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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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 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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Poisonwood Bible!