The Poisonwood Bible
Leah Price, The Protagonist of The Poisonwoid Bible
A great author once said; “Perfect heroines, like perfect heroes, are not relatable, if one cannot, put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes, not only will they not be inspired, but the book will be pretty boring.” In The Poisonwood Bible, the idea of a relatable protagonist poses an interesting controversy upon the reader, in that, depending on the reader’s perception, their idea of the protagonist may vary. The novel is written from the viewpoints of Baptist Nathan Price’s four daughters, and wife, about their philanthropist mission in Congo. As an impressionable child, Leah Price is forced to adapt to the culture of a foreign country, which she endures by following her father and Christianity faithfully. Over the course of the story, Leah matures into a woman who is able to think independently and eventually sees the world, and her family, in a different light. Barbara Kingsolver structures Leah Price as the protagonist of the novel, in that she is integral to the plot development, undergoes vast character growth, and demonstrates superior leadership qualities.
Throughout the novel, Leah acts as the main advocate for plot advancement and is directly involved in a vast majority of the story’s cardinal events. The first sign of significant plot evolution in the book is when Nathan decides to cultivate a garden filled with American crops, representing the relation between Christianity and the Congolese people that he wants to bring to light; Leah takes it upon herself to assist her father. “In the beginning my sisters bustled indoors, playing the role of mother’s helper. […] I preferred to help my father work on his garden. I’ve always been the one for outdoor chores anyway, […] while my sisters squabbled about the dishes and such” (35). As Leah, herself, describes in the early chapters of the book, she differentiates herself from her sisters and stands out, in terms of plot, by aiding Nathan in his gardening rather than doing what would generally be expected of her, in the kitchen. Another time when Leah directly alters the path of her family’s story, is when she finally speaks out against her father. “ ‘It’s nonsense for you to hunt with the men. You’re only causing trouble and I forbid it.’ Leah slung her bow over her shoulder, ‘I’m going with the men and that’s final.’ […] Father went crazy” (339-340). The preceding quotation describes when Leah defies Nathan’s wishes and goes hunting with the men; by doing so, her actions set an example for the rest of the family, and shows them that they do not need to be afraid to voice their opinions. Essentially, Leah commences her family’s “revolution” against her father which eventually leads to them escaping Congo. Lastly, Leah permanently connects her family to Congo by marrying Anatole. “It was an unusual proposal, by the standards of any proposal. […] My whiteness could bar him outright from many possibilities, maybe even survival, in the Congo. But Anatole had no choice. I took him and held on” (401). Despite facing a number of unpredictable dangers; as Leah states, her skin colour alone could prevent Anatole from a life of security; Leah knows that her love for Anatole is too powerful to be ignored. Leah’s marriage to Anatole, as dysfunctional as she describes it in the quotation, provides the Price family with a permanent physical connection to the Congo, seeing as the married couple choose to remain in the African country.
The immense character development exhibited by Leah over the course of her journey allows the reader to understand and relate to her personality on a profound level, making her a more relatable protagonist. In the beginning of the novel, Leah was idealistic and follows her father endlessly trying to win his affection. “I have much to learn. But I’ll admit I prayed that afternoon that Father had taken Rachel’s apology as a confession, so he wouldn’t think the sin was mine. It was hard, accepting his accusations by keeping silent” (68). Leah describes her guilt and dissatisfaction towards Orleanna when she unintentionally teaches Methuselah a curse word, after exclaiming her frustration over Rachel’s birthday cake; the three eldest Price girls are punished with the verse, and take the blame for their mother’s actions. She hopes that Nathan will not think less of her, for her fear of his disapproval is immense at that point. Nevertheless, in spite of her earlier lack of confidence and dependence on Nathan’s validation, Leah grows to be independant and learns the error of her father’s ways. “If I could reach backward somehow to give Father just one gift, it would be the simple human relief of knowing you’ve done wrong, and living through it. […] The sins of my fathers are not insignificant. But we keep moving on” (525). At the end of the book, Leah learns to avoid her father’s mistakes and moves on with her life, a feat Nathan could never master. She recognizes the importance of having independent thoughts and opinions, which causes her to turn over her dedication for Nathan’s religion to Anatole’s campaign for human rights. Leah recognizes the importance of using the Price’s experiences in Congo to optimize the outcome of her family’s future. The contrast between Leah’s naïve loyalty and optimism as a child, in comparison to the wisdom she demonstrates in her adult life shows her vast growth as a character, making her more understandable to the reader.
Across all genres of literature, it can be observed that the one of the most essential characteristics of a protagonist is their ability to influence other characters, and situations.
Problem Of Culture in The Poisonwood Bible Novel
Discuss the representation of African culture, place and identity in The Poisonwood Bible considering how your context and cultural assumptions influence your reading.
Identity has long been pronounced as that which defines a person, or gives them a point from which to position into society. This facet of existence can often be traced back to the environment and ability one finds oneself in. As Diogenes declared, “I am a citizen of the world”, and thus one is a consequence of the world. The representation of identity, a product of position and experience, can be portrayed through a cultural perspective. The Price women of Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 The Poisonwood Bible find themselves shaped by time and place; namely the Congo of the 1950s and ‘60s. Kingsolver presents a family exploring their way through culture, who find and rediscover each other through their reformed relations in the Congo. The stresses and reality of the Congo allows for reevaluation, for all of the women, especially through the way Africa interacts with the group as a family unit. In shaping the women of her tale, Kingsolver brings issues of familial and colonial powers to the forefront of audience consciousness, through the development of identifiable mothers, wives and daughters.
Leah Price is the healthy twin of the family, who enters the Congo at the age of fourteen, in full faith that her Baptist family’s mission to spread the message of their God is in the best interest of all involved. The development of this character is seen subtly, in the slow change of her perception of the world around her. The daughters, especially Leah, enter the Congo with ideals shaped by their wealthy, American upbringing, and their fiercely proud father; looking down upon the values, actions and appearances of the apparently alien Kikongo population. Leah admits that, initially, her and her sisters were irreverently “shocked by the [decorative] scars across” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 256) schoolteacher Anatole’s face. But months in the Congo makes Leah perceive beauty in a different light to the basic Western version of beauty that was engrained in her subconscious upon arrival to Africa. Where once Leah viewed a disfigured savage, a broad-shouldered man now stands, with a “thrilling white smile” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 256), and whose pronunciation of the English language she adores (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 255); thus contradicting a Western assumption of this man as flawed and primitive. This teenager’s realization of the beauty that surrounds her causes her to reevaluate her family situation and, furthermore, reassess her relationship with her father, in terms of conformity with his social expectations of her. The family, at first, expect to be respected in Kikongo for their position as vessels of God, and Nathan, the patriarch, expects the women in his life to retain their Western values and tradition. However, Leah, the originally most devout daughter, begins to integrate into Congolese life. Where she had once ridiculed the perceptively strange customs of the people of the land she now inhabits, in The Judges, Leah adopts the “Congolese way” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 255) of shaking Anatole’s hand (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 265). Leah concludes this scene by admitting she wishes that the Western world could associate an image as simple as “Mama Mwanza with her children” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 265) with the Congo, instead of images of “dancing cannibals” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 265). Kingsolver, perhaps, constructs Leah to represent the possibility for intrusive, ignorant colonial powers, to develop into genial and sensitive participants in cross-cultural understanding and relationships.
The Africa of The Poisonwood Bible, without doubt, left its mark on Orleanna Price’s identity, in dramatic fashion. Orleanna is, initially, a slave to the colonial Belgian and American powers that preceded her, often for the sake of her daughters. But through her growing relationship with, and understanding of the Congo, especially through Book Two: The Revelation, wherein it is revealed to Orleanna and her husband that the Congo will have an election to declare Independence. The Belgian nationals, the Underdowns, who deliver the news to the characters, appear to have come simply to “tell [them] to make [their] plans to leave” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 192), without much thought for the native Congolese; their concern lies with the benefit of the colonial nations. Where Orleanna once concerned herself with “civilisation’s evils” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 16), the worldly goods the family brought from Georgia to Africa, her concern, after months of living in a completely different culture to the one she had once known, now lies with the welfare of the still, in Western eyes, uneducated people of the Congo. She exasperatedly explains that “Not a soul among these people has even gone to college or…[studied] government” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 191). But now, instead of using education as a means by which to belittle the people of the country she trespassed into, she uses it in an attempt to draw on the empathy of her audience; so may both the Underdowns and the reader understand the, perhaps ludicrous nature of the notion, that the country that invaded the Congo in the first place, were now to leave the country to fend for itself on a Western plain. Without the means to survive, or training with which to cope in a contemporary world, this society was doomed to suffer internationally. This scene is also demonstrative of another aspect of Orleanna’s development; it is in this scene that the audience is first introduced to an Orleanna who does not surrender to her husband’s word, or to his harsh glare. Not only does she refuse to submit to the “look” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 189) he ‘shoots’ her, she addresses her husband directly and irreverently, “Well, honestly, Nathan. I talk to their wives.” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 189). Wallace (2014, p.2) suggests that Kingsolver constructs “American characters that confront their complicity” and such is no truer than in the development of Orleanna. It appears it took the harsh Congo to embolden Orleanna; it gave this perceptively meek woman a voice of her own, for the first time in more than a decade; in a land almost seven thousand miles away from her home.
