not only preaching in the name of Jesus and the pope but by praisingnhis monetary contributions. Individuals within the society often operate in a similar manner as the distribution of money or help to them would produce exaggerated praise and God-Blesses from their lips. It seems that both the African and Christian tradition seems to deal not only in charity, confession and prayer but in superstition (99) and idolatry[8]. It is no surprise then that the deception of the church is alluded to when Kambili describes Father Benedict’s eyes as green like a snakes (105), perhaps like the one in the garden of Eden which called men to sin while pretending to call men to liberation.

Ironically, it is the superstitious people and “pagan” religions who seem to value humanity and goodness more than the Catholics in the text. While Eugene is able to buy his way through life, he could not convince his father, Papa-Nnukwu, to accept his material gifts and convert to Christianity. It is also the language of Igbo that is less rigid, communicating fondness, belonging and equality in a way that English does not (see page 73). And although Aunt Ifeoma is in contact with “heathens” (Papa-Nnukwu), she reveals to Kambili that Christianity can be a religion of tolerance and inclusion[9]: Ifeoma prays for Papa-Nnukwu which makes Kambili remember how her father only prays for God to convert Papa-Nnukwu and rescue him from hell’s fire. Although Eugene shuns Papa-Nnukwu, Papa-Nnukwu prays for him with “the same earnestness that he prayed for himself and Aunty Ifeoma” (168). Papa-Nnukwu is a “traditionalist” as explained by Aunt Ifeoma but the generation made into hybrids by European religion and values (such as Eugene) are often taught to reject tradition in order to move forward and be wholesome people. However, it seems for all of Eugene’s talk of renewal and civility, his actions are not progressive and he remains incomplete.

Religion as a Mask

Eugene Achike uses religion as a way to justify the abuse of his wife and children; his cruelty may be the result of his difficult childhood. He reveals to his daughter, midway through the text, that he was abused as a child. Eugene grew up poor, working as a houseboy and gardener for priests. He experiences trauma as a child, particularly at St. Gregory’s when his hands were burnt in hot water by a “good father” for apparently masturbating. As an adult he still tries to keep his hands clean in that sense, fervently rinsing his family and others of deeds he believes are dirty sins. He becomes one of the few versions of a “man” but not the popular/typical kind: a man who cheats on his wife or marries more than one wife and drinks/boasts with his friends. He is a religious gentleman, a troubling form of masculinity. He exerts power, not sexually or through verbal boasting, but by utilizing the Bible, his fists and money. When he sits in church and is praised by Father Benedict, he has a “blank look” (5) on his face, pretending modesty. In truth, he feels proud of his status in the church and community, he enjoys his role as the most exemplary and kind God-abiding member. In truth, however, he is a hypocrite, for he hates moral sin but engages in it.

Eugene nonetheless believes himself to have deep insight into bettering the country and his people through God; when he prays, it is often overdone, drawn out for up to twenty minutes. The diction within the novel reveals that Eugene seems to function like a God-like figure. He prays at dinner time, “asking God to forgive those who had tried to thwart His will, who had put selfish desires first…” (32). He also rebukes Kambili by saying, “Because God has given you much, he expects much of you” (47).  Of course, his prayers and warnings are often directed against his family or any situation he finds unpleasant; he wishes that his family and others would bend to his will and not necessarily God’s will. It is why his sister says he “has to stop doing God’s job. God is big enough to do his own job…let God do the judging…” (96, 97). It is also why Kambili could never imagine him dying, “he had seemed immortal” (287). His grip on his family does not hold in the end, for all their actions after Nsukka seem to fall into his misguided classification of “godlessness”. It is also worth knowing that the wife rebels in her own way: Beatrice had once agreed with Eugene’s disbelief in superstition (20) but she later poisons him with the help of Sisi who knew a witch doctor.

Ultimately, Eugene is a conflicted character, and it is why his children and wife both love him but want to get away from him. He often cries during and/or after he physically harms his family. He tells his children to take a “love sip” (8) of tea which actually burns their tongue, Kambili says “it burns [his] love into me” (8). Thus, his love is paradoxical and so is his family’s affection for him (268). He likely seeks approval and/or pardon[10]; perhaps the spirit of the missionaries haunt him in memory; it explains why he is “gracious, in the eager-to-please way that he always assumed with the religious, especially the white religious” (46).

