The Poisonwood Bible
Undergoing a Quest in The Poisonwood Bible
There are five aspects that form a quest: There must be a quester, a place to go, the stated reason to carry out the trip, the challenges and trails, lastly, the real reason to go. In the Poisonwood Bible, the quest was to bring Christianity to the Congo and to establish the religion. Orleanna, our quester, gains self-knowledge by every passing day. Living in the Congo only made Orleanna further her realization that her marriage with Nathaniel was in shambles. After his life-death experience as a soldier in the war, he no longer was the man she married at the beginning. “That was the last I would ever hear from the man I’d married-the one who could laugh (even about sleeping in a manger), call me his ‘honey lamb’, and trust in the miracle of good fortune (Kingsolver 196). Orleanna’s quest at the very start was to ensure her daughter’s happiness by continuing their studies and bringing as many tangible items from Georgia so that the difference wouldn’t be noticed. She has always tended to her daughter’s and husband’s happiness and not her own. Her given quest was to be a good wife and mother despite the change of geography and cultural norms, but she became tired of taking of others, and painfully misses the carefree years of when she was just a girl.
Orleanna’s quest shifts from nursing the happiness of her daughters and husband, to making herself feel complete as a person, to figuring out if she could still be that “beautiful heathen girl..drawn to admiration like a moth to the moonlight..she was too dumbfounded to speak up for herself “. Orleanna didn’t just abruptly stopped attending and being a mother and a wife, she simply just gave more consideration to herself and expected her family to find their own way. She begins this new quest by observing her environment, allowing herself to find personal desires and curiosity that will always remain with her only. Unfortunately, Orleanna only really discovers who she is when her family isn’t with her and when she suffers the loss of her youngest daughter: Ruth May.
Another two character that undergo the quest are Leah and Adah Price. Their stated reason to venture out remains the same: the completion of their father’s mission. Leah has always internally struggled with her guilt, guilt of what she had done to her twin, in the womb but also leaving her with the lion. Leah has always been her father’s most obedient child and has always sought out his approval, but her father never gives her the time of day. As for Adah, she also struggles with her personal identity and how she was always seen as the oddity, they look down upon her because of this and her intellect is looked over. As time progresses, in the novel, we begin to see Leah to doubt him and arguments amplify in frequency. She gains the knowledge that she doesn’t need to be the traditional girl that was supposed of her back home. Leah saw the opportunity to prove herself and acted upon it by being a part of the hunt, that she could be as good or even better than the men, even if it did cause quite the controversy and caused an outburst from her father.
As for Adah, upon their first arrival at the Congo, she pointed out the numerous Congolese who live with life-altering complications such as her own yet what they’re more engrossed with was the color and length of her sister Rachel’s hair and her white skin, also known as the “White Termite”. Later, she even takes a sort of comfort in learning that there is a word in Kikongo that perfectly describes her. Adah gains self-knowledge as to who she wanted to be while she was in the Congo and acted upon it as soon as she fled with Orleanna back to Georgia, choosing science as her calling. She no longer carried the guilt of being a cripple weighing her down, as she was able to also cure her limp.
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.
Why I Love Barbara Kingsolver – My Short Story
In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, an epic about a family’s tragic undoing and their subsequent rebuilding in postcolonial Africa, Kingsolver explores the theme of an inevitable power struggle between preservation native religion and the spread of Christianity. Through the voice of Ruth May, the youngest girl in the Price family, Kingsolver depicts an encounter between Nathan Price and Anatole about Tata Ndu and how Tata Ndu believes that Christianity is corrupting the natives and leading them astray. Ultimately, Kingsolver employs a plethora of literary devices in order to depict a culture clash over religion between native religion and Christianity in the passage by characterizing Nathan Price and Tata Ndu as uncompromising and stubborn men dead set in their religions beliefs to further the aforementioned religious culture clash.
