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Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Character Analysis

Book One: Genesis

Themes

The Cultural Arrogance of the West

The Poisonwood Bible is a rabid indictment of Western colonialism and post-colonimalism, an expose of cultural arrogance and greed. Nathan Price serves as the personal embodiment of Western hubris, unquestioning in his missionary zeal 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 Underdowns' patronizing racism, each character comes over to Africa confident that they are bringing with them a superior way of life. It is the United States government, however, that wields its cultural arrogance most dangerously, feeling entitled to assassinate a foreign nation's president and replace him with its own puppet ruler.

Pantheism as a Superior Form of Religious Faith

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" (Song of the Three Children: Leah Price) and Adah declaring that, "God is everything then" (Songs of the Three Children: Adah Price).

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 vehicles, it is not surprising to find pantheism being presented as the spiritual antidote. The notion that all the natural world is divine necessarily 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 inhabit it.

The Individuality of How to Deal with the Burden of Guilt

The Poisonwood Bible is a political allegory. Though the story it tells focuses on the guilt of five women, for example their private guilt over the death of a daughter and sister, and their public guilt over the role they played in Africa's tragedies, it is really about the guilt that all United States citizens share. It poses the question: what did our nation do in the Congo, and how should we respond to this fact?

There is no one right answer to the question, "how should we live with the burden of guilt?" To pose just one answer and claim that it is the correct one would not only be narrow-minded, but also somewhat uninteresting for being so blatantly false. This is why Kingsolver chooses to have the story told by five separate narrators. Each narrator represents a different answer to the question, "how should we live with the burden of guilt," covering the spectrum from Orleanna's complete paralysis to Rachel's nonchalant refusal to even accept the burden. In between these extremes there is Leah, who responds with political activism—that is, with an active attempt to right the wrongs in the world—and Adah who responds scientifically, with an attempt to understand and make sense of the world on its most fundamental level. Even Ruth May, whose death is the cause of the more personal level of guilt felt by these women, represents a point on the spectrum of guilt, coming at the question with an all-accepting spirituality. These responses together are not meant to exhaust the possible reactions one might take toward guilt. They are only five possibilities out of an infinite number of options.

The Impossibility of Absolute and Unambiguous Justice on a Global Scale

In forming their different approaches to the world, the Price women also come to very different conceptions of justice. However, what emerges as a theme among those who address the issue is the insistence that a complete routing of injustice from the world is impossible. Adah gives up any lingering belief in a human-centric 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 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 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 ruthless balancing act, but marvels over it. She is able to rise above her human skin and view the world as an objective observer, much as she once viewed her family and Kilanga in this way. From this vantage point the shaky accord between human, plant, virus, and mineral is admirable rather than frustrating.

Leah, the compassionate person-lover, retains her human-centric focus, and comes to despair of justice even on that more narrow level. Even within human society, she admits, "there is not justice in this world" (Song of the Three Children: Leah Price). In this sphere too there is only the possibility of balance. What balance could mean in this context is not as clear as what it means in the global context, where the symbiosis 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.

Motifs

Vision

Throughout the book, the motif of vision is used to underscore ideas of cultural arrogance and understanding. Nathan's inability to see outside of his narrow world view, in particular, is evoked repeatedly with images of blindness and poor sight. His one physical war wound from World War Two is a damaged eye, which leaves him with poor vision on the left side. This wound can be seen as the bodily manifestation of his more serious psychological or spiritual wound, which is another sort of blindness, a metaphorical blindness to anyone or anything outside of himself and the conception of his divine mission. His good right eye is temporarily damaged as well, when he arrogantly ignores Mama Tataba's advice and continues grappling with the poisonwood tree. When Leah finally sees her father clearly, as the cruel, delusional man he is, she notices that "his blue eyes…had a vacant look" (Bel and the Serpant: Leah).

Adah, by contrast, who alone among the Prices never views the Congolese as inferior to Westerners, has amazingly agile vision. She is able to see words backwards and forwards equally well, ringing double meaning from any phrase.