As Kingsolver progresses into The Judges (Book Three), Reverend Nathan Price features less and less, and the focus of each of the chapters is significantly more female and culture-oriented. For most of this section of the novel, the daughters are forced to survive without the guidance of their critically ill mother. Orleanna sickens as the unforgiving Congo takes its emotional and physical toll. Helen Keller suggested that “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared” (Keller, 1938, p. 60), this is especially true in the case of Orleanna. The weight of both her environment, and role as minister’s wife, cripple Orleanna to the extent where even her youngest, Ruth May, can observe the toll this torment has taken and empathize (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 205). The mother proceeds to spend a “month in bed” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 273), and on the few times she emerges from her temporary tomb, her children describe her as “flushed and spotted… and tired” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 246), and her eyes as “Empty” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 251). It is here that Kingsolver brings forth evidence of a previously underlying, deep mental illness and instability. While Orleanna may have been able to remain collected and balanced for the sake of her status and children in Georgia, the harsh reality of the Congo, where she is stripped of the respected status she preserved in America, presents an immobilizing authentic realization of the alternate everyday-life concerns that Kingsolver may wish to represent. Namely, the starkly survivalist concerns one faces in the severe Congo, against the shallow values of Bethlehem, Georgia. This results in a dramatic mental decline for an initially strong mother. The only thing that the Congo does not change about Orleanna, is her inherent ‘mother-ness’ that we can identify from a Western context; her debilitated month ends sharply out of necessity. The only thing that will expel her from a life of sleep is the need to help her daughters survive (p. 273). This expulsion from her sleep-state results in a metaphorical rebirth for Orleanna, who is now willing to “say whatever [is] on her mind right in front of God and everybody.” (Kingsolver, 1998, p.273), where once she had held her tongue at the charge of her husband. Kingsolver’s representation of the cruel Congo reveals the Orleanna that had been hidden by compliance and complacency, in her old home in the south-east of America.
In The Poisonwood Bible (1998), Barbara Kingsolver constructs characters as representations of Western identities and colonial powers. The individuals of her tale each represent an aspect of Western, colonial culture, and suggests a reality, where even the most ignorant of these may evolve to form cross-cultural understandings and relationships. Vygotsky (1987, Vol 4, p. 97-120) suggests that “Through others, we become ourselves”. The powerful, complicated female characters of The Poisonwood Bible develop into true, realised adaptations of their selves, thanks to the severity of the African Congo. As an educated audience, removed from the powerful force of fierce, devout faith, as represented in Nathan Price and his influence on those around him, it is easy to critique the troupe as ignorant. But through the development of Leah and Orleanna, Kingsolver presents individuals whose identities and relationships with each other are shaped by their status, as wife, Baptist or American, and experience. Thus the audience comes to an understanding of Kingsolver’s characters culturally-changing values. The trials and tribulations the women of the Price family face while in the Congo in the 1950s and 60s, serve to expose the best and worst features of the women, resulting in characters who are more understanding and accepting of alternate cultures.
Point of View and Narration in Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible”
“The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver, is a scathing critique of the destructive nature of pride and ambition, its narrative spanning over thirty years to reveal the tragic shortcomings of evangelist Nathan Price and the Western colonial attitudes he represents. In order to personalize the epic scope of the novel, Kingsolver writes in the first person, alternately inhabiting the minds of the four Price sisters and their mother, Orleanna. Although the hotheaded preacher, Nathan Price, is usually caught at the heart of the story’s conflicts, the primary storytelling vehicles are his daughters, with his wife serving as a poetic footnote at key moments in the narration. Thus, the book can be read as five separate, but interdependent, stories, interwoven to form a coherent movement from beginning to end.
On the stage of the Congo’s struggle for political independence, the saga of the Price family unfolds as a morality play, making the use of perspective and point of view critical to Kingsolver’s rhetorical purpose. Rather than reading Nathan Price’s self-righteous explanations of his own actions, the reader is given five different personalities through which to understand the failure of the Price family mission. Through the clever use of individualized “voices,” the author is able to bring together a “three dimensional” portrait of an evangelist possessed by great zeal but, ultimately, lacking in knowledge. Of the five narrative “voices,” Leah acts most often as her father’s apologist, often explaining and reasoning through her father’s actions in the first half of the book. This support comes not from a desire to squelch the native cultures, however, but from genuine faith and compassion. Thus, as her father slowly dwindles into a self-righteous mouthpiece for Western colonialism, Leah’s respect for him gradually ebbs. Her moral qualities remain, but they begin to find new expression in politics as the story progresses, signifying a slow turn from abstract religious thought to concrete moral action.
The other sisters take a more ambivalent approach to their father’s actions. Rachel, in particular, reveals a self-centered personality more concerned with pleasure than ideology. Adah, on the other hand, demonstrates an abstract, but intelligent perspective, colored by her crippling birth defect. She is piercingly cynical, but her insights and observations are always keen, and she comes off as the most intellectual of the sisters. There is a note of irony in the fact that, from the outside perspective of the other narrators, Adah is viewed as intellectually deficient because of her silence. Yet, when the reader is taken “inside” Adah’s mind, the contrast between what others observe about Adah and what Adah is capable of is shocking. In a sense, the crippled girl is used as a metaphor for Africa and its relationship with Nathan Price. Like Adah, Africa is viewed as deficient from an outside perspective, but if one could only see things through the eyes of the Congolese people, the picture would be starkly different.
In fact, the closest thing to an African “voice” that Kingsolver provides is Nathan’s wife, Orleanna. Ruined by the guilt of having lost her youngest daughter to the harsh Congo, Orleanna’s brief entries into the narrative take the form of poetic meanderings, often describing Africa as a living person haunting the Price family’s past. In contrast to Orleanna’s writings, Ruth May takes a double role. In the earlier parts of the book, she writes as any other five-year-old, with an adventurous but often naive perspective. After her death, however, she becomes a silent figure lurking somewhere in her mother’s memory, a symbol of the family’s guilt and an indictment of misguided ambitions. This guilt presses on Orleanna’s conscience until the last chapter, in which the deceased Ruth May expresses her forgiveness for her mother’s mistakes. Here the “voice” of Ruth May takes a turn so drastic that the reader does not know it is her speaking until the end of the chapter. No longer the five-year-old girl, Ruth May has become something of an angelic figure, and her speech has been altered to reflect a more poetic, “ascended” feeling. In a sense, then, she becomes a metaphor for the Christian idea of rebirth; an illustration of things destroyed on Earth made anew in the afterlife. Because her perspective has been broadened in the spiritual afterlife, she is able to forgive not just the shortcomings of her own family, but of the entire effort to “civilize” the Congo. As an ascended figure able to offer forgiveness, she acts as a subtle symbol for Jesus Christ.
Because this novel deals so heavily with morality, ethics, and politics, it could all too easily become a one-sided argument for a particular point of view. By allowing the reader to learn about events through the eyes of Nathan Price’s family, however, Kingsolver is able to paint a fully believable portrait of this prideful evangelist’s struggle. Rather than condemning or exalting the Price family mission, the author presents the impact that it has on five individual personalities, and, by extension, on the Congolese people. This creates an effect of realism and forces the reader to consider the story from different viewpoints and, in the case of Adah, even different belief structures. For the evangelical Christian, this acts as a profound reminder of the fact that the manner in which we present our message is as important as the message itself, which is the underlying theme of the novel.