In the first half of the passage, Kingsolver is able to characterize Nathan Price as a man quick to anger against nonbelievers in Christianity in order to set the scene for the religious culture clash by showing how uncompromising Nathan Price is to nonbelievers. First, Kingsolver uses negative, hostile diction through Nathan Price’s dialogue with language such as “ignorance and darkness” and “false idolatry” to help show how Nathan juxtaposes the goodness of Christianity with the supposed backwardness of local religions to help set the stage for a religious culture clash by revealing Nathan Price’s true feelings toward the local religions. Moreover, Kingsolver employs a simile when she states “Father looked like he was choking on a bone”. This simile helps describe the extent of Nathan Price’s anger with the statements made about Christianity by Anatole. Through the usage of the negative, hostile diction in Nathan Price’s dialogue and the simile, Kingsolver is able to characterize Nathan Price as a stubborn and unforgiving man who can’t tolerate slanderous words against his religion and will go to great lengths to fight the slander, even if it means slandering other belief systems. This helps set up the religious clash of cultures as it shows and foreshadows the inherent struggle between Christian missionaries and local religion and how Nathan Price will try to adamantly finish his mission, even if it means fighting the natives over religion.
In the second half of the passage, Kingsolver is able to further the depiction of a religious culture clash through idiomatic expressions and another simile. First, she uses an idiom when she states “‘Corrupt did you say’ Father stated, rather than asked, after locating where the cat had put his tongue”. This helps show the anger Nathan Price feels after his religion was called corrupt, as he was unable to say anything due to his sheer shock from the statement and anger. Moreover Kingsolver makes use of another idiom when she reveals Tata Ndu’s true feelings on Christianity when she writes “he [Tata Ndu] said you are leading our villagers down into a hole, where they may fail to see the proper sun and become trapped like bugs on a rotten carcass”. By first, showing Nathan Price’s anger through the idiom as he can’t comprehend his religion being called corrupt, along with the simile in Tata Ndu’s dialogue in reference to Christian teachings leading the villagers the incorrect way, Kingsolver captures the religious culture clash perfectly. She is able to show how Nathan Price was so uncompromising and even angered by the statement that Christianity was corrupt as well as how the village chief himself uses, in his dialogue, a simile to compare Christianity as to leading people into a hole and being trapped like bugs on rotten carcass. This all goes to build to the overall theme of a religious culture clash as representatives of both religions can’t find any common ground and work together, but can only hurl abuses about the other’s religious practices, showing a pretty clear religious struggle between Nathan Price and Tata Ndu.
In conclusion, Kingsolver is able to develop the resonant theme of a religious culture clash throughout the passage. Using a variety of literary devices, Kingsolver is able to characterize Nathan Price and the village chief, Tata Ndu, as obstinate, headstrong men who will not compromise and accept the other’s religious views and are dead set in promoting and preserving their own, which help further the theme of a religious culture clash.
Western Colonialism And Post-Colonialism in The Poisonwood Bible
The Poisonwood Bible Book Critique
Sociology can be defined as the study of human social behavior, especially the study of the origins, organization, institutions, and development of human society. The Poisonwood Bible is a perfect example of this, as a family is forced to leave their home in America, to a small shack in the Congo of Africa. Nathan Price, takes his wife, four daughters, and the mission to the Belgian Congo, where the minister hopes to educate the people there, in believing that his is most definitely the correct faith, or the right thing to believe. As the family struggles to survive and communicate in such a different society, the minister is dead set on changing the beliefs, faith, and ultimately, the people of the Congo.
As a soldier during World War II, Nathan escaped the Battaan Death March, and the almost death that came with it. Because he escaped the fate of the rest of his battalion he views himself as a coward, despised by God. He vows to never be a coward again, which means he will never leave a dangerous situation behind again. He devotes his entire life to saving as many souls as he can, through his missionary work. His attempt to save unenlightened souls has nothing to do with the well being of those particular souls. But instead, like all others that he undertakes, has as its only goal the well being of his own soul. He is so obsessed with securing his own personal ticket to salvation that he knowingly imperils the lives of his wife and daughters. He is unable to look outside of his own need even for their sakes. It seems that Nathan not only lacks the appropriate level of concern and compassion for his family, but that he positively resents them. Nathan is, first of all, a rabid male chauvinist who dismisses the very possibility of female intelligence. However, his complex relationship to his family does not derive from anything so simple as mere sexism. Convinced that God is constantly watching and judging him, and does not approve of any activity not devoted to spreading His name, Nathan is enraged by his own sexual urges. Instead of turning his rage on himself, however, he conveniently turns his rage on his wife for tempting him, and on his daughters for being the physical manifestations, or proof, of his lapses in will power. His abusive behavior toward them, including his endangerment of their lives, can be seen as a form of revenge on those who would make him something other than who he wants to be.
