The Poisonwood Bible Essay - Criticism

Criticism

Wendy Perkins

Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines the theme of survival.

The threats to the Price family's physical survival in The Poisonwood Bible are obvious and immediate. They must find enough food to eat, stay away from poisonous snakes and tarantulas, and guard against dysentery and malaria. Less obvious but more complex are the personal obstacles that they face. One such problem is created by Nathan's religious fanaticism, fueled by his own insecurities, which prevents him from successfully adapting to his surroundings. His inability to overcome this obstacle ultimately destroys two lives—his and Ruth May's. The rest of the Price family are able to cope with many physical and personal trials during their time in the Congo. Yet, like the malaria that lingers in their systems long after their escape from Kilanga, emotional damage remains, which has a profound effect on the next three decades of their lives.

As they are taught by the villagers to keep external dangers at bay, the Price women learn how to evade, to adapt, and to confront internal obstacles to their survival. Initially, they face a profound sense of culture shock compounded by their homesickness after their relocation to a foreign, often dangerous world. Their first response is to try to hold onto their American identity. They bring with them artifacts from American culture, like Underwood deviled ham, Band-Aids, Anacin, and number 2 pencils. As these goods run or wear out, however, they are forced to adapt to local customs regarding diet, farming methods, and social interaction—all except Rachel, who refuses to relinquish her American identity with its pronounced superiority and entitlement.

At first, Ruth May and Leah have the easiest time. Ruth May, who exhibits a child's natural adaptability, is the first to make friends with the village children. Leah soon makes friends of her own while she gains an appreciation of the beauty of the jungle, which she considers a heavenly paradise. Adah's gradual acceptance of her surroundings is made less complicated by her status as outsider. As she arrives in the Congo, she feels the same sense of disconnection she felt at home in a world that both pitied and ostracized her for her disability. When the villagers, who are used to physical deformities, do not treat her as more odd than they consider the rest of her family, she is able to settle into her new home. Orleanna's task is more difficult since her main focus is her family's health and security.

The family's process of adaptation is made more complex and challenging by Nathan's rigidity and righteousness. In his steadfast refusal to accept any point of view other than his own, he presses all to conform to his rules. His insistence that the villagers be baptized causes palpable tension between the family and the village that he refuses to try to alleviate. Adah complains that he speaks for everyone in his family since "he views himself as the captain of a sinking mess of female minds."

Adah and Rachel try to stay out of his way as much as possible to avoid his wrath. Orleanna, however, must deal with his tyranny on a daily basis as she struggles to protect and nurture her daughters. During their first few months in the Congo, she is "too dumbfounded to speak up for herself" or for her family when Nathan ignores their needs, since this is the role he has forced upon her from the beginning of their relationship. She admits, "Nathan was in full possession of the country once known as Orleanna Wharton…. Because in those days, you see, that's how a life like mine was known." In an attempt to justify her passive stance, she insists that she was "thoroughly bent to the shape...

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Elaine R. Ognibene

In the following essay, Ognibene discusses the author's elucidation of how a dominating culture shrouds the truth about greed and power in the "scriptural rhetoric" of "righteous zeal and religious reckoning" while exploring the complexities of "clashing cultural views."

In his history of the Congo during the reign of Belgium's King Leopold (1876–1909), Adam Hochschild tells a riveting and terrifying story of greed and terror, as well as what he terms the "politics of forgetting" the hard truths that have emerged over the last hundred years or so. He shows how a dominant European and American technique for diverting attention from the truth involved a language of righteous zeal and religious reckoning, a scriptural rhetoric used to hide the real story of imperial greed. Several scholars from contemporary critical schools—deconstructionists, Marxists, and post-colonialists address the issue in a similar fashion. In the words of Phillipa Kafka, they work at "(un)doing the missionary position" in literature, advancing new notions of "exclusionary identity, dominating heterogeneity and universality or in more blunt language, White supremacy" (1997, xv), Relying on Henry A. Giroux's words, Kafka defines the missionary position as "monolithic views of culture, nationalism and difference" (xvi).