Reading The Poisonwood Bible With The Application Of A Gender Focused Reading Practice
Literary texts are complex, multi-layered, and often a site on which many readings and meanings can be made. Reading strategies and literary theories can work as a tool for readers to apply a focus when reading a text which is then able to grant a deeper understanding of and insight into the text. The Poisonwood Bible is one such literary text which can lend itself to a varied range of readings which is why applying a reading practice – such as one focused on gender – is helpful when exploring the complexities of the text. It tells the story of a Baptist missionary family living in the Congo from the perspectives of the five women. When reading The Poisonwood Bible with the application of a gender focused reading practice, I read the environment as a site on which a critique of the patriarchal domination of women occurs. In this way, the text models eco-feminist principles of interdependence, as the subjugation of women is allegorically interwoven with the colonial subjugation of the Congo’s political and physical environment. It explores the female identity in regards to its complex relations to place, demonstrating feminist concepts of ‘located-ness’ – as each woman undertakes her own journey of development and self-expression in responses to the changing environment. The symbolic choice of setting can be seen to reflect ecofeminist principles of interdependence, particularly in three main settings – the house, the Kilangan jungle, and Nathan’s demonstration garden.
I saw the domestic space of the household, a historically feminine space, as working to reflect the control asserted over the female identity/agency with domestic roles and constructed barriers used to enforce a dichotomy between the domestic interior and foreign exterior. This dichotomy is created first through the physical barriers of the curtains and nets which function to separate the outside Congo from the inside and prevent interdependence and hybridity between the family and the outside from occurring. Curtains are put up to prevent “[the Congo from] looking in at [them]”, while mosquito nets are one of the original steps undertaken to ‘protect’ the family from the Congo. These physical barriers are originally constructed to provide protection and separation, but it is through Nathan’s patrol of the barriers that the women begin to feel restricted in the domestic space and “confined, uncomfortably close to [Nathan].”
Throughout the text, particular attention is given to Nathan’s movements at windows and doors, as he polices the liminal spaces of the home’s borders. In doorways and on the porch, Nathan’s actions are described with violent verb choices – he “[interrogates the children] on the porch” and “[bats his wife] roughly away [to go] outside to pace the porch,” and when he arrives “at the door” he transforms the domestic space by “suddenly [making] the room…dark.” This policing is how Nathan asserts his power over the household – by maintaining the dichotomy between the feminine interior and masculine exterior and reinforcing chauvinistic beliefs about women as belonging only to the domestic sphere, he (as representative of a patriarchal hegemon) can more easily control, manipulate, and suppress the female identities. When these liminal spaces are crossed as “curtains unclosed or slips showing”, Nathan asserts power by “[regaling] with words or worse” for trivial mistakes that he claims as “sins of womanhood” – interpolating domestic ‘errors’ as feminine crimes, deserving of punishment. The domestic place now becomes connoted with restraint/restriction/oppression with the women “chained to the porch” and “ordered to stay in [their] beds.”
Domestic roles are the second barrier between the women and the outside as they act as another layer of restriction, keeping women inside the domestic space. These roles also work to remove agency from the women – when “standing at the work table [they] would leave [their] own thoughts” as the identities of the women were reduced to a domestic responsibility. That being said, this domestic space also served as a site through which the women found a sense of unity and community, which perhaps suggests that it isn’t the domestic space which is inherently oppressive, but the patriarchal control of it to restrict and control female identities that makes it so. In any case, after the impact of Ruth May’s death (a highly influential moment in all of the female identities) Orleanna works to actively deconstruct the original barriers “beginning with tearing down the mosquito netting”. The interior meets and blends with the exterior as “dresses [become] curtains, and…curtains, dresses,” showing the blurring of dichotomy which removes Nathan’s ability to assert control over the women. As Orleanna labors to drag outside “heavy things… by herself…that two months ago she couldn’t have moved”, Nathan is described a final time at the doorway, “his body handing from its frame with nothing but its own useless hands for company.” He has been reduced to less than a whole, made smaller due to synecdoche, while his “useless hands” are no longer able to assert dominance over the domestic space and the women it once contained. The house and its barriers, through a gender specific reading practice, reflect the dichotomy imposed under a patriarchal hegemon which allows easier suppression and manipulation of females which is then deconstructed within the text removing power from the patriarchal hegemon and returning agency and strength to the females.
Parallel to the deconstruction of the domestic space (and consequentially any remaining dominance Nathan wielded over the Price women) is the site of the Kilangan jungle. This, when read with a gender focused reading practice, serves as a medium on which an exploration of female identity away from male supervision can take place. The jungle is introduced at the beginning of the text as a world of Other – something the women had to be fearful of but eventually the text ends with all Price women forging their hybrid identities based off the influences of the Congolese landscape. Although at first reservations are held about entering this world with the women “[hesitating] at the edge of the yard”, this hesitation gives way to determination and resolve as the women “then [charge] on into the grass”, and the exploring and venturing away from Nathan’s dogmatic assertion of control grows parallel to “the forest path… a live thing underfoot that went a little farther every day.” The more exposure the women face to a world outside of patriarchal expectations and restrictions, the more they are able to develop their own role of agency and explore their own knowledge which extends “a little farther every day.”
It is within this environment that the women are able to “discover sights of [their] own” away from the influence of patriarchal manipulation. The trees of the jungle play a key role in the expansion of female knowledge in this text, as both Leah and Ruth May take to the trees which is where they spy on Axelroot and discover the US plot to control the Congo. They are able to “climb up trees just like the boys” – which in this metaphorical setting, I read to suggest that not only do males have an easier access to this environment of identity expression and development, but that the entire act of “climbing trees” has been interpolated as masculine. This masculine interpolation also appears when Ruth May breaks her arm (whilst climbing a tree – note that the journey of self-development is not necessarily easy and may be wrought with danger and injury, ultimately ending in death in the case of Ruth May) as a doctor – historically, a very masculine role – tells us that “climbing trees is for boys and monkeys.” This outside world away from Nathan’s patriarchal observation and subtle control still maintains certain gendered expectations placed on it – but the text challenges this interpolation by having the females find solitude and identity in this symbolic environment. Then, as a symbolic setting the jungle is a site on which the female journey of growth and development of self is undertaken and explored, away from the guidance of a patriarchal hegemon.
The outside jungle setting also functions to draw parallels between subjugation of females and colonial subjugation through the use of feminized language and imagery in the construction of the setting. The Congo is imagined as the “barefoot bride of men who took her jewels” as the “princess in a story…born too rich for her own good” – the construction of the Congo as female in the imbalanced power relationship with colonizing countries not only connotes female subjugation with the far-reaching impacts of colonial subjugation but also heralds the power imbalance between husband and wife. In response to the Congo described as a woman in a dysfunctional marriage, the dysfunctional marital relationship between Nathan and Orleanna is described in colonizing metaphors as Nathan holds “full possession of the country once known as Orleanna Wharton.” The power imbalance between wife and husband works almost as a microcosm for the power imbalance between colonized and colonizer, both shown within the text to be highly toxic relationships due to lack of equal footing. “Whether you’re a nation or merely a woman”, the relationship dynamics remain the same as men are depicted to “occupy” and establish authority over the other. This comparison makes links to eco-feminist ideas about challenging the binary between nature and woman, and allows an interdependent relationship to the highest degree to form (“a wife [becomes] the earth itself”).
Nathan’s demonstration garden is another symbolic choice of setting that continues the ideas developed in the previous paragraph as the binary between subjugation of women and subjugation of the environment is blurred and examined. Violent verbs depict Nathan’s gardening as vicious and forceful – he “beat[s] down…rip[s] out grass…as though tearing out the hair of the world” and leaves the “severed heads of many small, bright orange orchids” in his wake. His role in his garden is not one of nurture, but an “attack” which he approaches with “a muscular vigor”. The masculine language to describe his actions can be read to connote the assertion of power over land as being a signpost of masculinity, especially as he has “been tending soil” and learning the process of dominating the earth “ever since [he] could walk behind [his] father.” When seen from the perspective of a gender-focused reading practice, the garden begins to show many parallels with Nathan’s dominance over the Price women. Orleanna “was an entire botanical garden waiting to happen”, full of potential and the beauty and vibrancy connoted with flowers but just as the plants “would not set fruit” under Nathan’s hands, Orleanna was also unable to grow underneath Nathan’s control. Nathan’s approach to parenthood is reflective of his approach to gardening as he “can see no way to have a daughter but to own her like a plot of land.” This parallel becomes meaningful as it not only demonstrates the treatment/perception of women as property to own and mark, but the garden also foreshadows the failure to maintain ownership and “small square dominion” over the women. An interesting comparison can be made between Nathan’s demonstration garden at the beginning of the narrative, and Orleanna’s garden as the end where she seeks to find reconciliation and redemption “in the soil.” Where Nathan “[attacked] his task,” Orleanna’s hands worked “[seedlings] in to the ground, prodding and gentling, as if putting to bed an endless supply of small children” – the comparison between the antithetical approaches to gardening (and parenting), leaves me far more inclined to view Nathan’s dominance “over the jungle” as unnecessarily forceful.
