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 extraneous forces acting on her life that she sought refuge in an inner sanctum.  This clinging manifests as obsessions of various sorts.  For one, her insecurities made her a little aggressive towards others.  Aggression expressed regularly betrays an underlying obsession with insecurity.  This aggression is also manifest in her sexual behavior, whereby, her attractiveness and youth serves as a source of empowerment over men.  As the short and eventful life of the adolescent girl unfolds through Evaristo’s lyrical prose, more dimensions to her heroine’s obsessions are unraveled.

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, “Sì, 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)

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