Both Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus explore how characters’ lives are impacted by violence and abuse. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye, struggle with hurtful memories, and Nwoye grapples with understanding his tribe’s seemingly cruel and unjust treatment of certain people, especially twins. Purple Hibiscus presents characters who live in a broken and abusive household, unable to feel safe expressing themselves. For many of the novels’ characters, trauma affects their relationships and perception of silence and speech. Moreover, the characters use sound and silence as forms of agency to counteract their trauma. Sound, and the lack thereof, break into both worlds, impacting how the characters react to their situations and understand their traumas.
In both novels, silence is shown to be very ominous and provokes a sense of fear. In Things Fall Apart, there is a silence before Ikemefuna is killed. Prior to the men leaving with Ikemefuna, we read that “A deathly silence descended on Okonkwo’s compound” and the silence follows the party as they walk into the woods (Achebe 58-59). The men leading Ikemefuna to his death, as well as some members of Okonkwo’s family, know or suspect what was on the other end of the silence, and the knowledge of that imminent violence weighs heavily on them. Once Okonkwo discovers Nwoye’s interest in Christianity, they meet in silence before Okonkwo becomes violent and angry (151-152). Okonkwo’s silence threatens violence, coming from a place of power. Similarly, in Purple Hibiscus, Kambili, Jaja, and their mother turn to silence, but they do so out of their fear of Eugene, their father. His presence looms over them as a reminder of the violence he inflicted on them. In both of these novels, characters turn to silence when they sense an impending threat.
Silence is shown to be largely a result of trauma, though perhaps more so in Purple Hibiscus than in Things Fall Apart. In Purple Hibiscus, Kambili finds it difficult to speak or show her emotions because of her experience with her father; even when she is not around him, she thinks of his judgment and criticism (Adichie 174). This feeling of apprehension often overwhelms her thoughts while talking to other people. To a certain degree, in Things Fall Apart we also see Okonkwo’s unwillingness to share his emotions, and his refusal to speak about Nwoye’s departure and conversion to Christianity; Okonkwo finds Nwoye’s actions difficult to grasp (Achebe 144). Nwoye himself does not speak to anyone about his troubled feelings over the tribe’s religious custom of abandoning twins in the forest. Nwoye appears to shut his thoughts out as they would not be accepted by his family if he shared them. For Kambili, Okonkwo, and Nwoye, negative memories hinder their speech and drive them to silence.
In these novels, silence appears to be the safest, immediate choice for those experiencing trauma. For Nwoye in Things Fall Apart, remaining silent about his concerns over the murder of the baby twins protected himself from the probable anger of Okonkwo, as well as the disapproval of the village. For Kambili and Jaja in Purple Hibiscus, attempting to make their father understand their perspective before punishing them would have likely resulted in more extreme violence. In both novels, the characters are submissive to their father’s punishments because they believe if they say anything to question his judgment, they would be subjected to further punishment. It often feels safest to Nwoye and Kambili’s families to remain silent, as speaking out puts them at risk of others’ aggression.
Silence is not always a form of submission, but one of the strongest forms of defiance that characters in both novels feel safe to show. For instance, in Things Fall Apart, when Nwoye’s father asks where he had been, Nwoye refuses to tell him that he was at the mission church (Adichie 151-152). However, Nwoye’s use of silence as a form of defiance is not to the same degree as Jaja’s in Purple Hibiscus. On Palm Sunday, Jaja refuses to give his father a compliment and remains silent for the rest of the day, not coming out of his bedroom (13-15). Similarly, on their last visit to Nsukka, the home of their outspoken aunt’s family and estranged grandfather, both Kambili and Jaja do not answer the phone when Papa calls to talk to them (268). Kambili, Jaja, and Nwoye show acts of strength when they decide not to speak, even when it was expected of them. They all use silence to protect themselves from abuse; however, Kambili, and especially Jaja, demonstrate agency, using it as a weapon.
In addition to silence, speech also gives some characters a sense of control. In Purple Hibiscus, Jaja often speaks up in order to protect his mother and sister; he attempts to take the blame off Kambili for having a painting of Papa-Nnukwu to prevent punishment from their father, asserting his role as protector (Adichie 209). He also protects his mother by declaring to the police that he was responsible for his father’s death, even though she had poisoned him (291). Similarly, Kambili directly rebels against Papa through speech. One of Kambili’s strongest acts of defiance is when she shrieks “No!” and lies on top of the pieces shredded by Papa of Papa-Nnukwu’s portrait (210). Instead of remaining still and silent, she protests Papa’s action, and feels that through saving the pieces of the painting, she can save her grandfather (210). After Papa is poisoned, Kambili begins speaking more, using speech as a way to comfort and soothe her mother. When they visit Jaja in prison, Kambili speaks during their visitation so that her mother would not cry (304). Kambili and Jaja eventually learn to use speech more easily, impacting their family situation and giving them a sense of agency.
In both novels, hearing speech and music also brings healing and a sense of peace to some of the characters. For Nwoye in Things Fall Apart, the missionaries’ music and words speak to his deepest feelings of unease and horror, and his profound need for comfort and healing. The missionaries’ song “answer[s] a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul — the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul” (Achebe 147). As a result, Nwoye no longer feels alone in his convictions about their death. In Purple Hibiscus, the transformation that sound causes in Kambili and Jaja is physical, as well as intensely psychological. Through hearing Aunty Ifeoma’s family and Father Amadi speak and laugh, the children become more comfortable doing so themselves. Though Kambili had never felt at ease when speaking or making much noise at all, she becomes comfortable with laughing and singing (Adichie 179, 239). She and Jaja had had no experience with joyful sounds in their abusive home, but while in a place of free speech, they learn to talk without thinking of their father’s judgement first. Sound is portrayed to be freeing and restorative to the children in both novels.
Although speech and other sounds are shown to be an enormous gift to the characters, it is implied that sound is not enough to fully mend and heal their relationships and memories. For example, even though Nwoye finds meaning in life and hope through Christianity, he still finds it impossible to reconcile with Okonkwo. When asked about Okonkwo, Nwoye replies, “He is not my father” (Achebe 144.) Jaja’s response to hearing that Yewande’s daughter is finally able to speak after seeing her father killed is also notable: “She will never heal… She may have started talking now, but she will never heal” (Adichie 259.) It appears that he does not believe that the passing of time or learning to speak for himself will ever let him forget his own trauma. A breaking of silence gives some relief to the characters, but it does not provide a complete remedy for their wounds.
The roles of sound and silence in both Things Fall Apart and Purple Hibiscus are shown to be integral to the lives of characters who live through trauma, helping them as they endure and confront their experiences. Sound and silence weave their way through the characters’ experiences and recoveries from trauma and abuse, providing assistance and comfort. Some of the silence we see in the novels appears to be negative results of the characters’ trauma; however, the characters also use silence as a form of protection. Sound and speech are unable to redeem the characters’ pain on their own, but they are able to fill a large void that abuse had caused, bringing some sense of power and peacefulness into their lives.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Anchor Canada, Random House of Canada, 2009.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus. Vintage Canada, Random House of Canada, 2013.