Ultimately, the text serves to demolish rigid Western dichotomies that exist between domestic and foreign, human and nature, and man and women. Instead of offering an oversimplified take of the complex concept of gender, I was able to examine the ambivalence of gender especially in regards to eco-feminist principles of the female-nature relationship as being interdependent and placed under the subjugation of patriarchal dominance. When settings are read as symbols and metaphors with a reading practice focused on gender applied to the text, I was able to identify the exploration of femininity in relation to (both mental and physical) place which results in a resounding critique of patriarchal assertion of power over women, over the environment, and to an extent, over oppressed colonized countries.
The Poisonwood Bible: Marxism And American Arrogance Towards Congo
Arrogance has proved to cause more harm than good in history, specifically between the United States and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United States and the Congo have a very chaotic past, with the US constantly trying to interfere with the Congolese’ decisions. The USA, in this case, is unable to admit to their faults within their system. Kingsolver uses the Poisonwood Bible to show the consequences of intervention into another culture. Their religious and cultural interference is representative of the interference of the United States. This book also contains the Marxist thought, which “refers to the political and economic theories of Karl Marx. He believed that history was largely determined by the struggle between the ruling classes and the oppressed classes, which had conflicting interests.” The story is told through the eyes of an American mother and her four children who were brought to the Congo in 1959 by their Baptist minister father. The Poisonwood Bible is a political allegory used to show the American arrogance and Marxism through three of the narrators, Nathan, Rachel and Ruth May.
Nathan Price’s arrogance and disrespect reflect the attitudes that the Americans had towards the Congo. He is unable to see himself as incorrect and refuses to change his views or opinions. He shows his disrespect and stubbornness with the Underdowns, the people who welcomed and send supplies to the Prices, warned him about the independence movement. Nathan brushes them off and insults the Congolese by saying “They don’t have the temperament or the intellect for such things.” (Kingsolver 156) His response to the Underdowns mirrors how the United States believed they could rule the Congolese Nation because they thought they were powerless. His arrogance reflects the attitudes the USA had towards the Native people as he tried to impose his beliefs on the native people, without even stopping to think about what they wanted or needed. (Kakutani) These actions also reflect the approach the Americans had on the Congolese and can be seen through the quote “American aid will be the Congo’s salvation! You’ll see!” This shows the selfish and single-minded ways of Nathan Price that would eventually lead to his downfall. Nathan Price shows the Marxist criticism by believing him and his religion is superior to the Natives. He continuously tried to shove his believes down their throats because he thinks they are better than the rich culture the Congolese have. Nathan acts without caring about what is best for those who depend on him, just like the countries in power. His religious and cultural interference in the Congo is representative of how the United States treated the Congo as well.
Rachel Price is a 15-year-old white Christian girl unable to detach herself from the American way of life. She shows her love for material possession in the quote “Rachel muttered, as her beloved toiletry items got pitched out of the suitcase one by one”. Materialism is a constant struggle for the Price family, encouraged by a system that keeps the first world wealthy. Living in the United States has tainted Rachel’s perception of the third world as she says “They seem to think we are Santa Claus, the way the children come around begging us for food and things every single day”. In the 1950s systematic racism was engrained in American culture. As segregation and discrimination against African-American people were prevalent. Rachel makes this clear for the passage “We aren’t all that accustomed to African race to begin with since back home they just keep to their own parts of town”. This shows the Marxist criticism because as a white American, Rachel views herself in a position of power. She believes that she is superior to the Congolese just because of her race. The danger of immersing racism into the very culture that it oppresses seems clear. Just as the mercy of the United States in the Congo affairs should’ve been clear. At the time the US was already faced with its own broken system making it inappropriate to intervene. The author uses the voice of Rachel Price to convey this message to her readers.
Ruth May Price represents the racist pollution on innocent minds. Her rapid deterioration of health is a portrayal of the rapid deterioration of the Congo after becoming independent. Even before she arrives in the Congo, 5-year-old Ruth May has a grasp on racial inequalities within her own country. She says, “They don’t come in the White Castle restaurant where Mama takes us to get Cokes either, or to the Zoo. Their day for the Zoo is Thursday. That’s in the Bible”. This shows how a young child can be brainwashed by society and is indicative of her western superiority. Ruth May’s symbolism of the African nation is represented through her rapid death. Through Ruth May, the reader is able to understand the speed at which the venomous snake took her life. “Suddenly it flew at the pole, striking twice, then, flung itself from the nest box and shot past us out the door into the morning, gone.” The tone of this quote implies the shock of the observer. Just as the downfall of the Congo was shocking to its people. One of the most significant facts that relates back to the political allegory, Ruth May died on January 17, 1961, the same day that Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. Patrice Lumumba was the first legally elected Prime Minister of the Congo, who was only in power for seven months, as he was assassinated by someone the United States hired to kill him. Ruth May was the heart of the Price family, Lumumba was the heart of the Congo, as he was the leader of the independence movement. Both Ruth May and the Congo were abandoned when in desperate need of a savior. The lack of a hero led to the death of an innocent child and the downfall of a nation.
Each character in The Poisonwood Bible is used as a different representation of the westernized culture and Marxism, shown through a political allegory. American Christianity, racism, and arrogance lead to the undoing of an ideal American family as well as a nation rich in culture. The American government intervened with heroic intentions, but immediately retreated when chaos erupted. This book took place over 60 years ago, why has America still not changed its attitude or arrogance towards other countries?
“The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver, uses the character of Nathan Price to address the effects of western supremacy and one’s personal superiority, specifically fueled by religion. The Price family travels to the Congo on a mission trip, is only a year before the country secedes from Belgium, leaving them in great need of assistance. Nathan was determined to give them this help by will or by force, all while dragging his family along with him. The way each child handles this is dependent on their personality and viewpoints. Kingsolver uses Nathan’s three daughters and their personal perspectives to address the dangers of disregarding others’ viewpoints with the idea of one’s own superiority.
The morality of imposing one’s personal values onto others without regards for opposing viewpoints creates a toxic circumstance that can lead to closed minds forming dangerous misconceptions. Kingsolver addresses this by using the narrative structure of switching between perspectives to make the toxicity of superiority evident throughout the text. However, she specifically leaves out Nathan’s perspective so that readers can see how his behavior affects different types of people. Nathan Price is almost immediately introduced as a radical Christian, close minded individual who believes he owes his entire existence to the pleasing of God. The delusion that his God sees a strict divide between right and wrong is very dangerous for someone like Nathan – a man who is determined to spread the word of God for his own personal gain. When the Price family ventures to the Congo, they are not welcomed as Nathan’s western superiority is very evident in the way he treats the Congolese but the way that he reacts to them during a time of need. The fact that they are not quick to accept him and the word of God only intensifies his personal feelings of superiority and makes him even more defiant than before. However, the way that this intensity is accepted is different with each character. Leah, a teenage girl that holds her image of her father close to her heart, thinks highly of her father – even stating that “[Nathan’s] devotion to the church, was the anchoring force” in her life” (Kingsolver 64). She even goes as far as to state that “his wisdom is great” (42). This hero-like view that she has of her father makes the church and her faith something of great importance in her life, only fueling Nathan and his idea of himself as someone of notable value. This egocentric characteristic leads Nathan to overlook not only the “centuries of customs and survival” but the reality that “daily struggles focus on survival, not redemption” (Ognibene).
Despite all of this, Leah still has a positive view of her father, and her childlike perspective leads her to truly believe all that he does is for the betterment of the Congolese. She believes the world is beautiful through her naïve eyes and longs to “exult in God’s creation” – a viewpoint that is very different from the perspective of the Congolese as their society is in chaos (Kingsolver 149). The world is not beautiful to the Congolese, and they believe God has given them nothing – something that Leah’s sister Rachel also seems to agree with. As Leah grows older, she begins to resent her father, and the guilt within her heart is nearly crippling. She mentions the “stirring of anger against [her] father for making [her] a white preacher’s daughter” because it set her so far apart from the Congolese (115). It is difficult for her to process the fact that it is “frightening when things that you love appear suddenly changed from what you have always known,” (236). Her whole life she had seen her father as a hero, “walking in his footsteps her whole life” and now her whole perspective changed, leaving her to “fall in line behind [her] mother” (393). As she grew, Leah began to see her father’s inability to accept other cultures and embrace the differences in those that were different than him.