The Poisonwood Bible is an extreme reflection of Western colonialism and post-colonialism, an depiction of cultural arrogance and greed. Nathan Price serves as the personal incarnation of Western hue, unquestioning in his missionary enthusiasm to overturn the ancient traditions of the Congo and replace them with his own religious beliefs. Yet nearly all of the non-African characters are marked by this fault for at least some portion of the book. From Leah’s initial certainty in her father’s mission, to the Underdown’s patronizing racism, each character comes over to Africa confident that they are bringing with them a superior way of life.
Brother Fowles, who symbolizes the positive side of Christianity, is the first to introduce the idea of pantheism, or a worship of all of nature as part of God, into the book. Orleanna, herself a former nature worshipper, quickly picks up on this idea and seems, on her long walks and later in her gardening, to adopt it as her own form of spirituality. By the end of the book both Adah and Leah seem to have come around to versions of pantheism as well, with Leah claiming that her sense of God is “some kin to the passion of Brother Fowles.. who advised me to trust in creation” and Adah declaring that, “God is everything then.”
Given that cultural arrogance is presented as the great sin of the West and traditional forms of Christianity as one of this sin’s primary drives, it is not surprising to find pantheism being presented as the spiritual antidote. The notion that all of the natural world is heavenly, inevitably inspires a certain respect and modesty in anyone who believes it. It speaks against the attitude of “subdue and conquer,” that Western thought applies to both the natural world and, to the human beings who live in it.
In forming their various approaches to the world, as they are forced to survive in a completely different society, the Price women also come to very diverse ideas of justice. Adah gives up any lingering belief in a humanitarian world, and so thinks of justice in global terms. Absolute justice, at least the crude sort of justice that Westerners believe in, she tells us, is impossible. We think, for instance, that it is unfair that in Africa young babies die of malnutrition and disease. To correct this unfairness, we send over doctors to feed and vaccinate them. Yet, Adah, points out, the result of this good deed is simply death of a different sort. Overpopulation leads to food shortage, deforestation, and the extinction of species. We cannot change the balance of the world, eliminating all that we consider sad and wrong. The world maintains its own balance. One life form will always have to die for another to live, whether that is one person for another, one animal, or one virus. Adah does not despair over this harsh balancing act, but only marvels over it. She is able to rise above her own crippled-ness and imperfections and view the world as an objective observer, as she once viewed her family and Kilanga. From this vantage point, the shaky agreement between human, plant, virus, and mineral is admirable rather than frustrating.
Leah, the compassionate person-lover, retains her humanitarian focus, and comes to lose hope of any justice even on that more narrow level. Even within human society, she admits, “there is not justice in this world.” In this sphere too there is only the possibility of balance. What balance means in this context is not as clear as what it means in the global context, where the symbol of different life forms feeding off each other’s deaths is well-known. Most likely, in referring to balance in the sphere of human society Leah means only to refer to the easing of inevitable tragedy and injustice that human beings can constantly try to effect.
Each of the Price daughters has a distinctive relationship to language. Rachael consistently and unapologetically misuses words, Adah reads them backwards, Ruth May cheerfully invents her own language, which she uses to communicate with the other children, and Leah uses language lessons as an excuse to spend time with Anatole, the man she falls in love with and eventually marries. Each of these linguistic personalities mirrors the deeper personality: Rachel is self-involved, and wholly inward looking, ignoring the larger world around her; Adah is a brilliant and perceptive observer, seeing more in a glance than most could see in a lengthy examination; Ruth May is adventurous, confident, and playful; and Leah relates to the world through her endless capacity for love.
