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Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver
Summary Book One: Genesis
Summary Book One: Genesis

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.