While Leah had a tendency to see the good in the people around her, including her father, Rachel’s viewpoint of the Congolese is very negative as she tends to only see the beauty in herself. She is very in character with the stereotypical teenage girl in that she is very concerned with herself and her appearance. She finds no interest in things that do not benefit her in some way or another. Upon arriving in the Congo, she complains of being “sore at Father…for having [them] be there in the first place” (49). Rachel also speaks negatively of those who do not share her western idea of fashion and privilege, referring to the Underdowns as “plain janes” with their “economical home haircuts and khaki trousers,” (Kingsolver 159). Even though the Underdowns have English-speaking in common with the Price’s, Rachel still refuses to accept them as her equals – a trait that is very similar to the way that her father behaves when in contact with those unlike him. This leaves no surprise when she speaks poorly of the Congolese and their customs, even complaining about their tradition dress. She states that there was no need for them to be “so African about it,” making it clear that she rejects the thought trying to accept or validate cultures that differ from her own (45).
Not only is Rachel unaccepting but she is rather insensitive to the cruelties that take place around her. Ruth-May’s death was something that took a toll on every member of the family, no matter how they dealt with it. However, Rachel’s personal superiority does not fail to shine through even during this tragedy as she declares that she is “still alive and not dead like Ruth May” leaving her to believe that she “must have done something right” insinuating that Ruth May had done something to cause her own death (405). This insensitivity and self-entitlement are a derivative of her father’s behavior and lack of exposure of other cultures for his children. Rachel even declares that her own father would “sooner watch [them] all perish one by one than listen to anybody but himself” (169). Nathan is so involved with his faith and his mission to spread the word of God that the family is able to pick up his traits, good or bad, and create their own personal agendas. Rachel’s mission is to be in a place of superiority compared to those around her. She sees things the way she wants to as long as it benefits her, and this trait does not leave her even as she gets older. On her way to leave the Congo, she states that she “cannot remember giving a second thought to when I would ever see [her family] again, if ever” because at the end of the day, if it does not involve or benefit her in some way, it does not matter.
The view Adah has on life is very different than the viewpoint of her other sisters. Being disabled physically does not at all hinder her mental ability to process and understand the world around her – in fact, she could be referred to as the most insightful of the entire novel, though she rarely speaks for a majority of the book. This may, however, be on purpose as she refers to herself as not being able to “speak as well as [she] can think” (Kingsolver 34). Having a disability that made her seemingly ‘less superior’ than her family left her heart open for the people of the Congo, viewing them as people similar to her with bodies that were more vessels rather than another way to prove her self-worth. She even states that she has a “strong sympathy for Dr. Jekyll’s dark desires and Hyde’s crooked body” (55). She believes the Congolese “have their own handicap”, making her perspective very different than that of her family (11). Her belief that a handicap is not a curse makes it even more miraculous when she ages and discovers that she was not diseased at all, and her limp was simply “a misunderstanding between [her] body and [her] brain” (312). All these realizations are in complete contrast to her father and his behaviors, something that was admittedly unexpected as she spent a majority of the novel simply watching those around her. Adah describes herself as “a voice screaming in the desert,” as no matter what she does or says, it tends to be undermined by her father’s inability to sympathize with others and her sisters’ talkative and opinionated personalities. However, as the novel continues on, Orleanna practically goes mute leaving Adah to use speaking as “a matter of self-defense” (407). Between her mother not speaking and Adah’s own inevitable personality change, it is clear that Nathan’s behavior is negatively effecting the people around him with or without his own awareness.
Kingsolver’s, “The Poisonwood Bible,” expresses the dangers of imposing viewpoints on others without regards for others’ personal values through the character of Nathan Price and the effect he has on the people around him. By dividing between the perspectives of characters, the book shows that the marks that Nathan leaves on those that he tries to touch are just as negative as it is strong. Kingsolver uses the narrative structure of multiple first person perspectives to address the idea that the morality of imposing one’s personal values onto others without regards for opposing viewpoints is a toxic circumstance which can lead to closed minds forming dangerous misconceptions.
Voice in The Poisonwood Bible
The use of one’s voice is one of the most powerful weapons humans possess. Yet, too often it is not used to its full potential, and rather, is overlooked, used to harm, or silenced altogether. Voices are shaped over many years and experiences, and they evolve throughout a lifetime. Each individual possesses a voice unique and exclusive to himself or herself, and this expression of self can never be taken away unless one allows it to be. In her novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsovler investigates this idea of voice by writing a story told through the point of view of five different women. Through the lens of Orleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, the reader is able to better understand the intense, complex situation of the Congo at this time because it is presented through five different view points. When the same story is told and retold with different perspectives and filters, the reader is able to truly grasp the entire picture. Kingsolver’s use and exploration of the technique of voice in The Poisonwood Bible enables her to create a complex novel with many layers, as her characters and their voices evolve throughout their time in the Congo and beyond.
Rather than writing the novel in third person or a singular first person narrative, “the [five person] narrative point of view creates a field of reciprocal subjects, all crucial to the story but none exclusive or central. The heart of the novel emerges only by stacking multiple renditions and discerning the similarities and differences that together shape the broader view” (Ognibene 21). Kingsolver offers us not just the same story told through five different women, but also, the same story told through five women with drastically different world, political, and religious views. The five women’s “revelatory narrative circle” also offers a “feminist alternative to historical writing,” which, as Austenfeld indicates, is usually male dominated (294). When asked why she troubled herself with writing five different viewpoints, Kingsolver herself said “because it was necessary to the theme of the novel” (Author Interview). At its essence, the novel is a political allegory, and Kingsolver goes on to say that she wanted to analyze the entire spectrum of attitudes to the same political situation from “Orleanna’s paralyzing guilt to Rachel’s blithe ‘What , me worry?’” (Some Previous). Because each narrative is slanted to the narrator speaking, the reader is able to fully understand a conflict he or she is not a part of. This technique also provides a more humanistic approach to understanding a political situation that is usually portrayed through TV screens and the nightly news, rather than a family in the midst of it.
Kingsolver’s novel is also intricate because she uses five different female voices, yet, within a few chapters, the reader is quickly able to distinguish the speaker and tell them apart. Kingsolver says that this was one of the greatest challenges she faced and says she “spent almost a year just honing the different voices” (Author Interview). This is evident throughout the novel as the reader differentiates between each of the distinct narrators. Rachel’s voice is one of a teenager, thrust into a life she did not ask for in the middle of the turbulent Congo. She is concerned with “Sweet Sixteens” and her hair rather than the dangerous, complicated world she is now living in. In this sense, she “best represents America’s material culture” (Ognibene 31). Although she seems far removed from her situation (often because of her own doing), Rachel is incredibly perceptive and she “renders human relationships, material details, conversations, and emotions with great accuracy” (Austenfeld 295). As Elaine Ognibene succinctly writes, “Rachel sees the truth about things that concern her” (31). Yet, she often mixes up her words, speaking in malapropisms, which John Mullan comments is a result of her “prissiness” (12).
Similar to her elder sister in her penchant for honesty, the youngest sister Ruth May offers an unfiltered view of the world around her. Ruth May’s naïve understanding of her family’s situation is representative of the average American’s attempts to fathom the circumstances they are witnessing from afar. She regurgitates all that she absorbs and the reader is offered a “broad sample of all she sees, hears, smells, dreams, and feels” (Austenfeld 296).2 Although her voice may seem small or insignificant compared to the others’, Ruth May’s accounts offer a much needed positive and childish relief from the harsh world the others are living in. As Ruth May focuses on playing with the other children and enjoying her five-year old self, the reader develops a fondness for her and is just as drastically impacted as the four other women in the novel when she is cruelly taken from the world.
The two more in-depth and intellectual accounts of the Congo come from the twins, Leah and Adah. From their relationship—or attempts at a relationship—with their father to their physical appearance, these twins could not be more opposite. Leah is desperate for all types of knowledge and seeks it out wherever she can find it. Leah is a quick and avid learner and often “presents historical and cultural details and describes relationships and emotional connections” (Austenfeld 295-296). Soaked in the Bible teachings of her father that she desperately wants to obey, Leah’s accounts “combine biblical cadence with ready clichés” (Mullan 12). Leah is also the only one of the Price family members who uses her voice to learn and speak the Kikango language and connect with the villagers there. On the other hand is Adah, who uses her voice least of all. Although Adah “chooses silence, recognizing its advantages in certain circumstances,” when Adah speaks to the reader, her words are twisty and intriguing (Ognibene 27). Her silence enables to absorb and dissect the situations surrounding her, and her “social marginalization by both society and family, leaves her free to ponder the wonder of natural world, the absurdity of the human-made world, and the currents of language, biology, and political intrigue flowing around her” (Austenfeld 296). The “speechless expert,” Adah fills her pages with palindromes, rhymes, and poetry—her way of interpreting the world around her (Mullan 12). However, Adah’s evolution is an impressive one as she eventually engages her voice after leaving the Congo. Free from her father’s rule, further developing her skills and exceling, “Adah finds her voice in a language of self definition and science” (Ognibene 29). Not only does Adah find her voice, she proceeds to use it to become an advocate as she medically researches AIDS and seeks a sort of forgiveness for her time in Africa and the destruction that she believes she was responsible for.