Lingala, the regional language used in the region of Congo that the Prices inhabit, also has its own linguistic personality. Most words in the language have wildly different meanings, and the intended meaning must be indicated by subtle differences in intonation. Adah is the first to pick up on this fact, loving the language for this feature, and Leah and Orleanna follow soon thereafter. Nathan, however, never catches on, and therefore preaches every week that Jesus is a fatal Poisonwood Tree, when he really means that Jesus is dearly beloved.
Nathan first encounters the Poisonwood tree while planting his demonstration garden. Mama Tataba warns him not to touch the dangerous plant, but he ignores her and ends up with painfully swollen arms and hands. The Poisonwood’s primary role in the story, though, is in the form of a linguistic accident. In the native language the word “bangala” can mean “dearly beloved” if spoken slowly, or else “Poisonwood Tree” if spoken quickly. Unable to grasp this subtle linguistic distinction Nathan preaches week after week that Jesus is the local tree that can cause intense pain and even death. His simple-minded mistake is a result of his general inability or unwillingness to learn anything about the culture around him, a symptom of his general cultural arrogance.
WARNING: may threaten your masculinity- not for the simple minded, na, immature, or inexperienced. This novel is by far one of the best in my opinion, and I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to take the time and realize that although fiction, Kingsolver reached the depths of the human mind, combined it with society and culture, and the result was nothing short of amazing.
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.
Tools to Overcome Trauma in Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre And The Poisonwood Bible
Adolescent characters Holden from Catcher in the Rye, Jane from Jane Eyre, and Adah from The Posionwood Bible all face and overcome respective traumas. Each of them uses defense mechanisms to attempt to overcome their traumas, even though they do not prove immediately successful. A popular adolescent sublevel of defense mechanisms is an immature defense style, through the use of “passive aggression, acting out, [and] isolation” (Maltby and Day). Holden, Jane, and Adah use immature defense styles in reaction to their hardships, through flunking school, escape through reading and seclusion through silence, respectively. Children escape from hardships and trauma through isolation as a defense mechanism in the novels The Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre, and The Poisonwood Bible.
A variety of hardships and traumas face the main characters in The Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre, and The Poisonwood Bible. Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye has yet to come to terms with the premature death of his brother. Holden speaks of his late brother, saying, “He’s dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent” (Salinger 38). The bluntness of Holden’s statement regarding Allie shows that the emotional baggage that came from losing his brother has taken a toll on him. His straightforward phrases like “He’s dead now,” show how numbed Holden has become to the situation.
Jane from Jane Eyre’s hardships stem from neglect rather than shame. Jane’s parents died of typhus, leaving her to spend her bleak childhood with her abusive aunt and cousins. Jane’s aunt has forbidden her to play with her cousins, making for a lonely childhood. Jane says regarding her family, “From every enjoyment I was, of course, excluded… I would retire from the stairhead to the solitary and silent nursery” (Brontë 27-28). She was made into a type of servant to cater to her aunt’s needs: “Bessie now frequently employed me as a sort of under nursery-maid, to tidy the room, dust the chairs, etc” (Brontë 29). After her bullying cousin, John, throws a book in her face, Jane is blamed and punished for the fight that resulted. Jane’s late uncle was the opposite of her aunt. His dying wish was for her aunt to raise her as her own. Jane was supposed to have a happy childhood like her uncle planned her to have, but she did not due to her aunt’s negligence
Adah from The Poisonwood Bible’s troubles started from her birth when she was born crippled. As a child, Adah suffered from paralysis on whole left side of her body. This proved troublesome when she is forced to relocate to the Congo with her father, a minister. She does not believe in God, contrary to her father’s teachings. Adah first recounts origins of her disbelief after a punishment from her father, saying, “When I finally got up with sharp grains imbedded in my knees, I found, to my surprise, that I no longer believed in God” (Kingsolver 171). However, Adah begins to find her voice through the teachings of the Congolese people: “Adah…finds acceptance in Congolese culture. This acceptance contrasts with the judgmental morality of American culture, which ‘expect[s] perfection, and reviles the missed mark’” (Koza). Adah has hardships that could not be helped, but were only made more evident in her relocation with her family to the Congo.
