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Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver

Important Quotations Explained

Song of the Three Children and The Eyes in the Trees

Key Facts

Maybe I'll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocolypse, but still I'll insist I was only a captive witness. What is the conqueror's wife if not a conquest herself?

This quote appears in Orleanna's opening narrative, and immediately introduces us to the dominant theme in The Poisonwood Bible: the attempt to grapple with guilt. Orleanna's guilt is twofold. There is the paralyzing guilt she feels over her complicity in the death of her youngest daughter, and also the scarcely less overwhelming guilt she suffers because of the crimes perpetrated by the United States against the natives of Congo. This passage is meant to call our attention to both of these guilty burdens. By calling herself the "conqueror's wife," Orleanna places herself in a particular position with respect to the guilt she is feeling. She is not the primary perpetrator of the act, but she is closely connected to that perpetrator and perhaps even benefited from his crimes. The true perpetrator of the first crime is her husband, Nathan, whose crazed zealotry placed the entire family in mortal danger. In this case, the relationship of wife is not even metaphorical. The perpetrator of the second crime is the United States, and here the relationship of wife is metaphorical, invoking the dependency, responsibility, and even loyalty that a citizen bears to his or her nation. Orleanna is not alone in her role as the United States' wife as she is alone in her other wifely role. Kingsolver intends for all of us to consider ourselves as this particular conqueror's wife, bearing the guilt and responsibility for the crimes our nation committed in the Congo. As Orleanna and her daughters work through their own guilt, we are also supposed to be thinking of ways to deal with our own.

The smiling bald man with the grandfather face has another face.

Adah makes this statement in Book Three, when she discovers that Dwight Eisenhower, President of the United States, is behind the CIA plot to overthrow the elected government of Congo and assassinate its president. It is strange, and also significant, that these words are spoken by Adah, since they more perfectly capture the growing disillusionment with father figures (Nathan, God, and American leaders) that Orleanna and Leah are experiencing. The following morning, Adah's surprise wears off and her usual cynicism creeps back in; she reasons that Eisenhower's discovered treachery is not that different from the fact that "Grandfather God" damns children to hell just for bring unbaptized. Yet here Adah reveals herself as not quite so immune to the idealization of her culture as she imagined herself. Though she fashions herself a complete cynic, here we see her shocked, even if only for a few hours, by the discovery that the President of the United States can be an evil man.

The growing disillusionment experienced by Orleanna, Adah, and Leah with regard to the traditional father figures, dominates the first two thirds of the book. Losing faith first in Nathan, then in their old conception of God, and finally in the United States, they are left abandoned and alone in a world they no longer understand. Once the disillusionment is complete, a process that ends for Leah and Orleanna when Ruth May dies (Adah's disillusionment peaks during the driver ant episode), the remaining action is dominated by their attempt to replace their old beliefs with new ones, and their false father figures with truer figures of authority and respect.

I felt the breath of God go cold on my skin.

Leah utters this as she rows with Anatole across the river and away from the driver ants, in Book Three. Amid the tumult of escape, Leah and Anatole continue an ongoing discussion of race and justice, and Leah finally suffers her ultimate crisis of faith. Moments later she replaces her old faith with a new one, murmuring Anatole's name over and over feeling that, "it took the place of prayer." Her love for Anatole becomes her new anchoring force, taking the place of her father and his simplistic vision of God.

Though it is Anatole who goads her here into admitting that life is not an equation with deeds on one side and reward and punishment on the other, his last small pushes are really superfluous. Leah's crisis has been building steadily, egged on by her observations in Kingala and Leopoldville, as well as by her eye- opening philosophical discussion with Anatole. However, it takes the mortal tumult caused by the driver ants to finally sever her desperate ties to a belief in a just and comforting God. Convinced that they are all about to die, she no longer has the will to force herself to believe in something she has probably not truly believed in for many months.

"In the world, the carrying capacity for humans is limited. History holds all things in the balance, including large hopes and short lives."

This is Adah's take on the notion of justice, given to us in Book Five. 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 unjust that in Africa young babies die of malnutrition and disease. To correct this injustice, we send over doctors to feed and inoculate 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 further disease. We cannot change the balance of the world, eliminating all that we consider sad and wrong. The world maintains its own balance, juggling human, animal, plant, microbe, mineral and so on in an elaborate scheme of life and death. Rather than despair over this state of affairs, Adah actually stands in awe of it, finding herself rooting no more passionately for the humans than any other of the major players in the global game of survival—rooting, actually, just for the survival of the vast, balancing game itself.

I am the unmissionary, as Adah would say, beginning every day on my knees asking to be converted.

In this passage, stated in Book Six, Leah expresses her guilt over being born white and American. In contrast to the missionaries, like her father and even her young self, who sought to make the Africans just like Westerners, imposing our values on them, Leah wants to assimilate entirely to the African culture around her. She has come full circle, from missionary to unmissionary.

Like Adah's remark about the impossibility of global justice, this remark of Leah's is closely tied to her ideas about justice in the narrower, human sphere. Just as Adah despairs of global justice, Leah despairs of true human justice, but her response is not to look on dispassionately and admire this fact. Instead her response is, on the active level, to do all she can to minimize injustice. On the emotional level, however, her response to inevitable injustice is to want to distance herself as far as possible from those who are responsible for so much of it.

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Corrections and Ideas

by GrammarJunkie18, July 11, 2013

Corrections: There are several mistakes in this article, from plot-related to grammatical. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are: a) Adah's right side, not her left, is crippled, b) the author used "effect" as a verb, and c) it's wringing, not ringing, near the end. Someone should probably look over this sometime. Also, the article presents Nathan Price as a completely flat character; however, he has his moments of uncertainty (for example, when he reshapes his garden into mounds, or when he reacts to the news of the little girl... Read more

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