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.
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