 

Abuse: Physical and Emotional Abuse; Emotional Scars

The forceful character of Eugene is foreshadowed from the first page when he “…pressed hard on each forehead to make a perfect cross” (3) on Ash Wednesday at church. Kambili and Jaja grow up fearing their father and Kambili repeatedly tries to copy his behavior to please him, in part to avoid being punished and also because she partly believes what he tells her. Kambili cannot eat her meals and enjoy it like her cousin Amaka because she is always tense and on guard, afraid to act in any way which her father might find inappropriate. When he speaks they all obey; when he says ““Pass the salt, please”, they all reached for the salt at the same time” (12). He is without compassion, beating Kambili for eating food during the Eucharistic fast when she could not withstand the hunger. When Jaja was ten he crushed his little finger when he was not named the best in his class. Eugene also beats Beatrice; at one point, he beat her until she loses their unborn child. The children were emotionally scarred by the experience; they have to clean their mother’s blood from the floor and for days later, “the words in [Kambili’s] textbooks kept turning into blood” (37). She is haunted by the violence and a feeling of helplessness. Their mother is also deeply affected by the loss as noted in her “vacant” eyes that reflect those of a mad person (34). Beatrice internalizes the pain and displaces her sorrow in cleaning: Whenever Eugene hits her, she wipes the ceramic figurines in the dining area. When he kills the unborn child within her on another occasion (by breaking a table on her belly), she goes to Nsukka where she tells everyone, and cries openly for a long while after. Their mother had always been unable to name the oppressor, even when Kambili ends up in hospital after Eugene kicks her repeatedly (212). The loss of Beatrice’s second fetus seems to be the deciding factor that leads her to poison her husband, “[her] eyes were still glazed, but she looked like a different woman…she looked possessed by a different demon” (250)[11]. The poison she gives to Eugene weakens him and seems to give her emotional and verbal energy; she could give orders, ignore his rules and raise her voice around the house. When Eugene dies and the autopsy reveals the cause of death, Jaja tells the police that he is the one who poisoned his father. Their mother’s authority and speech dies down after his imprisonment; she becomes withdrawn and loses weight. However, she along with her children are able to look forward and hope for a better tomorrow nearly three years later when they are able to get Jaja out of prison.

 

‘Othermothers’[12], the Mother Figure and Gender

Kambili and her mother are not only oppressed by Eugene but by social and religious institutions that place females in inferior positions. At Kambili’s catholic school for girls, the walls are just as high as those at her home, “topped by jagged pieces of green glass with sharp edges jutting out” (45). On her report card, Kambili is commended for being quiet, responsible and obedient (38,39). These are traits that girls are often told to strive towards. While her brother is told he will inherit his father’s riches, she is told she is a ripe fruit, ready to be picked by a strong young man (91). It is no surprise then that Kambili relates to the struggle of being female in a world where men seem to have power and choice. When she sees a crying woman on the ground being abused by soldiers, she felt as if she knew her and she wished she could have gone over and helped her up (44).

Their mother, Beatrice, does not set a good example for what a female must tolerate in marriage and society. She is spoken to and treated in a similar manner as her children are by her husband. There is little difference between her and Sisi, the housegirl, who cooks and cleans.  “There was so much [Beatrice] did not mind” (20), living in her husband’s shadow, she tries to excuse his behavior by arguing that he is not like other Big Men[13]. Beatrice explains that when she had miscarriages and the villagers and members of their umunna (community) urged Eugene to have children with someone else, he did not. There were willing daughters, many university graduates ready to have his sons and take over the household, driving them out, she explains. Hence, she overlooks her husband’s abusiveness in order to remain financially secure and have a roof over her head, but Kambili’s aunt, Ifeoma, is unwilling to accept her reasoning.

Aunt Ifeoma is the first voice of opposition to Eugene in the text (see page 13). Kambili does not have any female role models but her aunt Ifeoma becomes one when they spend more time together. Ifeoma is a university teacher and single mother described as being as “tall as Papa, with a well-proportioned body. She walked fast, like one who knew just where she was going and what she was going to do there. And she spoke the way she walked, as if to get as many words out of her mouth as she could in the shortest time” (71). Ifeoma defies and mocks Eugene in Igbo, she impresses Kambili who “watched her every movement…It was the fearlessness about her, about the way she gestured as she spoke, the way she smiled to show that wide gap” (75).