Orleanna Price also begins to seek forgiveness for the events of the Congo, but like Adah, it is only once she leaves Africa that she is able to discover her voice and use it for empowerment and change. Orleanna’s narrative is the only one in hindsight as she addresses her dead child. Only after she is removed from the horrific situation is Orleanna able to look back, reflect, and discuss the events of the Congo and their impact. Her narrative is told through the “eyes of wife and mother, focusing on the reasons for deeds and events” (Austenfeld 295). The details and particulars are not important to Orleanna, but rather, the meaning and motive of each action and event. Orleanna’s story reflects back on her silence and the damage this caused to her family, but mainly, the silence that came with being the wife of Nathan Price. Orleanna reflects back on her silence with distaste and says, “I was his instrument, his animal. Nothing more… I was just one more of those women who clamp their mouths shut and wave the flag as their nation rolls of to conquer another in war. Guilty or innocent, they have everything to lose” (Kingsovler 89). Looking back at her time in the Congo, Orleanna recognizes that she lost everything. Although at the time she believed that she was doing the best thing for her family and children, her realization that it was just the opposite leaves her with paralyzing guilt. However, without this experience she never would have been able to leave Nathan and find her voice and “in voice comes redemption” (Ognibene 23). Orleanna’s intensely personal account of the Congo adds a new perspective to the conflict and “delivers observations that consider philosophical positions not normally covered in the news or historical accounts, so Orleanna’s voice reminds us not to rely on our assumptions or on what we have learned before, but to consider those who live with—or despite—the revolution” (Austenfeld 299). Very few people will ever be missionaries in the Congo during the height of its political conflict trying to raise a family, but Orleanna’s story allows us a peek into what that might have been like and how different one’s views or perceptions might be if they too had to live through this conflict rather than watch it from the outside.
Much of the five women’s stories revolve around the intimidating and fierce Nathan Price, yet he is not given a voice in the novel. When asked why Kingsolver chose to leave out Nathan’s narrative she states that “We’re the captive witnesses, just like the wife and daughters of Nathan Price. Male or female, we are not like him… we don’t identify with that arrogant voice. It’s not his story. It’s ours” (Some Previous). This story belongs to the Price women because their voices were continually silenced by Nathan. Adah comments on her father’s silencing when she says, “Our Father speaks for all of us, as far as I can see” (Kingsolver 32). Although in the Congo, Nathan does speak for the women in his family, they are the ones that are able to share their story. By doing so, they strip him of his voice and no longer give him the power to control theirs.
By using five female narrators to narrate the same story, not only does Barbara Kingsovler add more perspectives and emotions to consider, but she also develops a novel that reveals the truth. This story of political conflict, mission work, and American Exceptionalism is only able to be revealed to its deepest level through the eyes of all five women. Without even one of the voices, the story would be drastically lost, as four voices tried to fill in the gaps that only the fifth could fill. As Anne Marie Austenfeld states, “Kingsolver has learned that truth doesn’t speak with one voice, but with many” (302).
The Poisonwood Preacher
Throughout The Poisonwood Bible, author Barbara Kingsolver uses Nathan Price as a representation of the dangers of the combination of religious fervor and power in the wrong hands. This is not meaning to state that religion on its own is bad influence, but that it has the potential to be if it is implemented in the wrong way – forced by judgment or focused only on specific written rules rather than the ideology and true meaning behind it. Nathan is an impeccable example of the ‘dangerous hands’ religious control should not be placed into. He uses the bible like a weapon, bludgeoning the people of Kilanga with his strict beliefs of Christianity rather than approaching them with flexible methods and an ease of adaptation to their highly differing culture. One of the major flaws in Nathan Price’s religious practice is his failure to recognize the true meaning of Christianity. Instead, he focuses only on the specific standards and rules set by the bible word for word, such as baptism or prayer, when he should be embracing the spirit of the religion, such as compassion, love, and kindness.
A prime illustration of this obliviousness is Nathan’s interaction with his family. Nathan consistently prioritizes his religious mission over his family, neglecting to show his wife and daughters the love and care they deserve. Orleanna Price, Nathan’s wife, often informs the reader of his neglect through her storytelling of his treatment of her throughout their marriage. Leading up to her marriage with Nathan Price at a young age of 17, Orleanna had been a bright, passionate, and ambitious young girl living in Mississippi. Once she enters marriage, she loses nearly all sense of will and becomes an obedient and passive housewife. Orleanna is undermined by her husband’s higher priority of religion to the point at which his actions towards her are not simply of neglect, but disgust; “He was profoundly embarrassed by my pregnancies. To his way of thinking they were unearned blessings, and furthermore each one drew God’s attention anew to my having a vagina and his having a penis and the fact we’d laid them near enough together to conceive a child” (Page 198, Orleanna). Nathan doesn’t view reproduction with his wife as a beautiful and blessed event, but rather a shameful action in God’s eyes. Nathan’s neglect doesn’t stop at his wife; it carries onward to a lack of care for his entire family.
When the Congo turned to a politically unstable state in the midst of the war, the Mission State wanted to pull the Price family out of the country and back to safety within American borders. However, Nathan chose to disregard the Mission State’s advice and fought against his family’s desire to listen to it; “Mother tries to explain to him day in and day out about how he is putting his own children in jeopardy of their lives, but he won’t even listen to his own wife, much less his mere eldest daughter” (Page 176, Rachel). He risks losing his entire family without hesitation simply to continue his goal of diffusing Christianity throughout the Congo. Now, some may see this as a selfless and humble decision to make, but Nathan did not make this decision because he believed the Congolese people needed faith; he did this to satisfy his own need to be successful in his spread of the Christian faith. Furthermore, Nathan continues to demonstrate his priority ranking of religion as higher than his own family after the death of his daughter Ruth May Price. In immediate reaction to the death of Ruth May, Nathan Price exclaims, “She wasn’t even baptized yet” (Page 368, Nathan), in a state of shock. The event of losing a child usually causes a traumatic emotional response; however, Nathan only expressed his concern of failing to fulfill his personal religious mission.
Despite the rest of the family having passionate and devastating reactions to Ruth May’s death – “As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown” (Page 281, Orleanna) – and mourning her deeply, Nathan persisted to utilize her death to fulfill his ultimate goal of baptizing the Congolese. His absence of a natural, human response to his daughter’s death goes to show his selfishness and unnecessarily low priority for his family. Additionally, Nathan’s comment after Ruth May’s death, “She wasn’t even baptized yet” (Page 368, Nathan), is a sign of his hypocrisy as a ‘devout Christian.’ Nathan steadily preaches the importance of baptism to all of the Congolese peoples, yet he never baptized his own daughter. This leads to the discussion of religious hypocrisy that heavily lives on in today’s society, whether it is a massive scandal or the discreet yet tangible group of faulted Christians. In example, the Holy See of the Catholic Church released news in 2010 that nearly 3,000 priests had allegations of sex abuse over the last fifty years. The bible clearly states, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,” (1 Corinthians 6:9). As a secondary example, another main issue with religious institutions’ infliction of belief on the members of society is Planned Parenthood and the use of any form of contraception.
Due to clerical celibacy, a priest is not allowed to marry or have children. Therefore, he does not experience the struggles and hardships of supporting a family. The fact that priests preach to churchgoers that they must not divorce or use any form of contraception is simply hypocritical. They are unable to understand the dynamics of living with a wife and kids and the circumstances that create a difficulty in following the strict standards of strict preaching of Christianity, such as being unable to financially support another child leading to the use of birth control, or having such a cruel relationship with your spouse that both of you – and your children if any – are better off separated. It is easy for a single man with no children to preach the abstention from forms of birth control, sex, and divorce, as he never comes to face those issues. Though this story took place in a different time period, Kingsolver outlines these faults in Christian institutions through the actions and characteristics of her characters. In continuation of Nathan’s inadequate methods of preaching, his goals of diffusing Christianity are too focused on the salvation, such as heaven and hell, that he is oblivious to the true issues of reality sitting right in front of him and makes no effort to attend to them like a true missionary would.