According to documents from the National Institute of Health, abuse and tragedy in the life of a minor can lead to post traumatic stress disorder. “A traumatic event is much more likely to result in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adults who experienced trauma in childhood” (PAST). Young people have proven to be the most susceptible to the negative effects: “Children have been identified as among the most susceptible in the population to the negative effects of trauma. This varies according to the child’s developmental level, amount of exposure, and the reaction of family and adults to the trauma” (Meier). Holden, Jane, and Adah all experienced trauma in their childhoods, leading to their susceptibility to PTSD. This disease disorder remains prevalent in modern day societies with children dealing with traumas from their childhood ranging from neglect to molestation (PAST). Issues surrounding trauma in these novels can be related to relevant issues in modern times.
The children in The Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre, and The Poisonwood Bible use various defense mechanisms to escape from their traumas. Holden flunks out of school, but instead of facing his parents, he travels to New York City alone to avoid them. Holden, while packing a new pair of roller blades that his mother bought him, describes his reaction to flunking out, saying, “That depressed me. I could see my mother going in Spaulding’s and asking the salesman a million dopy questions – and here I was getting the ax again. It made me feel pretty sad” (Salinger 52). Holden escapes from his depression of flunking out of school and not wanting to face his parents because of his brother’s premature death, by retreating. Holden soon finds that escaping from his troubles at school did not help him as much as he had anticipated: “Holden is a boy bordering on being an adult who fights every step of the process with extreme emotions, bizarre reactions, and obsessive lying” (Privitera). Holden’s defense mechanism is an example of an immature defense style, seeing as he attempts to shield himself away from his traumas through acting out. Holden’s actions carry a deeper meaning: “Holden turns out to be someone who hates ‘phonies’ but who uses his hatred of them to defend the vulnerable: a category that for him includes not only his kid sister, but the homely daughter of the headmaster… as well as his sad summer neighbor, Jane Gallagher” (Mills). Holden attempts to deal with his troubles through an immature defense style.
Unlike Holden, Jane’s defense mechanism for dealing with her traumas includes is isolation, rather than misbehavior. Jane shuts herself away from her abusive family life through reading. “Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting” (Brontë 8). Jane uses literature to escape from her negative life, looking to lose herself in a different world so she can forget about her own. Her method of seclusion proves ineffective when her cousin snatches the book out of her hand and abuses her with it. When Jane finally believes she is about to escape from her issues when she goes away to school at Lowood Academy, she is faced with a whole new set of hardships. She is the target of her head master’s abuse, and the one friend she made to help her through her struggles prematurely dies of typhus soon after they meet.
Adah secludes herself in silence from the world around her, yet her knowledge of language proves expansive. Adah, through her silence, is capable of observing, and thus comprehending languages: “Adah with her half-brain has an extraordinary talent for languages, one quirk of which is a preference for creating, thinking, and writing in palindromes” (Fox). Adah’s physical disability has led to her silence, but it has also helped her in her comprehension: “Adah’s …crooked walk… [is linked] with her ‘crooked vision’ [suggesting] that the physical disability that marks Adah as different paradoxically enables her to see more clearly” (Koza). Adah’s physical state leaves her cast on the sidelines of her family’s new life in the Congo. Her silence cathartically helps her: “She chooses not to speak because she accepts her role as outsider. That is, she will not communicate with a society that does not see her as a person” (Fox). Adah is capable of viewing her new surroundings better than any of her family members because her silence allows her to remain in a bystanding position, capable of observing: “[Adah] provides the subversive perspective that animates the first part of the novel… Adah’s decision to ‘keep [her] thoughts to [her]self,’ substituting writing for speech, frees her to find her own ways of thinking and seeing” (Koza). Adah chooses to see her new and strange world through the perspective of an onlooker, not getting in the way of it.
