Theme of Personal Obsession in The Emperor’s Babe and Purple Hibiscus
Both the stories in question have a female, colored protagonist. The two central characters Zuleika and Kambili are also similarly aged – it is their teenage years that are being explored. Even before they reach adulthood they go through enormous upheavals in their lives. Moreover, their stories fit into a colonial discourse with attendant features of cultural displacement, social alienation and economic exploitation. There is yet another interesting similarity between the two heroines, namely, their personal obsessions. But the objects of their obsessions are not the same. Likewise, secondary characters in the two stories have obsessions of their own. This essay endeavors to show how there are a range of psychological dispositions among various characters which account for their obsessions and how the authors’ own obsessions bear upon them.
The Emperor’s Babe is a fresh and vivid verse narrative of a young woman in Ancient Rome. Born into poverty and slavery, she is married off (or rather sold off) when she was merely eleven to a wealthy patrician a few times her age. Despite constraints to her liberty and growth from all sides, Zuleika yet manages to assert her individuality. It is perhaps due to these powerful
Zuleika’s father Anlamani is obsessed with his own position in society. He sees an opportunity to climb up the social ladder by marrying his beautiful daughter to a person of prestige. The person he has in mind is Mr. Felix, a wealthy aristocrat of the Roman Empire. He is quite older to Zuleika (who was just 11 at the time of being betrothed). Anlamani resorts to a menially worded marriage offer to Mr. Felix. For example, he says, “Si, Mr. Felix. Zuleika very obediens girl, sir. / No problemata, she make very optima wife, sir.” (Evaristo, p.27) This pitch from Anlamani makes it clear that his daughter’s well being is secondary compared to his own selfish motive. Likewise, Felix is a man with his own obsessions. In his case he is obsessed with power. Having a pretty young wife would add to his prestige. He can show her off in his social circles as a trophy wife. That he is obsessed with power and prestige is evident in his response to Anlamani’s offer of marriage: “I intend to make this my far-western base/ and I need to warm my home with a wife./ I am a man of multiple interests: a senator,/ military man, businessman, I undertake/ trading missions for the government,/ and I’m a landowner.” (Evaristo, p.29)
Kambili is obsessed over her relationship with Father Amadi. She falls in love with him. Although the Father also loves her, he could not consummate his love due to his commitments to Church and community. Her love is expressed overtly and covertly on a few occasions. As Zambilii says wittily “People have crushes on priests all the time, you know. It’s exciting to have to deal with God as a rival.” (Adichie, p.89) However, Kambili’s obsessive love for Father Amadi pales in comparison to the religious obsession of her own father Eugene. Kambili’s father, Papa as she calls him, is very possessive of his son and daughter. He imposes his authority on them to even the smallest detail. In other words he is obsessive of his son and daughter to the extent of being a control freak. For example, “Papa sat down at the table and poured his tea from the china tea set with pink flowers on the edges. 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 love.” (Adichie, p.59) Although Papa Eugune thinks he is expressing his love in this fashion, in reality he is stifling the autonomy and individuality of them both. What makes matters worse for Kambili is that she does not find her father’s obsession to be malign. In fact, she is so used to it that she feels that it is the norm.
Having been so accustomed to obeying the dictates of her father, Kambili possessed little sense of independent judgement during her time with her parents. As evident in the above quote from the novel, her main concern was getting praise from her father by waiting for his orders before sipping tea. She would dare not break this tradition irrespective of her how she feels personally about the practice. But the truth is that Papa Eugene did not love his children as had believed. It is perhaps his strict adherence to orthodox religious practices that has made him outlook blinkered and his thinking one-dimensional. His obsession had also made him prone to fits of rage. For example, “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere.” (Adichie, p.112) Hence author Bernardine Adichie carves up a variety of obsessions in Purple Hibiscus. Not only are these obsessive behaviour patterns realistically portrayed, they also fit into the plot, theme and perspectives of the author.
We can see how the theme of obsession is common to the two books. Both authors – Bernardine Evaristo and Chimamanda Adichie use it in slightly different perspectives. For Evaristo, the context was obsessions that were manifest in the milieu of ancient imperialism. For Adichie, it is the backdrop of postcolonial Nigeria in which different characters play out their obsessions. We cannot make a judgment as to which of the two preoccupations is salient to the student of literature. This is so because obsession has its basis in neurosis and is a common human trait. The two authors seem to draw from the fact that obsession is fundamental to human makeup. It is perhaps due to the universality of this trait, that the reader can immediately relate or recognize the motivations and implications of obsessive behavior in the two novels.