Most critics consider The Poisonwood Bible to be Barbara Kingsolver’s most ambitious and serious work. The book’s narrative develops out of Kingsolver’s conviction that life is political on all levels. Her other novels showcase social or political wrongs on a small scale. The Poisonwood Bible is global in its perspective and involves matters of faith, cultural negation, colonial power, psychological and physical domestic abuse, and American interference in the internal workings of a nation neither cared about nor really understood by these same Americans. All these themes intersect in the lives of one family from Bethlehem, Georgia, who arrive in Africa with a misguided sense of their importance and mission.
Critics agree on the political commentary in the novel, but they differ in their assessments of how significant that commentary is in the end. To highlight how Kingsolver uses her characters to generate ideas about the colonial presence of Westerners in Africa, it will be helpful to consider the members of the Price family, and the story’s male characters, individually. In addition to furthering the plot, each character contributes a perspective that suggests wider implications for the story as a whole.
The four Price girls represent a range of responses to life in Africa. The self-centered approach of Rachel, the eldest daughter, leads her to exploit every circumstance or person to make her own life more palatable, that is, less African. Her never-ending sense of entitlement, along with her manipulative and forceful behavior, sets her up as a symbol of colonial power. She marries repeatedly to further her cause, using men the way the United States used the Congolese to further its own cause during the Congo’s struggle for independence. At novel’s end, Rachel owns a hotel in South Africa that serves a white clientele only. Her racist life typifies the colonial practice of taking care of the privileged classes, making a profit, and disdaining the country and people who make that profit possible.
Well-intentioned Leah is an American who is ready and able to appreciate the Congo’s language, customs, and people. Her sense of mission never overwhelms her ability to absorb Congolese life or her willingness to understand the world she is discovering. Leah remains in Africa, married to Anatole Ngemba, a teacher. With his extended family and their own sons they struggle to survive in an economy riddled with corruption and the effects of long-term poverty. Anatole is politically active and is in and out of jail, his existence precarious. Congo struggles with internal divisions and reels under the influence of the self-serving U.S. government, which sponsors the country’s dictatorship in exchange for certain natural resources. Leah “lives” Africa in a way her father never could, or would. Her route to redemption features grassroots political activity based on what is best for the African people and not on what is best for politicians, governments, or religious zealots.
Leah’s twin, Adah, physically disabled and unable to communicate well with others, acts as a type of underground conscience for the book. She rarely speaks out in the story, but her cryptic musings about the Price family’s interactions with each other and with the members of the village “congregation” call Nathan’s godliness into question—and call into question his ability to parent with compassion and wisdom. Adah’s thoughts and palindromic utterances condemn the presence of the Prices in Africa, calling attention to the hypocrisy, cruelty, and irrelevance of Nathan’s message and actions. Ultimately, Adah finds her voice and becomes a physician devoted to the study of viruses prevalent on the African continent. Her path to wholeness emerges as she makes important discoveries about the Ebola virus and AIDS/HIV. Science helps her frame a philosophy of life that incorporates not only her own past but also the past of Africa and its environment, the past of medicine, and the history of medical research.
The twins present two types of moral force: Leah’s politically active life keeps her directly involved with the fate of Congo. Adah’s medical work contributes substantially, but more obliquely than Leah’s activity, to the quality of life on the African continent. The twins represent the determination of Westerners to contribute to Africa and its peoples in positive ways.
The very young Ruth May becomes a symbol for the effects of uncompromising domination on those unable to resist. She exemplifies the most openhearted and naïve white presence in the novel. Her death shows dramatically that the ill-prepared can be struck down by forces they do not understand. Her presence typifies those who enter Africa naïvely, learn some local “culture,” such as games and language, and yet show no real concern or disdain for the social forces around them. Ruth May represents those who can be felled by forces they, or their elders, fail to comprehend. By making Ruth May a youngster, Kingsolver has heightened the poignancy of the child’s death. Ruth May, a casualty of her father’s calling, may be the single exception to Leah’s comment that “We have in this story the ignorant, but no innocents.”
Orleanna, caring for her household, becomes complicit in Nathan’s outrageous and harmful dealings with his family and the village congregation because she fails to stand up to him—and fails to do so until it is too late for Ruth May. None of Orleanna’s methods of coping or finding meaning in life transfers to her life in Africa, where her appeasing ways shore up nothing but Nathan’s autocratic behavior. Her leaving him marks the start of a new life, one defined by self-determination rather than obedience. Her survival in the United States illustrates the ability of the self-aware to save themselves even after great trauma. The resilience of thinking women is a recurring Kingsolver theme.
The men in The Poisonwood Bible also display Western ways of thinking about Africa. Nathan’s hard-hearted pursuit of righteousness makes him an overbearing husband, father, and pastor—an authority figure inspiring fear and mockery, not respect or allegiance. He views Africans as children, incapable of subtlety or self-help. On the other hand, Brother Fowles’s respect for African ways allies him with Leah and Adah as a character devoted to positive change in the Congo. He is the better person, and Nathan, their father, is the enemy.
Eeben Axelroot is a white South African-born bush pilot. His exploitive behavior springs from his sense of entitlement and an understanding of the power he can wield. The self-serving use of his talents brings him money and influence in a limited sphere. He is worse than Nathan because he exploits with intention. Nathan exploits from a platform of moral righteousness, blind to the Congolese society he seeks to redeem. Rachel marries Eeben to escape the fate of being her father’s daughter and living in dirt and chaos. Eeben is the first of Rachel’s husbands, all of whom end up supporting white privilege at the expense of Africans. Rachel embraces this materialistic philosophy, which makes her worse than Nathan; she exploits without even the pretense of faith’s moral underpinnings.
Themes spotlighting the morality of the Western missionary, the nature of goodness, and the trauma of political upheaval and colonial hubris weave throughout The Poisonwood Bible. Some critics find that the lens of the Price family is too limiting, that the novel is too domestic for serious consideration as a text dealing with political destiny the interference of the U.S. government in the Congo’s internal affairs. Other critics read the novel in the context of Kingsolver’s political activism and, thereby, understand her intent.
This novel took Kingsolver fifteen years to complete, much of that time devoted to collecting material and mulling over the deeper issues. Kingsolver wrote other books while moving toward the epic scope of this story, a cautionary tale about the trespasses of Western governments in the Congo and about America’s role in the tragedies that ensued.