Ifeoma’s actions reveal that a female can be both emotional, expressive, strong and intelligent. She does not expect Kambili or Jaja to be conventional, she tells them that “being defiant can be a good thing sometimes” (144). Ifeoma lets Kambili’s mother know that a husband does not necessarily crown a woman’s life. A female’s purpose and will to live is not dependent on marriage or children; she also stresses the need for young women to have choice and education. She believes marriage/domestic life “is what [women] think they want” (75) because they are taught gender roles from an early age. Ifeoma clearly teachers her daughter Amaka this for she is a “teenage copy of her mother. She walked and talked even faster and with more purpose than Aunty Ifeoma did” (78).

Kambili learns to open up and relax at her aunt’s home; it is there that she first wears a shorts after being told all her life that it is sinful for women to wear them. She also tries on lipstick owned by her cousin Amaka, who could also wear a dress that clings to her body. Kambili begins to laugh often and sing in the shower, during prayer or in the car with her cousins. Her sexuality is also awakened in Nsukka by Father Amadi when she discovers that she has feelings for him. Her affection for Father Amadi is not discouraged by her aunt or cousins, neither do they treat Kambili’s connection to Amadi as sinful or dirty. Thus, through Ifeoma, Kambili learns that it is alright to be a female with voice, sensual feelings and self-centered desires.

Symbolism

  • Mama’s Figurines[14]
  • Purple Hibiscus
  • Dream (Romantic love versus Fatherly Love) pg 282. The conflict is resolved on page 303 when Kambili decides to share Father Amadi with God.

[1] Pseudo means “fake”. Fake freedom.

[2] “”You did not tie your scarf well,” Jaja says to Mama. [Kambili] stare[s] in amazement. Jaja has never noticed what anybody wears…” (306).

[3] Papa-Nnukwu’s storytelling, traditional beliefs, traditional games and the Masquerade.

[4] When Eugene asks the children to pray for their mother’s forgiveness after he beats her, Kambili did as commanded, she “did not think; she did not even think to think, what Mama needed to be forgiven for” (36).

[5] This contradiction is similar to how Eugene’s paper speaks about the need for a renewed democracy while his paper is ironically called the Standard (25), a word which often speaks to the norm rather than change.

[6] See pages: (170, 173, 176, 177, 179, 239, 276)

[7] When Father Amadi sees Christ in the poor boys’ faces, Kambili “could not reconcile the blond Christ hanging on the burnished cross in St. Agnes and the sting-scarred legs of the boys” (178).

[8] Eugene tells his wife it is sinful to bow to another human being when she visits the Igwe’s palace and greets him with a traditional bow. Kambili takes his advice and does not bow and kiss the bishop’s ring at Awka but she is scolded by her father who tells her the bishop is a man of God.

[9] Father Amadi also demonstrates this; he is nothing like Father Benedict who lives by a script (175) of condemnation. At Amadi’s church, people could come as they were, in jeans, trousers, hatless, as long as they came (240).

[10] “It was the way Papa shook his head when he talked about [Kambili] liking sin, as if something weighed him down, something he could not throw off” (102).

[11] Popular social metaphor in West Indian novels, “the use of the madwoman in their fiction reflects feelings of female fragmentation, [a disconnection] between self-image and expected role…” (Out of the Kumbla, O’Callaghan, 108) Madness “…may involve breakthrough as well as breakdown” (O’Callaghan, 46).

[12] A terminology obtained from Rosalie Riegle Troester in “Turbulence and Tenderness: Mothers, Daughters, and ‘Othermothers’ in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones.” Othermothers are present in the traditional childcare network common among those of African descent such as families engaged in polygamous unions where the females become substitute mothers to the younger children in the household.

[13] An influential, often wealthy man who ‘collected many wives’ or as termed in Jamaica, a “gyallis” (cunning, unattached, promiscuous male); see Amadiume, p. 45; Meeks and Hall, p. 236.

