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.
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