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The Poisonwood Bible
Author Barbara Kingsolver
Type of Work Novel
Genre Postcolonial fiction; epic; family saga; coming of age story; political allegory
Time and Place Written Kingsolver wrote The Poisonwood Bible in Tuscon, Arizona between the years 1993 and 1998.
Date of First Publication 1998
Publisher HarperCollins Publishers
Narrator The book is narrated by five different characters, Orleanna Price and her four daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.
Point of View Each of the narrators speaks in the first person, giving us a view of the story as it looks to them at the time. That is, we see the story through the eyes of the character narrating at the time. What we are most often presented with is simply the thoughts, feelings, and general reactions of the narrator to the events unfolding.
Tone Each of the five narrators takes a different tone to their story. Orleanna's tone is most markedly different from the rest, as her narrative is presented after-the-fact. Her attitude toward the story she tells is overwhelmingly one of pain and remorse. The four girls, on the other hand, are telling their story as the events unfold. Their attitude, therefore, mirrors their attitude toward life in general. This story is simply the telling of the events of their life during a certain period.
Tense The four girls narrate from the present tense, telling the story as it unfolds. Orleanna narrates in the past tense, looking back at the events from a future date.
Setting (time) The narrative spans thirty years, from 1959 until 1998.
Setting While the primary story is set in the Belgian Congo, which becomes Zaire during the course of the tale, certain segments are set in Atlanta and Sanderling Island, Georgia, and certain others in the Johannesburg, South Africa and the French Congo.
Protagonist Arguably, the protagonist of the story is the only Price who is not given a voice, the father Nathan. It is his blind religious fanaticism that brings the family into the Congo, and it is in reaction to him that all of the women must find their own paths. However, since the story is also largely a story about how these paths are paved out one could also claim that Orleanna, Rachel, Adah, and Leah share the role of protagonist.
Major Conflict The major conflict in the story can be cashed out on two levels. On both levels the major conflict regards how one should react to the burden of guilt. On the more personal level, the guilt that must be dealt with is the collective family guilt that derives from Nathan's fanaticism and Ruth May's resulting death. On the broader level, the women also feel the strong need to deal with the collective Western guilt that derives from the crimes of the colonial and post- colonial era.
Rising Action Arrival in Congo; decision to remain in Congo in the face of the mortal threat that Independence brings; growing resentment toward the Prices by the village leaders; eruption of sentiments over the issue of Leah's participation in the hunt.
Climax Ruth May's death
Falling Action Orleanna and her remaining daughters desert Nathan and seek redemption from their two levels of collective sin. Leah turns toward a life of political idealism and cultivated suffering; Adah turns toward a life of science; Rachel turns toward of life marked by an egoistic and single-minded pursuit of her own pleasure; Orleanna becomes paralyzed by guilt.
Themes The sin of Western arrogance; a transfer of faith from God to the natural world; the individuality of redemption; the impossibility of absolute and unambiguous justice on a global scale
Motifs Light and dark; vision; language as revelatory
Symbols The parrot Methuselah; the demonstration garden; the Poisonwood tree
Foreshadowing Methuselah's death by the hands of a predator on the same day that the Republic of Congo is granted its independence foreshadows the fate of the nation.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Poisonwood Bible!