As an example, Mama Tataba tells him the people of the Congo do not wish to be baptized in the river; “She [a girl in the village] got killed and eaten by a crocodile. They don’t let their children step foot in the river, ever. Not even to be washed in the Blood of the Lamb” (Page 81, Leah). Even after being told that a child’s life was recently taken there and that the people of Kilanga will ultimately refuse to enter the waters for baptism, he does not change his approach but simply persists to preach the importance and necessity of baptism and that the river is the only proper place to do so.Overall, Nathan Price is a stern, rigid, and inflexible preacher who has no desire to adapt to the Congolese culture. He remains unable to acclimate to his new environment, therefore hindering his religious influence over the people of Kilanga. Throughout the story, he makes no attempt to amend his methods for the best of the Congolese peoples; “he confronts and attempts to change a people he does not understand” (Purcell). He is unable to adapt to new environment and culture and does not spread Christianity in the correct way to implement the greatest effect on the Congolese religiously, failing to refrain from influencing all of their ideology, culture, and general way of life. His daughters’ maintain a great understanding of their father’s difficult nature, as Leah explains, “Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place. Especially here” (Page 505, Leah). Though this quote is in reference to the specific language differences from English to Congolese, it has a deeper and broadly applicable meaning to her father and his inflexible practices.
Moreover, Nathan is convinced that his ideas are superior, even when he is proved wrong with concrete evidence and valid facts. His very first action in Kilanga, attempting to farm the land, is a perfect example of his righteousness. Though it is shown that his method purely does not work. Nathan refuses to listen to Mama Tataba’s advice about cropping and planting the seeds properly. He hastily continues to plant in the garden, “He bent over and began to rip out long handfuls of grass with quick, energetic jerks as though tearing out the hair of the world” (Page 36, Leah), showing his disturbance by being proved wrong and his stubbornness by refusing to admit he was wrong. He ends up killing all of the crops and wasting time and resources, harming all the other people of Kilanga but feeding his own ego as he, in his mind, was right again. This is a static characteristic of Nathan that was foreshadowed throughout the book by his family, “It’s harder to imagine a mortal man more unwilling to change his course than Nathan Price” (Page 96, Orleanna). Likewise, Nathan refuses to listen or consider all others’ opinions and seeks only the mission sent to him by God. This ties into the fact that he uses God and religion to exert his arrogance and need for control to show that he is correct and all others’ opinions are inferior.
As previously and repeatedly stated, Nathan is a very arrogant, judgmental, and naïve man. He uses his religious mission to satiate himself by making him feel higher and feeding his arrogance through his ability to be condescending to those who are “unsaved”. He is too focused on his own salvation that he does not truly care about the saving of others souls or their well-being, only the prosperity it will bring him if he is successful in his mission. He leads himself to believe that the way to secure his spot to salvation is by converting as many souls to Christianity as possible, though that isn’t necessarily the direct meaning behind Christianity. As his daughter explains, “Father needs permission only from the Savior” (page 36, Leah), whose words Nathan tends to take too almost too seriously.
Contrarily, Kingsolver uses Brother Fowles as a representation of the ‘good’ of religion and the right hands it should placed in in order to prosper. Fowles is the foil to Nathan Price’s close-minded and selfish preaching style as he is open to understanding the Congolese culture and works to incorporate it into his teaching of Christianity; “He doesn’t proselytize, but rather engages in dialogue with the indigenous people [of the Congo]” (Purcell). He acknowledges that many of the ‘parables’ in the bible do not make sense to the Congolese people as they are unable to relate to and understand it contextually, and some of them only work if “you change a few words” (page 246). Fowles is an open interpreter of the Bible and doesn’t follow it word for word, but applies the true meaning behind it in a broader and more understandable way to the Congolese people. He doesn’t only care to change the Congolese people’s way of life in order to reach salvation, but instead focuses on teaching how the Christian ideology can be applied to their “daily experiences of life” (Purcell). Kingsolver creates a heavy contrast between Nathan Price and Brother Fowles that shines light on the ‘bad’ and the ‘good’ of religion and the hazard of abusing it’s strength. She characterizes the two reverends through the girls’ – Orleanna, Rachel, Leah, Ruth-May, Adah – perspectives and perceptions of both men and men’s actions throughout the novel.
Kingsolver thus portrays each character in different ways through the girls’ voices; they speak of their father, Nathan, in a harsh and almost annoyed tone, while they speak of Brother Fowles in a relaxed and respectable tone. This plays a major role in the reader’s view of each reverend, as he or she only knows of them according to girls’ portrayal of them. Throughout the novel, Kingsolver successfully depicts the two sides of the Christian faith, the effective way of preaching to those who wish to not hear it, and the dire importance of whose hands religious fervor is placed in.
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel. New York : HarperPerennial, 1999, c1998. Print.
Purcell, William F. “The Gospel According to Barbara Kingsolver: Brother Fowles and St. Francis of Assisi in The Poisonwood Bible – PhilPapers.” The Gospel According to Barbara Kingsolver: Brother Fowles and St. Francis of Assisi in The Poisonwood Bible – PhilPapers. Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009. Web. 05 Sept. 2016.
“Read the Bible. A Free Bible on Your Phone, Tablet, and Computer.” Read the Bible. A Free Bible on Your Phone, Tablet, and Computer. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
In Pursuit of Redemption: Reading The Poisonwood Bible
Youth is malleable. A child’s surroundings, after all, shape the person that the child becomes. Leah Price, who witnesses the most dynamic shift in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible, consistently challenges the established culture of the charismatic Congolese atmosphere by breaking down gender roles and taking on the mature responsibilities that her sisters often avoid. Leah is characterized by conflict and passion, always actively working to approach her life’s struggles with brevity despite her constant internalized religious and familial debates. The Poisonwood Bible – with a narrative based in outlining the various forms of redemption – is heavily reliant on Leah Price’s shift to open-mindedness in her worldview, asserting that in order to challenge the inequity of a rigidly unjust surrounding, one must actively work to defy the limited expectations placed in front of them and understand conflict from points of views besides their own.
Leah Price is easily defined as a feminist. In her ever-maturing perspective on life, she learns to never succumb to the patriarchal social structure established by her father or the community in which she lives. Such defiance is countered by her fourteen-year old self that arrives in the Congo, shrouded in the strict Christian beliefs she was raised under. Kingsolver’s shining moment for Leah’s rebellion against the Congolese social structure is when Leah assists the village men in hunting. When finding her prey, Leah “followed it with [her] eye as Nelson taught [her] to do, looking for the path of its hopes” (348). The dark, foreboding connotation given to “path of its hopes” relates to an animal’s death, amplifying the depiction of Leah’s harsher individualism as she attempts to equal the actions of men in the Congo. The vigor of Leah’s tone accentuates the divergence from absolutes in her life. Leah rejects her father’s judgment and the judgment of her local adversaries in order to defy the expectations placed ahead of her. The actions of the other Price daughters serve to highlight Leah’s personality shift throughout the novel. Rachel’s moral compass is stagnant in its sense of greed and self-fulfillment while Adah is able to find her voice and stand up for herself. Leah, however, is defined by her ability to consistently see ahead of her own perspective, which allows her to confidently hunt with the other men in Kilanga. “[Leah] felt mixed up, grateful, and sick at heart” when “Nelson had ridiculed Gbenye’s aim by calling him nkento. A woman” after Gbenye ridiculed Leah’s social audacity (349). The negative connotation given to “woman” creates a conflicted tone in order to candidly illustrate the blatant misogyny of the Congolese culture. The fact that Leah feels conflicted in the first place implies her clear moral and ideological shift towards individualism, rather than dependence on her father or God. In addition to her gender, the color of Leah’ skin places a consistent social and political backlash on her life in the Congo.
