The Underdown's visit until Independence


The Underdowns unexpectedly arrive with some big news. The Congo is going to hold an election in May and declare their independence in June. The Belgian government has sanctioned this move. Orleanna is beside herself and says that the Mission League had assured them that independence was at least thirty years away. Frank Underwood points out that no one told the Prices to come to Congo, and reveals that the Mission League had not even officially sanctioned their mission. The League only pays their fifty-dollar a month pittance, he says, out of kindness. It is fairly clear that Orleanna was not aware that their mission was unsanctioned until this point. Orleanna loses control of herself and begins cursing, raving about the Belgians and their mistreatment of the Congolese, and then about the absurdity of granting a country independence with no interim period for training and transition. Nathan, however, calls this news a fairy tale and dismisses the possibility of an election. The Underdowns say that they came out to warn the Prices that, for their safety, they must leave before the election. Nathan becomes enraged at this suggestion, bellowing that his contract extends through June and that he will stay until July to welcome the new missionaries.


Under Anatole's guidance, the village is preparing for the election. Since nearly all the Congolese are illiterate, each candidate is represented by a symbol—a knife, a bottle, matches, or a cooking pot. The villagers will cast their vote by placing a stone in the bowl marked by their candidate's symbol. Though only the men have the right to vote, it seems that only the women have an opinion on who should win, and they advise their husbands ardently. Eeben Axelroot is preparing for independence in his own way, making many more trips down to the Southern mines.

Meanwhile, Adah notices Tata Kuvundu leaving a bowl of chicken bones, staple of his magic, in a puddle outside the Price's door. She takes this as an act of kindness on his part; he is trying to protect them by sending them away.


Nathan flies to Stanleyville to pick up more quinine pills. While there he learns that the election results are in, and that Patrice Lumumba is the winner. Shortly thereafter, the Prices receive a letter from the Underdowns telling them to prepare for their departure. Orleanna pleads with Nathan to let them evacuate, but he refuses to bend to her will.

Ruth May

When the plane is sent for the Price's evacuation only Nathan and Leah get on. The two of them are going to watch the transfer of power in Leopoldville, and then return to Kilanga. Rachel tries to get on the plane as well, desperate to escape the Congo, but her father flings her violently to the ground. Once the plane is in the air, Orleanna sinks into bed, though it is only mid-morning, and does not get up for the rest of the day. At night Ruth May crawls in next to her, and admits that she does not feel like ever getting up again.


In Leopoldville, Leah is horrified by the disparity of wealth she sees. All of the whites, including the Underdowns, live in elegant splendor, while the blacks live in absolute squalor. While watching the ceremony in which governing power is transferred from the Belgians to the new Republic of Congo, Leah is captivated by Patrice Lamumba's charisma.


On the day that independence is granted to the Congo, Adah finds Methuselah's feathers scattered around the yard, and realizes that he has been eaten by a predator.


It is not until Nathan forcibly prevents his wife and daughters from fleeing for their lives that he finally emerges as a sort of moral monster, rather than a more garden variety sort of creep. He seems to be a very particular sort of moral monster, in fact—the perfect example of the sort of man whom Martin Buber dubs the "theomaniac" in his work I and Thou. The theomaniac, according to Buber, is much like the egomaniac, and in fact, these two manias are often found in the same person, but his obsession focuses on his personal relationship to God. The theomaniac cares for nothing but this relationship; his deep religiosity has only a single goal as its aim, his own salvation. He cares nothing for other souls, or the moral state of the world. Nathan, for all his sermonizing, seems to fit this description alarmingly well. It is clear that he cares nothing about the souls he is out to save. He has nothing but contempt for the Congolese. In addition, as is evidenced by his willingness to subject his family to mortal danger, he cares just as little for his own family. Nathan is unmoved by his wife's pleas, by his daughters' terror. He is a man who is unable to empathize, is unable to be motivated by other people's needs or desires. He is a man who is capable, really, of only one motivating force and that motivating force is his notion of God's desire.

The irony is that on almost any religious understanding, God's desires would run counter to Nathan's interpretation. The Christian conception of God in particular, paints God as a God of compassion. Yet Nathan's actions are completely devoid of compassion. He views his stand as one of bravery, yet it is bravery without a purpose. His presence does nothing to ease the woes of the natives, and it places his family in significant peril. The only person who could possibly benefit from the stand is Nathan.

As a theomaniac, Nathan plays off nicely against Rachel who is the more common egomaniac. Like Nathan she is incapable of being motivated by any needs or desires that do not directly relate to her own well-being. In Rachel's case, however, it is not the state of her soul that concerns her, but the state of her body—her physical appearance and her physical comfort.

In the ending words of his speech on the day of Independence, Patrice Lumumba echoes an important motif in The Poisonwood Bible, the motif of darkness and light. Patrice Lumumba ends his triumphant address with the statement, "We are going to make the Congo, for all of Africa, the heart of light." The phrase "the heart of light" immediately conjures up that other novel of African colonialism, Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. For Conrad, the darkness 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 really reside. 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, as we have seen, 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 Lumumba's words "the heart of light."

Methuselah's death on the date of independence immediately casts doubt on the high hopes expressed in Lumumba's speech. As a native of Africa caged for his entire life, Methuselah is a symbol of the Republic of Congo. His own experiment with independence begins when Nathan sets him free. Like the Congolese, Methuselah has no practice in fending for himself, and is given no interim period during which to adjust to this sudden change. Unable to acclimate instantaneously to autonomy he remains hovering around the Price's home, depending on them for his food and protection. Inevitably, a predator takes advantage of his vulnerability, just as a predator, the United States, will soon take advantage of the vulnerability of the newly freed Republic of Congo.