[14] Mama always polishes her beloved ceramic figurines of ballet dancers after Papa beats her. Mama, Kambili, and Jaja never speak aloud of Papa’s violence, but polishing the figurines become a kind of euphemism for his domestic abuse. When Mama cleans the figurines that Papa breaks in anger, she tells Kambili that she won’t need to replace them. This shows that something has changed in the family dynamic, and Mama won’t stand for violence anymore, just as Jaja asserts his independence by disobeying Papa. Thus the figurines symbolize the submissiveness and silence the family lives with under the fear of Papa’s violence, and when the figurines are broken it means the beginning of freedom and free speech (litcharts.com)

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Inside with the Night-time Cumulus

When the moon hangs overhead like a doting mother,

My thoughts become a chiaroscuro,

Indistinct, billowing shades caught by the ceiling…

The out-pour buoying,

The ‘me’ ebbing away from the walls that send back a faint echo of my innermost self

Stirring awake in the dark…

When the waylaying yellow fingers of dawn reach in through the window,

The chrysalis breaks prematurely –

and the stratus dissipates,

before I can make meaning out of it by the bureau.

 

Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power’ in Death and the King’s Horseman

 

The play, Death and the King’s Horseman, interpreted on a superficial level, can be summarized as the failure of a horseman (due to alien forces) to follow his King into the afterlife thereby causing the death of his son. However, this ‘reductionist tendency’ would not suffice for Soyinka or the drama which involves more than ‘the colonial factor’ or a clash of culture (Death and the King’s Horseman, 3).  The play, although based on an historical event in Oyo society, transcends into the metaphysical where the Yoruba community and mind is explored beyond what is discernable to the senses. This also treads into the philosophical realm where Soyinka’s work touches on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” theory which presents a way of looking at the world. Will to power “is psycho-physiological, it is the commanding thought or the drive of the superman (Elesin Oba) to perfect and transcend the self through the possession and exercise of creative power (actions, proverbs, metaphor, dance)” (merriamwebster.com). This meta-will also aims to achieve the highest possible station in life (through Elesin’s seduction and appeal to status or Pilking’s desire for recognition). Thus, while Death and the King’s Horseman presents conflicting cultures interacting, these conflicts do not produce the problem but accelerate and complicate it. If we are to consider that human behaviour is an expression of will, then the essence of the play can be found in the ‘Will to Power’ which reworks how the readers assign responsibility to a character’s thoughts and actions within his or her distinct community.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory is highly radical and calls into question the structure of human understanding. This, according to philosopher Arthur C. Danto, makes his theory enlightening but “if we have succeeded in understanding it, in our terms, it would automatically follow that we had misunderstood it, for our own terms are suggested to be the wrong ones” (560). Thus, I aim to extract useful points in Nietzsche’s already unsystematic theory and critique those in opposition with a positive construction of will and community. As stated in the introduction of Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka’s work draws its principles from the legends of “Ogun, the Yoruba god of war and creativity” as much as from Nietzsche’s “anti-traditional and rebellious philosophy” (viii). The theorist differentiates between what he calls Kraft (Force) and Macht (Power). Macht is the deliberate channeling of Kraft (exercise of strength) for inventive purposes. It stresses ‘self-overcoming’ which is similar to Soyinka’s idea of “self-apprehension”[1] as the “route forward for Nigeria” (194). Within the Yoruba world, there is also force (Ase: Life Force) which is a mix of performative power and wisdom, giving the individual the ability to act and make changes. Like the play, Nietzsche’s theory “necessarily assumes the character of myth[2], these myths were intimately associated with value-judgments which Nietzsche asserted with passion. And it is perhaps these value-judgments more than anything else which have been the source of his great influence” (Carroll.edu). It would follow then, that the characters in Death and the King’s Horseman are ideological messengers who not only comment on the colonial incident but human instincts that essentially shape history and culture.

