Animal Dreams: the Female Western
In Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver reinvents the Western genre, riffing on a couple of common tropes and stock characters while simultaneously creating a female-centered story that rejects the violence and disconnected heroes of stereotypical Westerns. As in many Western tales, a small town is threatened by a villain, but in this case it’s a type of villain that makes more sense in a modern context — instead of a gun-slinging “bad guy,” we have a faceless corporation intent on pursuing its own financial interests at the expense of the environment. Instead of a staunch, infallible protagonist, we have an irresolute heroine whose disconnect from her emotions is not an asset, but a major source of weakness. While she does play a part in saving the town of Grace, her more important task is to overcome her resistance to intimacy. Naomi Jacobs calls this novel an anti-Western, a critique of the myths underlying popular Westerns that “unravels the Western’s conventional approach to heroism, to violence and death, and to community.”
The first trope that Kingsolver uses is that of a lonely stranger arriving in a rough small town. Codi Nolene rides into Grace on a bus instead of a horse, but otherwise her arrival is reminiscent of the entrance of many Western protagonists. Wearing jeans and cowboy boots, she stands on deserted Main Street, taking stock of her surroundings. But she’s not a real stranger: within a few pages, she tells us that she’s not a “moral guardian” and has “no favors to return” (15). Her sister Hallie, is the selfless heroine, the woman fighting for a cause. Codi resembles a typical Western hero in her independence, her self-reliance, and her avoidance of close ties. But in Animal Dreams, these attributes aren’t presented as admirable. Codi feels like an outsider everywhere she goes and is clearly suffering, though she claims that “pain seemed to have anesthetized me” (91). She’s not heroic — she admits that when she reads about disaster, her instinct is to run away. She drifts through life unable to make any real commitments, whether to place, profession, or relationships. She sees love as a trap to be avoided because “nothing you love will stay” (240). Like a virile cowboy hero, she has a healthy sexual appetite and suffers no qualms about having a casual fling with the handsome Native American, Loyd. In a reversal of the usual roles, Loyd is the one who models what a connection to home and family should look like, thus bringing Codi’s own emotional disconnect into sharp relief.
In a typical Western, the male protagonist must put aside his personal feelings and pursue justice at all costs. In The Virginian, for example, the hero hangs an old friend-turned-cattle thief because it’s the “right” thing to do. Codi is the opposite. She has buried her feelings for so long that it has left her emotionally crippled. Her mission is to get in touch with her feelings and stop suppressing her memories. She must conquer the fear of intimacy that keeps her isolated and unravel her connection to the community. Interestingly, Codi is also a schoolteacher, albeit only temporarily, and so she combines two familiar Western stock characters into one. However, unlike The Virginian’s schoolmarm, Molly, and others of her ilk, Codi doesn’t provide a love interest and softening influence for a rough-hewn hero. Instead, she is the one who needs to be softened and civilized; her male lover, Loyd, provides the wisdom and type of self-sacrificing love more typically associated with women.
Every Western must have its villain, preferably one dressed in black. The antagonist in Animal Dreams is the Black Mountain Mining Company, a faceless entity that can’t be defeated with old-fashioned violence. Instead of the men riding out with guns to tackle it, the women of Grace invent a creative way to defeat their enemy. While dynamite and bulldozer-tampering are initially proposed as solutions to the threat, the women have no intention of resorting to violence. Instead, they join together in a communal effort to raise money and ultimately outwit the villain. Violence is not glorified in the novel, but actually disparaged. The cruelty of cock-fighting and of the attacks in Nicaragua stand in stark contrast to the solution dreamed up by the women: the creation and peaceful sale of beautiful pi?atas. As Naomi Jacobs puts it: “the novel desacralizes violence and reauthorizes connection and nurturance as essential bases for heroism.”
From Loyd’s matrilineal clan (in which women are the “center of things” (240)) to Do?a Althea and the other matriarchs of Grace, in Animal Dreams, women wield all the power. The novel is ultimately about female strength, which is found in self-awareness, intimacy, community, and love. It stands in direct opposition to the male violence that seems unavoidable in traditional Westerns. The women of Grace save their town with creativity. Hallie fights for Nicaragua not with weapons but by helping the people grow food, and Codi finally reconnects with her feminine side, emerging whole and able to join her community. She is at last able to accept the love of her “fifty mothers.” Through the novel, Kingsolver demonstrates the importance of self-awareness and intimate connections while pointing out that peaceful resolutions to conflict are possible. She also shows us the unique and powerful ways in which women influence the world.
Jacobs, Naomi. “Barbara Kingsolver’s Anti-Western: ‘Unraveling the Myths’ in Animal Dreams.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 2 (Fall 2003). Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 216. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Nov. 2010
Salient Moments in Barbara Kingsolver’s Novel the Poisonwood Bible
Salient Moments and the Perspective of the Ending
A salient moment in a story can be defined as a significant or prominent moment in the storyline or a character’s life. The book The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver begins with the main character Orleanna Price telling the reader that her story is one of guilt and how one can deal with it. The story itself comes from the perspective of five different women — all from the Price family. The guilt they all speak of is caused by the tragic event that occurred in the jungles of Africa. This event, a salient moment of Orleanna’s life, was the death of her daughter. The five women whose perspectives are present in the story are Orleanna and her four surviving daughters, but the story is directed at the daughter who passed.
The stories of the four daughters are told in the present tense, but Orleanna is talking from some time later. The salient moment has already occurred from Orleanna’s perspective, but it unfolds throughout the story from the daughters’ perspectives, leading to an interesting viewpoint for the reader. Orleanna chooses to narrate starting from the point she does because it marks the moment her and her family set off in the jungles of the Congo to follow her husband’s missionary trip. None of her daughters know of the fate that lies for Ruth May, making their narration significantly different from Orleanna’s. Their mood shows how they feel towards everything over the time frame of their stories and changes as different events occur, but Orleanna already has the feeling of sorrow and guilt because she is telling the story after-the-fact.