Young people use defense mechanisms in response to hardships and trauma continue to be an issue today, with adolescents reflecting certain ways. Adolescents, like the characters from the novels, are more likely to develop defense mechanisms in response to hardships: “Adolescents, from age 12 to 15-1/2, were more restricted than school-aged children in the variety of defense mechanisms they evidenced. Immature coping maneuvers were most frequent, especially acting-out and introjection” (Adams-Tucker). Holden and Jane reflect these “immature” defense mechanisms, with Holden escaping through his flunking school, and Jane subconsciously venting her frustrations through her temper tantrums. If children were facing traumas, their defense mechanisms for that could evolve into further troubles: “The defense mechanisms abused children used during the trauma stage, and which allowed them to survive it, form blueprints that lead them to repeat behaviors and relationships that take them back to the trauma, though very often they will not remember it” (“Impact”). Jane, Holden, and Adah all use different defense mechanisms which could open the door for future displeasure in the face of oncoming troubles.
The outcomes of these defense mechanisms from the characters eventually prove successful in the novels. Holden realizes the love he has with his living family members can help him through his difficult times. Holden and his little sister Phoebe are at the carousel at the zoo in New York, and he remarks that he will not run away after all. She puts his red hunting hat on his head again, symbolizing that Holden is whole again. For the first time in the novel, Holden says that he is happy: “I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling. I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth, I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice” (Salinger 213). Holden realizes that escaping from his family is not going to make the death of his brother any easier. He, instead, appreciates the love he has with his other family members and becomes content with his own life.
Jane secluded herself away from her hardships through reading, and she found a way to use it to her advantage. Her love and interest for reading assists in her finding something new to believe in when she learns from her friend Helen Burns at Lowood Academy. “Jane’s childhood companion, the doomed Helen Burns, is a warmer, open-hearted Christian soul” (Vineberg). Jane is astounded by Helen’s vast knowledge and opinions. Helen’s optimistic views, including insights like “love your enemies.” Even in the face of their malicious teacher, Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen shows Jane a new way of viewing the world. Jane’s new perspective and outlook on life help her face her troubles that she has to confront. Helen helps Jane see the flaws in her character: “Jane struggles throughout the novel with questions of faith and belief, and the more spiritually minded characters accuse her of replacing God with people. Helen Burns tells her, ‘you think too much of the love of human beings’” (Weele).
Adah eventually comes to terms with her life in the Congo, and she allows it to help her not hurt her: “In an ironic reversal, it is possible to say that the Congolese culture, by allowing Adah to reinvent herself, recognizes her by its more appropriate physical expectations” (Fox). She also reaches closure in the face of her weakness due to her disability. She realizes the night of an ant invasion that she needs to advocate for herself as her family will not always be able to protect her. For the first time, she speaks. This is a turning point for her: “That night I could still wonder why (my mother) did not help me… Now I do not wonder at all. That night marks my life’s dark center, the moment when growing up ended and the long, downward slope toward death began” (Kingsolver 306). Adah comes to be less dependent on her family in regards to her safety after the ant invasion. In her later years, Adah attends physical therapy and that helps her get rid of her limp, meaning it was mainly psychological: “I am still Adah but you would hardly know me now, without my slant. I walk without any noticeable limp” (Kingsolver 492). The loss of Adah’s limp signifies her freedom from her crippling past and her freedom and openness towards her future.
Holden in Catcher in the Rye, Jane in Jane Eyre, and Adah in The Poisonwood Bible all face many hardships in their lives. Holden has yet to face the gripping reality of the premature loss of his brother, and that leads him to avoid his family in the face of bad news and he runs off to live in New York City alone. Jane, after growing up in an abusive childhood, faces more hardships as she faces troubles at Lowood Academy. Adah struggles with her disabled life and with her adapting to her new environment in the Congo. Each of these characters use defense mechanisms to help them cope with their problems. The immature defense style of defense mechanisms is the most common with adolescents, and includes traits like acting out and isolation. Jane drowns her troubles with reading, Holden escapes through his lone travels to New York City, and Adah acts as a bystander towards her new life through her silence. Traumas as children can lead to problems in adulthood, including post traumatic stress disorder and defense mechanisms can be used as an outlet for further problems. The defense mechanisms, however, prove effective in the characters’ being able to find closure.
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.