The Yoruban village of Oyo is presented as a place which values communal wholeness, particularly the marketplace which is a site of kinship and a focalized center to the Otherworld. The Mother of the market, Iyaloja and the praise singers will be responsible for ushering Elesin Oba into the world of his ancestors where he will accompany his dead King, which is his cultural role. However, Elesin is sidetracked by his desire for fine clothes, wine and a beautiful girl betrothed to Iyaloja’s son. He even becomes irritated when they remind him of his impending death. Thus, his subsequent arrest by the District Officer, Simon Pilkings, can be said to be an external factor for his failure. It is apparent that his will power is not colossal; his egoistic intentions hindered his divine journey. Yet, Eldred Jones makes us aware that “when confronted with the ultimate sacrifice, the human will is apt to flinch…self-sacrifice is no mere mechanical ritual” (152).  Similarly, if Nietzsche had critiqued the play, he would have noted how unreasoned it would be to expect a human being to carry out altruistic actions. He would state how the “selfless” ritual Elesin will undergo progresses from a conceited drive, that is, from the will to power. As Olunde tells Jane, his sacrifice guarantees that he would have “peace of mind [and the] honour and veneration of his own people” (43). I understand what he is trying to say because at some point in time we have all done a good deed but have we ever questioned what motivates it? Perhaps to feel good about ourselves or to make peace with God; at any rate, the will to power comes through. However, this will to power does not have to be exclusively self-fulfilling which I would term a primary-egoism[3]; this force would only destroy society and what Soyinka sees as the well-being of man. Elesin confirms this assumption when he displays selfish-egoism with his material and sexual desires. It is not obvious that he does so because of what Nietzsche labels as a ‘disguised form of the will to power’. This means that the will appears to stem from something else, such as the dying wish of an honorable, self-sacrificing man, when it really originates from Elesin’s instinct to possess the flesh and the glory. Iyaloja reluctantly but finally agrees to grant Elesin this. Friedrich calls this disguised form of will: enrollment. This form involves compliance and praise to those in power in order to secure a certain degree of control over them. The Yorubans had to makes themselves indispensable to their superiors in order to coerce them into gratitude. Sending the Horseman into the afterlife in a bitter state might cause him to curse the living community of Orun. With the acquisition of his bride, it is hoped that Elesin will fulfill his duty for the sake of the spirited and civic-enrolled[4] society.

When the moment of reckoning comes, Elesin blames his failure on the “alien hand [which] pollutes the sources of will” (56). Yet, it is his own weakness which weighed down his “earth-held limbs” making it harder to “lift” his “feet” before the “white ghost entered and all was defiled” (209).  It is even said by Nietzsche that the will to power is stronger than the will to survive. Olunde says the white races’ “greatest art is the art of survival” (43). Thus, Pilkings creative force only understands the will to life which sees being as a necessity that people naturally uphold or enforce on others as their civilized duty. However, the willing of a “monitored dissolution almost anesthetic in essence”[5] to be forever remembered in the worlds one synchronized is the “deepest protection the mind can conceive” (43). Thus, it is the stronger will, so how could Pilkings’ weaker will cause Elesin to fail? It is Elesin himself who “squelched” his own will by seeing Pilking’s intervention as a dilatory blessing from the gods. Hence, no matter what another does, your conviction is your will. D.S Izevbaye recalls how this colonial blame is the popular explanation for social change in Africa which prevents true self-reflection about what truly prompts the erosion of African culture. This is not to assume that a traditional Africa exists to go back to as Soyinka’s play is not an accurate depiction of Oyo society in any event. Regardless, his work offers insight as to how accusing others for the situation that one initiates is nothing more than the act of searching for a scapegoat.

Additionally, if one notes the theatrical production of Death and the King’s Horseman, then it is evident that the cyclical dance of the women around Elesin was broken when, unresponsive to them and declining in will to rejoin harmony, he lustfully eyes the Bride. The circle is symbolic of the Yoruba cosmos where the past is a reachable pool and exemplary guide for the present. It is believed that persons live, die and are reborn with every individual emerging from the gods or their ancestors. Everyone is seen as important in helping the community function with the “recognition of the uniqueness and autonomy of the ase of persons” (73). It is similar to the concept of ‘Eternal Recurrence’ in a Will to Power where Nietzsche considers existence to be an ongoing struggle of one will against other wills. It would be possible to claim that these wills operate in equilibrium where individual forces can resist, relate and/or come to an arrangement (union power) such as the Yoruban community.