There are many things to be seen when reconsidering the beginning of the novel after reading. Most of history is told by males, but The Poisonwood Bible is told entirely from the perspective of women. The perspective gained from reading through the book is one that one similar to feminism, often showing Nathan as an ignorant and self-centered man, while from his perspective he would be seen as heroic. There are many examples of foreshadowing in the novel that would have been somewhat hard to detect during reading but become obvious after reading. One of the easier ones to spot was made easy because Orleanna openly said it in the very beginning, saying she is “the mother of children living and dead.” This quote shows that an event happened to cause her to lose a child; an event that would be explained later in the novel. Another misleading example of foreshadowing is that of the Orleanna’s audience. Based on what she says about “craving your lost, small body,” one could assume the focus is all on a possible stillborn child, but after reading the story one is able to figure out the real focus — Ruth May.
There are a few symbols introduced in the novel that come out to have at least some significance later on. One such symbol is Methuselah the parrot. Methuselah was the parrot owned by the previous leader of the mission, and the previous leader passed down the parrot to the Price family. When Nathan throws the parrot out of the house, an image is given of “Methuselah opening his wings and fluttering like freedom itself.” This image could be alluded to the Price daughters’ want or need for freedom; the freedom that they all crave from the harsh jungles of the Congo. Another symbol that the title of the book could have been taken from was the poisonwood tree. It is a symbol of what Nathan is attempting to do to the native people in his effort to convert them. Touching any part of a poisonwood tree can leave you with anything from a nasty rash to blistering, hence the name. Nathan, or rather his bible, is the tree to the natives of the Congo. They had lived on just fine until coming into contact with Nathan and his bible, which caused them to stray drastically from the way of life they were so used to. This is an important part to the story in that Nathan’s obsession to convert the natives is the ultimate reason for Ruth May’s death.
Methods of Character Development in Barbara Kingsolver’s the Poisonwood Bible
The Poisonwood Bible Essay
When used correctly, an author’s words can be instrumental in the growth and empathy associated with a character. Skilled authors use a variety of literary techniques and vocabulary to differentiate between each individual they use in their story. In her novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver uses a multitude of methods to establish the personalities of Ruth May, Leah, Adah, Rachel, and Orleanna Price.
The youngest of the four Price sisters, Ruth May is portrayed throughout The Poisonwood Bible as an innocent, unknowing soul. Kingsolver uses Ruth May’s thoughts and words to establish this quality. Ruth May constantly tells the reader of theories and superstitions that have been passed down to her by her parents. It is evident that she believes what they say and acts accordingly. Ruth May never quotes people directly; she simply relays what they say in her own voice, sometimes twisting it with her own perspective. What is told from Ruth May’s perspective is a softened version of the truth. Ruth May, being as young as she is, still has the tendency to glorify people; she does not see the bad intentions people like her father have. Often, she thinks with improper grammar, showing the reader that her intellect is less developed than that of her older siblings.
The character whose overall demeanor and perspective is affected the most by her life in the Congo is Leah Price. Leah exudes a general caring for humankind, though it takes her the majority of the novel to find a way to show this. In the beginning of the story, Leah is submissive to her father. She believed whole-heartedly in the words he spoke and actions he took, and did not dispute his reasoning. As the novel progresses, Leah loses faith in her father and her religion and begins to see things in a different light. Leah speaks with an intelligent dialect; she uses large words that complement her “gifted” talents.
Leah’s twin sister, Adah is a very distinct character in The Poisonwood Bible. Because of her disability, Adah Price sees things much differently than her family. Even before arriving in the Congo, Adah is skeptical toward her religion and all of the people around her. When Adah speaks to the reader, she uses poetic language. Her words rhyme, or blend together, describing everything she sees in her new home. Adah has a tendency to look at things in a backwards way, separating her thought process from others. She views things more literally than her sisters, seeing the truth rather than the façade made by their father. Adah often speaks in the third person, showing another aspect in her backwards way of thinking. She feels betrayed by her life and family. She expresses this by doing things her own way and ignoring the words of others.
Rachel is the eldest of the Price sisters. During her time in the Congo, Rachel feels personally victimized by the awful conditions and the people living there. Through her words, it is easy to tell that Rachel does not enjoy her life there. She holds sarcastic, mocking thought toward all people, acting as though she is superior to everyone. Often, she will make up offensive nicknames for people she meets. Her sentences are short and pessimistic and her thoughts mainly revolve around herself. Even after Rachel has seen her own sister die, her mind continues to explore how she could have befallen the same fate. Her views do not change as the novel comes to a close, and Rachel is the only character who does not voice her guilt for her actions in Africa as a youth.
Orleanna is the mother of the four sisters. At different points in the novel, Orleanna gives the reader her opinions of the events in the Congo. When Orleanna speaks to the reader, she expresses her wrongdoings and her guilt. She uses metaphors to describe how she feels, and give herself a way to connect what is going on in her life with what other have done in the past. Orleanna questions herself constantly, wondering if what she has done is the right thing. She often gives alternate situations in which she made the right decisions. She finds horror and revelation in little things that would otherwise go unnoticed. At first, Orleanna views her submission as necessary, but as the situation grows worse, she realizes that she has made mistakes.
In conclusion, Barbara Kingsolver adequately uses literary devices and phrasing in The Poisonwood Bible to define her characters and their growth. A reader can easily identify with each character and form opinions of their own based on Kingsolver’s talented writing.