Light and Dark

In Joseph Conrad's the The Heart of Darkness, the darkness of the title is located in Africa itself, and also in the heart of those who are forced to acclimate to its primeval and brutal environment. Throughout The Poisonwood Bible Kingsolver challenges this notion, playing with the themes of darkness and light to get us to reconsider where these forces really reside. In Nathan's first sermon in Kilanga he repeatedly uses the biblical phrase, "nakedness and darkness of the soul" to refer to the natives' shameful state of undress, but tellingly, the one time that the phrase "heart of darkness" is used is in describing Nathan (The Revelation: Orleanna). Darkness is seen as emanating not from Africa, but from the Western oppression of the Africans, which Nathan represents. Africa, in fact, is portrayed as anything but primeval and brutal. The people of Kilanga are every bit as civilized as the Prices, and, if anything, far less brutal. If Africa is associated with darkness, it is only because it brings out the darkness of greed and hubris in the hearts of men like Nathan and Eeben Axelroot. Africa itself, rid of brutal Western interference, can become, in Patrice Lumumba's words "the heart of light."

The phrase, "walk forward into the light" appears twice in the book, and with two very different meanings that play off one another nicely. The first time it is used is when Nathan walks around his daughter's dead body, using the rain to baptize the local children gathered there in mourning. Leah describes him here as "imploring the living progeny of Kilanga to walk forward into the light" (Bel and the Serpent: Leah). The light he is imploring them to walk into is, of course, the light of Christianity—the light of his own firmly-held religious beliefs that he would like to impose on them. In the very last line of the book, Ruth May addresses her mother with these same words. Here the light refers not to Christianity, but to forgiveness, and a world devoid of the darkness that blackened the hearts of men like Nathan Price.

Language as Revelatory

Each of the Price daughters has a distinctive relationship to language. Rachel consistently and unapologetically misuses words, Adah reads them backward, Ruth May cheerfully invents her own language in which to communicate with the local children, and Leah uses language lessons as an excuse to spend time with her future husband, Anatole. Each of these linguistic personalities mirrors the deeper personality of the girl: 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's relates to the world through her boundless 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 divergent 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. Thick-skulled Nathan, however, never catches on, and therefore preaches every week that Jesus is a fatal Poisonwood Tree, when he means to declare that Jesus is dearly beloved.

Symbols

Methuselah, the Parrot

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.

The Demonstration Garden

Nathan's demonstration garden serves as a wonderful symbol on three levels. First the garden itself can be seen as a stand-in for the attitudes and beliefs that the Prices carry with them into Africa. Like those attitudes, the plants are wildly inappropriate in this environment. The plants become unrecognizable, almost grotesque in their hugeness. More significantly, though, they are rendered inert and useless, unable to fruit. The indigenous North American plants cannot vegetate under the conditions in Africa.

The very act of planting the garden rests upon one of the wildly inappropriate attitudes that the Prices carry with them. The venture reveals Nathan's blind arrogance, the belief that the Congolese are so backward that they have no idea how to grow their own food. It is beyond Nathan's capacity to reason that, if the climate permitted this sort of garden, Africans would have planted it themselves long ago. It does not occur to him to consider whether there is some reason, other than their utter stupidity and backwardness, which might account for the fact that there is little agriculture in Kilanga.

Finally, the garden is symbolic because of its biblical resonance. Gardens, in particular the Garden of Eden, play a prominent role in Christian tradition. It is in the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve, the original man and woman, ate from the Tree of Knowledge thereby imbuing all future generations of human being with original sin. There is a clear irony in drawing a connection between Nathan's undertaking and Adam and Eve's. Adam and Eve sin by grasping for truth and knowledge that is not intended for them. Nathan, by contrast, sins through his willful ignorance, through his refusal to learn anything about the culture around him, and to enlarge and deepen his understanding of the world.

The Poisonwood Tree

Nathan first encounters the Poisonwood tree while planting his demonstration garden. Mama Tataba warns him not to touch the dangerous plant, but he contemptuously 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 thickheaded 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. The mistaken phrase, however, is actually quite apt as a description of Jesus, at least in the hands of men like Nathan. That is, men who are so thickheaded and culturally arrogant that they could consistently make a mistake like this one for months on end. In such a context, Jesus really is a dangerous poison that can and did cause intense pain and even death.

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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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