The European state can be defined as an arrangement of central wills upholding colonial intervention which pins Simon Pilkings and Jane Pilkings into what Nietzsche calls the British ideology of ‘what is good is what is “normal/natural/conventional”. It fuels their defense of the ‘civilized’ against the ‘barbaric’. As the Resident tells Simon, “if [the British] let these little things slip past [them], where would the empire be?” (38). It is this instinct that weakens their power to comprehend what is not in the will of their society to understand. Simon Pilkings only roams into a crisis that was already underway with Elesin trying to will himself to understand the Yoruba worldview. This was paradoxically easier for Amusa whose “conceptual universe still remains deeply tied to traditional Yoruba culture” even though his job requires “colonial modernity” (George, 213). Similarly, Olunde’s knowledge acts as a tool of power that enables him to defend tradition, questioning Mrs. Pilking’s power of habit (Eurocentric norms) which she initially resists. In assigning ‘decadence’ to the Masque, his linguistic Will repels the pigeonhole language of the West with its own force – which neutralizes it. On the other hand, Amusa and Joseph (the houseboy) are bound by the institutional power that Simon exercises. In some ways, they too engage in disguised forms of will in order to secure economic gain and recognition. This is in contrast to the school girls that Amusa and his constables try to bully.  They are able to access Simon’s power more so as they are educated. Yet, as Olakunle George notes, they use this education as a force which mimics the colonial (216). If Elesin’s blaming of the White man can be taken as a valid excuse, then the school girls’ will to defend the honour of their community is stronger than his. Even with prolonged knowledge of European culture, they did not submit to foreign logic.

Before Elesin’s histrionic decline, he was able to employ the power of language, music and dance matured by what Nietzsche calls his Becoming (what all his will in life lead him to).  According to Nietzsche, “words are ‘seductions’ within the process of self-mastery and self-overcoming” (24). His proverbs and riddles are strategies of persuasion in the Will to Power dynamic which delays death and allows him to marry his bride. Thus, his song about the Not-I-Bird proclaims his dedication and trustworthiness through a willful, stirring argument symbolic of his appetite for life. Here, his “egocentricity soars” as he strives to become chief over all space and to spread his force (will to power) beyond “the natural world, beyond the world of men, beyond the gods” (Richards, 197). With a loss of will which is the force of energy and creativity in a human, Elesin is no longer superman but a degraded man, ironically defeated by his own master morality[6] which causes him to doubt the rite of passage. Yet, Elesin’s “cynical preoccupation with pleasure and the spoils of office” or skepticism about “the credibility of his destiny….is not unrelated to the fact that the hegemony of Oyo empire had long ago been fissured by internal contradictions as well as the antagonistic logic supplied by the conquering invaders” (Williams, 190). He is the latter weak willed product of an enfeebled communal will. Elesin’s psychic considerations weaken his resolve once more as he realizes the inequities in his culture: the ruling ‘blood’ is tasked with mustering the ultimate will to die. Unable to embrace this, his personality changes and he no longer possesses the vitality of language, filled with rich imagery and metaphor. Iyaloja, on the other hand, still retains dialectical force with her pertinent proverbs. It seems as if the will of the community reinforced the Horseman’s link to the Yoruba mindset. It is like the myth of Ogun which David Richards mentions, as like the god, Elesin, “having made the world by his creative ritual acts…unmakes it” in a performance of caustic will (206).

