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The Poisonwood Bible opens in the pained, guilt-ridden voice of Orleanna Price, who introduces herself simply as "Southern Baptist by marriage, mother of children living and dead." She is one of five narrators who transmits this story, mingling her version with the versions told by her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. While the girls' stories come to us in the present tense, told as they unfold, Orleanna is speaking from a later time, looking back at ancient family history. Her poetic musings, therefore, hint ominously at the events we are about to read.
Orleanna begins her narrative by painting a scene for us. We are asked to picture a woman and her four daughters traipsing blindly through the jungle of Congo, where the husband and father has led them in his missionary zeal to save African souls. They eat a meager picnic, the girls swim in the river, and the mother alone comes face to face with an okapi, an animal once thought to be merely legendary.
We learn that the mother is Orleanna, and that she is addressing her narrative to one of these four girls, the one who did not come out of the Congo alive. Her act of telling this story, she says, is really a plea for forgiveness. She will lay it all out, she explains, so that it can be seen from every angle and judged. As she explains, "Some of us know how we came by our fortune and some of us do not, but we wear it all the same. There is only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?" The rest of the story is meant to answer this question from the point of view of each of the five Price women.
In her opening narrative, Orleanna immediately lets us know that this is a story about guilt and how to live with it. The guilt she speaks of directly is a very personal sort of guilt, guilt over her passive complicity in the death of her daughter. However, throughout these pages there is the undertone of another sort of guilt as well. The collective cultural guilt that all Westerners must share for the crimes perpetrated against the people of Africa. Sometimes this undertone even surges to the foreground, as when Orleanna says, "Maybe I'll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocalypse, but still I'll insist I was only a captive witness. What is the conqueror's wife if not a conquest herself?"
The Poisonwood Bible is a political allegory. Though the story it tells focuses on the guilt of five women, it is really about the guilt that all United States citizens share. It poses the questions: what did our nation do in Africa and how should we respond to this fact? Orleanna sets the framework for the entire book when she says, "There's only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?"
Kingsolver implies that we are all in the position of the "conqueror's wife." We did not perpetrate the crimes ourselves, but we are inextricably connected to those who did, and we have benefited enormously from the crimes. Like the conqueror's wife, we sit passively by as the violence is done, and though we might not approve of it, we do not decline to reap the benefits, nor do we sever our connection to the perpetrator.
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 be narrow-minded and uninteresting. 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 are Leah, who responds with an active attempt to right the wrongs in the world, and Adah, who responds 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.
Since there is also a sixth Price in this story, Nathan, we might wonder why he is not given a voice as well, so that he too can present us with a possible response to guilt. Nathan's relation to guilt, however, is very different from the relation Kingsolver wants to explore here. Nathan is not the conqueror's wife, but the conqueror himself. He is not the passive partner in crime, but the perpetrator. Nathan represents the active forces of evil for which we now feel the burden. He is a stand in for the United States government, the Belgian colonialists, the thousands of arrogant and destructive missionaries, and all others whose blind arrogance and greed wreaked havoc on a continent.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Poisonwood Bible!