White skin is a mark of privilege and disconnect from the struggles of the Congolese culture. The juxtaposition of the Price family’s assumed privilege and the actuality of their struggles allows Kingsolver to comment on the political relationship between America and the Congo. Leah is unique in that her contributions to the Congo become more and more political as her life spent with Anatole progresses. Kingsolver utilizes the minor detail of a meaningless banana when Leah states, “I live among men and women who’ve simply always understood their whole existence is worth less than a banana to most white people. I see it in their eyes when they glance up at me” (437). The lingual contrast between the words “existence” and “banana” are utilized as extreme, yet honest depictions of the cultural subjugation by white people against black individuals, starkly illustrating how marginal a black person’s worth is regarded in the country. The undercurrents of racial tension within the country often pit Leah as a disgrace for marrying Anatole because she is stereotyped as pompous and unfairly superior. Kingsolver’s comments on race may reflect her struggles as a white minority living in the black majority of the Congo as a child. The gentle, understanding tone behind “I see it in their eyes” allows Leah to take on a open-minded perspective – one in which she remains respectful and loving of her nation despite the constant anger and judgment passed her way. Race is utilized as a facet of the political allegory within The Poisonwood Bible in regards to the United States’ imperialistic involvement in the Congo. The comfort Leah eventually feels as she ages in the country is a microcosm for possible resolutions to the Congolese racial structure; patience and hope are the hallmarks of Leah’s acceptance into the culture in addition to her flexible understanding of the viewpoints against her. The peaceful image of Leah in old age, saying, “I wake up in love, and work my skin to darkness under the equatorial sun…and I understand that time erases whiteness altogether” implies a picture of her prosperous life and the admiration Leah feels towards a homeland that fosters her livelihood and family (526). Love and hard work evaporated the connotation of her skin tone and allowed her to feel a full sense of belonging in Africa. The effects of guilt place heavy weights on the shoulders of each of the Price family members. Leah’s longstanding guilt lies in her inaction towards Ruth May, not following her mother to America and struggling to fulfill herself in a country that often denied her. Regardless, Leah’s redemption is found in her eventual acceptance into African society because her race is dismissed, seen simply as an external factor, allowing Leah to work and give back to the environment that shaped her.
One of the most blatant factors to shape Leah is the presence of religion throughout her entire life. The Poisonwood Bible is not only a political allegory but it also engenders elements of a religious allegory, bound by an overarching theme of sin and redemption. The entire Price family’s most prevalent sin is their unwillingness to deal with the realities of life. Their redemption, in its simplest form, is to overcome this unwillingness. Leah’s early stages in the Congo are characterized by her drive to adamantly defend her father’s actions; fourteen-year-old Leah is defined by absolutism. Kingsolver, however, hints at the degradation of such a relationship in the final lines of Book One, when Leah exclaims, “My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God – which fortunately weighs nothing at all” (19). The caustic tone of Leah’s final statement sets the stage for eventual rough familial discourse, hinting at the differing religious perspectives that will eventually move Leah away from a life lived in absolutes. The verbal contrast of “God” and “nothing” grants Leah her own unique voice that is not dictated by her father, Nathan. In the sink-or-swim atmosphere of the Congo, Leah constantly finds herself at the will of dangerous odds and in scenarios her Father does not agree with. The repetition of “sin” and the brief sentence structure of “sin, sin, I felt drenched and sick of it” suggests Leah’s frustrated tone, which parallels the slow devolution of Leah’s relationship with her father (285). Parenthetically, Nathan’s ardent Christianity serves more of a symbolic purpose rather than a helpful one, often leaving the family at the mercy of Nathan’s stubbornness. The pinnacle of not only Leah, but the whole Price family’s loss of trust in Nathan occurs after the ant attack, accented clearly and helplessly by Leah’s voice when she states, “My father was not a ghost; he was God with his back turned, hands clasped behind him and fierce eyes on the clouds. God had turned his back and was walking away” (310). The metaphorical comparison of Nathan to God emphasizes the degradation of Leah’s paternal dependence because both her father and her religion are failing to support and comfort her, thus leaving her in search of new forms of protection and guidance. Leah’s rejection of religion is a speculative decision as a child. Her defiance pits her against her greatest roll models, but only after she realizes her roll models were the ones leaving her behind and ignoring her. There arises a newfound sense of purpose and action within Leah as she transitions away from Christianity because she takes her issues into her own hands. The opposing non-religious perspectives that Leah adopts lead to her expansive worldview and understanding qualities. Rejection of the easiest solution is Leah’s most critical asset and her repudiation of the religiously moral code she was raised on is the turning point for Leah’s individualism. She finds her voice when her voice is no longer her father’s or her God’s.
Leah’s redemption never avoids risk. She always cares deeply about the world, but as a child she had clung happily to the belief in divine and absolute justice. Without absolute assurance she opens her compassionate, kind heart to the pain of acknowledging the inevitable injustice in the world. The greatest accomplishment Leah finds is that after losing her faith in divine justice she responds by devoting her life to bringing justice into her corner of the world. Kingsolver allows Leah to witness the clearest form of redemption because by the narrative’s end, there is no denying that Leah Price worked for fulfillment. In the face of overwhelming odds, Leah struck down the inequality that surrounded her and found solace in the perpetual state of breaking and fixing that life is often defined by.
Point of View and Narration in Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible”
“The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver, is a scathing critique of the destructive nature of pride and ambition, its narrative spanning over thirty years to reveal the tragic shortcomings of evangelist Nathan Price and the Western colonial attitudes he represents. In order to personalize the epic scope of the novel, Kingsolver writes in the first person, alternately inhabiting the minds of the four Price sisters and their mother, Orleanna. Although the hotheaded preacher, Nathan Price, is usually caught at the heart of the story’s conflicts, the primary storytelling vehicles are his daughters, with his wife serving as a poetic footnote at key moments in the narration. Thus, the book can be read as five separate, but interdependent, stories, interwoven to form a coherent movement from beginning to end. On the stage of the Congo’s struggle for political independence, the saga of the Price family unfolds as a morality play, making the use of perspective and point of view critical to Kingsolver’s rhetorical purpose. Rather than reading Nathan Price’s self-righteous explanations of his own actions, the reader is given five different personalities through which to understand the failure of the Price family mission. Through the clever use of individualized “voices,” the author is able to bring together a “three dimensional” portrait of an evangelist possessed by great zeal but, ultimately, lacking in knowledge. Of the five narrative “voices,” Leah acts most often as her father’s apologist, often explaining and reasoning through her father’s actions in the first half of the book. This support comes not from a desire to squelch the native cultures, however, but from genuine faith and compassion. Thus, as her father slowly dwindles into a self-righteous mouthpiece for Western colonialism, Leah’s respect for him gradually ebbs. Her moral qualities remain, but they begin to find new expression in politics as the story progresses, signifying a slow turn from abstract religious thought to concrete moral action. The other sisters take a more ambivalent approach to their father’s actions. Rachel, in particular, reveals a self-centered personality more concerned with pleasure than ideology. Adah, on the other hand, demonstrates an abstract, but intelligent perspective, colored by her crippling birth defect. She is piercingly cynical, but her insights and observations are always keen, and she comes off as the most intellectual of the sisters. There is a note of irony in the fact that, from the outside perspective of the other narrators, Adah is viewed as intellectually deficient because of her silence. Yet, when the reader is taken “inside” Adah’s mind, the contrast between what others observe about Adah and what Adah is capable of is shocking. In a sense, the crippled girl is used as a metaphor for Africa and its relationship with Nathan Price. Like Adah, Africa is viewed as deficient from an outside perspective, but if one could only see things through the eyes of the Congolese people, the picture would be starkly different. In fact, the closest thing to an African “voice” that Kingsolver provides is Nathan’s wife, Orleanna. Ruined by the guilt of having lost her youngest daughter to the harsh Congo, Orleanna’s brief entries into the narrative take the form of poetic meanderings, often describing Africa as a living person haunting the Price family’s past. In contrast to Orleanna’s writings, Ruth May takes a double role. In the earlier parts of the book, she writes as any other five-year-old, with an adventurous but often naive perspective. After her death, however, she becomes a silent figure lurking somewhere in her mother’s memory, a symbol of the family’s guilt and an indictment of misguided ambitions. This guilt presses on Orleanna’s conscience until the last chapter, in which the deceased Ruth May expresses her forgiveness for her mother’s mistakes. Here the “voice” of Ruth May takes a turn so drastic that the reader does not know it is her speaking until the end of the chapter. No longer the five-year-old girl, Ruth May has become something of an angelic figure, and her speech has been altered to reflect a more poetic, “ascended” feeling. In a sense, then, she becomes a metaphor for the Christian idea of rebirth; an illustration of things destroyed on Earth made anew in the afterlife. Because her perspective has been broadened in the spiritual afterlife, she is able to forgive not just the shortcomings of her own family, but of the entire effort to “civilize” the Congo. As an ascended figure able to offer forgiveness, she acts as a subtle symbol for Jesus Christ. Because this novel deals so heavily with morality, ethics, and politics, it could all too easily become a one-sided argument for a particular point of view. By allowing the reader to learn about events through the eyes of Nathan Price’s family, however, Kingsolver is able to paint a fully believable portrait of this prideful evangelist’s struggle. Rather than condemning or exalting the Price family mission, the author presents the impact that it has on five individual personalities, and, by extension, on the Congolese people. This creates an effect of realism and forces the reader to consider the story from different viewpoints and, in the case of Adah, even different belief structures. For the evangelical Christian, this acts as a profound reminder of the fact that the manner in which we present our message is as important as the message itself, which is the underlying theme of the novel.