The related circumstances would cause Nietzsche to term the Oyo society as a ‘life denying place’ as change is not embraced and in the will to power, change is unceasing in the world. The community did not welcome Elesin’s change in will which symbolizes the change of African society. In not summoning the will to complete his role, his son Olunde, takes the rein and sacrifices himself to make up for the loss of honour. This is not the order of the Yoruban ritual as the will to power has been inverted from the parent stalk to the sap. Elesin would therefore only eat the left overs of the other world. (68) His suicide thereafter can be defined as the will to access personal release from pain but Nietzsche would label it as the social instinct working to destroy the superman. This is because “communal order and communal will are inextricable elements in the Elesin tragedy, which not only reflects but amplify his own failure of will” (157). Elesin represents the will of the community and as such must value the whole against the one. Many critics agree, however, that the metaphysical Yoruban kingdom is patriarchal and feudalistic which makes many readers less remorseful about its deferral at the hands of Elesin. Biodun Jefiyo asks for a better pre-colonial representation of Africa that does not negatively suppress the instincts of the individual to acquire power (“more egalitarian”[7]), thus, everyone has the potential to move above the level of the ‘herd’[8]. Yet, this is not a cry for outright individualism which European hegemonic society encouraged, thus, leading to the invasion and enslavement of Africans in the first place. This is why the machinery of the community is still needed to keep the will to power in productive form. It is true that defiant wills can often be chastised for the “morale of the nation” (44). Afterall, before Iyaloja visits Elesin in lock up, Simon asks him for his word of honour.  According to the Nietzche’s theory, honour is an acknowledgement of the similar and equal in power. It is a form of social will founded on the willingness and aptitude of ranked people (Officer and Horseman) to use force to live up to the role society has bestowed upon them. But in the case of Elesin, he ironically points out that something about society’s habitualness is in need of change. It is good enough that humans can acquire rank and recognition but leaving the will unrestrained and self-centered could lead society into a state of anarchy with fractured relationships. This is why the literal Oyo society preaches caution, composure, patience and respect as the will of others is never certain.

The play ends in a way which suggests that there is hope for the community. Iyaloja tells the bride to “forget the dead. Forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn” (76). Elesin’s failing will does not seem to represent the irredeemable failing will of the people. Will Power, like a battery’s energy, is not shared even if it can be united for strength. It is up to every human then to negotiate between his values and society’s values for a better future.

In conclusion, Death and the King’s Horseman is not so much about an ostensive clash of culture but about the network of metaphysical human wills that affect culture and fates. It is about the questioning of the extent to which we allow alien hands to “bore away the mind and muscle of the race” (6).  Life as Will to Power in the play is fundamentally an act of understanding, a placing of perspectives, a theorizing of values which produce horizons. In the end, communal and individual will can only thrive if it is engaged in the preservation and enhancement of itself and others.

 

 

[1] Self-understanding/ introspection

[2] As agreed by Henry Louis Gates Jr pg 156

[3] A will that can buoy other wills while improving itself but refuses to. Unlike Nietzsche, I consider this a weaker will as one’s force is only exerted upon oneself.

[4] Communal will.

[5] Said by Olakunle George “Cultural Ciriticism in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman” pg 208

[6] Nietzsche defines the person with master morality as a superman, the ‘noble man’ who only sees himself as the measure of all things. Slave morality (oddly enough) is linked to the masses that seek the good of the community. He calls for a revaluation of these wills which I think would enable the balancing of self and communal will (Median morality).

[7] Extracted from page 171 in “Ideology and Tragedy”.

[8] What Nietzsche calls the community.

Works Cited

Arthur C. Danto. “Nietzsche” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy. Ed D.J. O’Connor. Free Press, 1985.

Gates, Henry. “Being, the Will, and the Semantics of Death” Harvard Educational Review 51. No 1. Feb 1981

George, Okalunle. “Tragedy, Mimicry and “The African World.” Cultural Criticism in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. Representations 67. University of California, 1999.

Izebaye, D.S. “Mediation in Soyinka” Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka. Ed. James Gibbs. London Heinemann, 1980.

Jefiyo, Biodun. “Ideology and Tragedy.” The Truthful Lie: Essays in a Sociology of African Drama. London: New Beacon, 1985.

Jones, Eldred. “Death and the King’s Horseman” The Writing of Wole Soyinka. Third Edition. Heinemann, 1988

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Ed. Walter Kaufman. Vintage, 1968.

“Nietzsche Philosophy”. Caroll Education. Web. 11 March 2015.

<https://www.carroll.edu/msmillie/philocontempo/Nietzschephilo.html&gt;

Richards, David. “Death and the King’s Horseman and the Mask of Language.” Masks of Difference: Cultural Representations in Literature, Anthropology, and Art. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. Ed. Simon Gikandi. New York: W.W Norton & Company Inc, 2003.

“Will to Power” Merriam Webster. Web 12 March 2015.

<http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/will%20to%20power&gt;

“Wille Zu Macht” Narkhive. Web. 13 March 2015.

<http://uk.politics.misc.narkive.com/SiDq1Y77/tough-german-neonazis-have-the-wille-zu-macht&gt;