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Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Of all the Prices, only Nathan does not get the opportunity to tell us his side of the story. Why do you think this is?

The Poisonwood Bible is a book about the responses we can make to the burden of collective guilt, in particular to our complicit guilt as United States citizens for the crimes perpetrated by our nation in the Congo. This is not a question intended for those who are directly responsible for the crimes, but for those who are merely guilty by association. It is a question for the private citizens, not the perpetrators. It is, therefore, a question that can only be answered by the five Price women, and not by Nathan.

Nathan is the representative of Western arrogance and blindness. He is the United States government, the Belgian colonialists, and every misguided missionary who sought to efface old traditions without trying to grasp them. To hear Nathan's story, therefore, would be futile. It would be futile, first of all, because Nathan's guilt is a deeper, more ominous sort of guilt than the type that we ourselves must deal with. It would be futile also because Nathan could never become aware of his own guilt. Unable to see the error in his ways, Nathan never grapples but only continues on, forging his way destructively until death.

The parrot Methuselah turns up many times in the book. What do you think he is meant to symbolize?

The parrot left by Brother Fowles serves as a symbol for the doomed Republic of Congo. Methuselah is denied freedom for most of his life, and while he is kept in a cage and fed by his masters, he loses the ability to fend for himself. Even after Nathan liberates him, Methuselah continues to stay close to the house he has always known, dependent on humans for his food. He even sleeps in their latrine at night, for fear of predators. Inevitably, the vulnerable Methuselah is ultimately caught by a civet cat, meeting his doom on the same day that the Republic of Congo begins its own short-lived independence. Within a few months the equally vulnerable nation will also be set upon by a predator (the United States) and killed.

Why do you think the book is called The Poisonwood Bible? What are the implications of the title for the book's main themes?

In the Congolese language of Lingala, the word bangala has two meanings. If spoken slowly, the word means "dearly beloved." If spoken quickly, it refers to the Poisonwood tree, a local plant that can cause painfully swelling if it is touched, and death if its wood is burned and the smoke inhaled. Reverend Price, in his willful ignorance of the culture around him, never catches on to this distinction, and so preaches week after week that Jesus is a poisonous plant.

Nathan's mistake is a symptom of his larger cultural arrogance, and so the title The Poisonwood Bible calls attention to this arrogance. Nathan's mistake is also significant for its content. Calling Jesus a poisonous plant is telling in itself. In the hands of men like Nathan—men with his level of cultural hubris, and his blindness to a culture that surrounds him daily—Jesus can become a dangerous force, a force as poisonous as the local tree. Wielded clumsily by Nathan, Jesus indirectly ends up killing Ruth May and brutally wounding the rest of the Price women.

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