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Purple Hibiscus - Theme of Religion

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Religion
Religion is a main theme that emerges quite strongly throughout the novel of purple hibiscus. European missionaries took Christianity to Nigeria. They tried to convert local people from their traditional religious practices to follow Christianity, the ‘true’ religion. The novel is divided into 4 distinct sections and they are not in chronological order. The reference to Palm Sunday in part 1 is significant. It refers to what the children are going to go through, just like Palm Sunday was the start of Christ’s passion in order to save us all,
Jaja’s rebellion in chapter 1 takes place in order to gain freedom.
Kambili and her family are Catholics and she & Jaja both attend Catholic schools. Papa uses religion as a form of oppression throughout the novel; he controls rigidly everything they do and punishes them severely to save them from the “burning fires of hell.” We are aware of
Papa’s violence from the opening lines of the book, “he flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines.” The fact that he throws his missal is significant and we are immediately aware that religion will come to play a very important role in the novel.
Papa has a very rigid character and can almost be considered as a religious fanatic. This clear when “he pressed hard on each forehead to make a perfect cross.” He is a very devout
Catholic who dominates his family and imposes religion on them. It is as if he almost does not feel worthy to receive the host, he kneels to receive communion and shuts his eyes, “so hard hid face tightened into a grimace.” We also learn that he has won a human rights award and modestly did not want to be featured in his own newspaper, this shows his admirable qualities, he is a man of principle and courage. He is also highly respected by the community. Papa is a complex yet contradictory character. He lashes out with his belt when he discovers Kambili eating before mass crying out, “Has the devil built a tent in my house?”
He shows no humanity but afterwards he seems to be ashamed and asks, “Why do you like sin?” Eugene seems to see Nigeria as ruled by godless men and sees people like his father as “heathens” who will go to hell. He will not allow his father to enter his house and tells his children not to touch his food or drink. Papa allows to religion to rule his life, “finally, for twenty minutes, Papa prayed for our protection from ungodly people.”
It is as if Kambili is conditioned by her father, everything seems to be a sin in her eyes, “I had never seen anyone undress; it was sinful to look upon another person’s nakedness.” When she visits Papa Nnukwu she examines him, “I had examined him that day, too, looking away when his eyes met mine, for signs of difference, of Godlessness. I didn’t see any, but I was sure they were somewhere.” Later on in Nsukka, when Kambili sees Papa Nnukwu praying, it changes her opinion, it is an eye-opener. This episode play an important part in her change, she realises that religions at hearts are all the same. She is touched by what she sees, for Papa Nnukwu religion is something that makes him happy, it does not suffocate him. Kambili’s faith extends beyond the boundaries of one religion as she realises that Papa
Nnukwu is a traditionalist who follows the rituals of his ancestors and believes in a pantheistic model of religion. Though both his son and daughter converted to Catholicism,
Papa Nnukwu held onto his roots.

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Back at home, religion plays a key role in their daily routines; prayer time, grace before meals, rosary, mass. This contrasts greatly with the atmosphere of religion at aunty
Ifeoma’s house. Kambili is surprised when her aunt prays for “peace and laughter.” Also whilst praying, they break into Igbo songs which initially makes Kambili and Jaja uncomfortable, “Morning and night prayers were always peppered with… Igbo praise songs.” Fr. Amadi is young and ‘handsome’ Catholic priest; he is a close friend to Ifeoma and her family. He is the first black priest Kambili has ever known. Kambili develops a passion for
Father Amadi because he is kind and gentle to her and takes a personal interest, ‘I looked up to find Father Amadi’s eyes on me.’ Kambili is, without understanding why she feels as she does, sexually drawn to his pleasant manliness. This of course can never be properly reciprocated because Father Amadi is a Catholic priest, which means he is a celibate.
Fr. Amadi is a great contrast to Fr. Benedict, the priest of Enugu who is praised and accepted by Papa. Father Benedict is the cold, white priest at St.Agnes who rigidly hears Kambili’s confessions. He turns a blind eye to Papa’s violence at home because of Papa’s ‘good works’ and cash donations to the Church. He represents the stereotypical type of priest, whereas Father Amadi shows Kambili that religion is not simply a set of rules but rather a way of life.
Amaka and Kambili’s faith are challenged. Amaka, after much deliberation and stubbornness, decides to not take an English confirmation name, ‘I told you I am not taking an English name, Father.’ She does not participate in the ceremony; she is making a statement for Nigerian identity. Like Jaja, she breaks from her faith. When Kambili visits
Aokpe, she claims to see the Virgin Mary. She sees her in the tree, in the sun, and in the smile of every man. For Kambili, God is truly everywhere. As she realises with Father
Amadi, faith does not only occur in sanctified places. He speaks through nature and goodness. Kambili’s journey of faith comes to a close here, she will always be devout, but not in the same way Papa is.

It is significant that when Jaja rebels he uses religion – at the end he turns the weapon round & uses it against Papa by not receiving communion as the “wafer gives me bad breath” and the priest touching his mouth “nauseates” him. Jaja’s rebellion is continuous, even after his father’s death. He rejects religion as it is linked too closely to his father oppressive rule. Jaja is almost oppressed by his desire to rebel; he is not at peace with himself. Jaja has become bitter to the world – a negative Jaja.

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