In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver illustrates the hypocrisy of religious rhetoric and practice that sacrifices the many for the good of the few in power, drawing a clear parallel between a missionary's attitude and colonial imperialism. To the author, Nathan Price does not represent the missionary profession: he "is a symbolic figure … suggesting many things about the way U.S. and Europe have approached Africa with a history of cultural arrogance and misunderstanding at every turn" (http//www.kingsolver.Com/dialogue/12_questions.html). Nonetheless, Kingsolver does show how, contrary to popular opinion, religion and politics are not separate entities, but a powerful combined force used historically not only to "convert the savages" but to convert the masses to believe that what is done in the name of democratic, Christian principles is done for the greater good.

Even King Leopold understood the power of public relations: he knew "that what matters, often, is less the substance of a political event than how the public perceives it" (1998, 251), or, as Hochschild says, "If you control perceptions, you control the event" (251). Leopold used democratic, religious rhetoric to control his rape and pillage of the Congo; he "recognized that a colonial push … would require a strong humanitarian veneer," so he promised to abolish the slave trade and establish "peace among the chiefs …" (Hochschild 1998, 45). Building the infrastructure necessary to "exploit his colony," Leopold raised money through the Vatican "urging the Catholic Church to buy Congo bonds to encourage the spread of Christ's word" (92). Using Catholic and Protestant missionaries to set up children's colonies, theoretically to offer religious instruction and vocational information, Leopold's true goal was to build his own kingdom. "He deployed priests, almost as if they were soldiers … to areas where he wanted to strengthen his influence" (133-34). Describing 19th century colonizing behaviors, Hochschild observes, "In the Congo the Ten Commandments were practiced even less than in most colonies" (138). Ironic how almost a century after Leopold, deceptive and destructive "missionary" rhetoric persists and prevents human rights. In the United States, the rhetoric appears in a variety of groups from the Promise Keepers to the Kansas Board of Education, but the message is always one of righteous coercion. In post-colonial Africa, there is "still a form of neocolonialism" that denies human rights. As Raoul Peck, award winning filmmaker of Lumumba, states, "things haven't changed." Both at the time of Lumumbu's decolonization movement and now, the Congo is "too rich in resources to be left to the Congolese" (Riding 2001, 13, 26).

Numerous contemporary novels, such as Crossing the River by Caryl Philips, Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan, or Comfort Woman by Nora Okja-Keller provide examples of the missionary position gone awry. In these novels, authors often invert the journey motif. Men who see themselves as good Christians who lead good lives learn from their journeys that the concepts of Christianity upon which they have based their lives are inherently paradoxical. Some lose their way and sense of purpose, because neither scripture nor faith offers them an understanding of the disorder in their lives. Some ironically convert to "pagan" rituals and ways; others wander seeking answers to questions that have no answers and living isolated lives. Although locales shift and the specific religious affiliation, age and race of the missionary change, one recurring theme crosses culture and class lines: the men all see themselves as carriers of the "Word," superior to the populations they aim to convert. Over the course of the novels, most of the men alter their missionary position as their own words turn back upon them.

One man who does not change is Nathan Price. In The Poisonwood Bible, Nathan's evangelical, self-righteous, judgmental attitudes threaten the lives of his family, as well as the people in the remote Congolese village of Kilanga. A zealot, Nathan risks lives in pursuit of his obsessive vision. An abusive father, Nathan goes mad for the second time in his life, as he tries to convert the natives over a year and a half period of hunger, disease, drought, witchcraft, political wars, pestilential rains, Lumumba, Mobutu, Ike, and the CIA. The effects of Nathan's missionary position on his wife, Orleanna, his four daughters, and the Congolese become clear as Kingsolver parallels Nathan's behaviors to imperialist actions in the Congo.

Kingsolver uses multiple narrators to construct her political allegory. Orleanna, Leah, Adah, Rachel, and Ruth May tell their stories in contrapuntal turns, offering personal versions of the consequences of the Reverend's taking them to the Congo. Despite dramatically different voices, all, even Rachel, Ms. Malaprop of the novel, tell stories of change as well as discovery. Most reveal specifics about intellectual and spiritual awakenings; the loss of one kind of belief and birth of another. All, even five year old Ruth, draw some parallel between the tyranny of politics in the Congo and the war in their private lives. And all expose the missionary tactics of the man Adah calls "Our Father" as monolithic, abusive, and destructive. As the characters tell their stories in interrupted sequences that move back and forth among speakers, the narrative point of view creates a field of reciprocal subjects, all crucial to the story but none exclusive or central. The heart of the novel emerges only by stacking multiple renditions and discerning the similarities and differences that together shape the broader view. As tension builds up to crisis, their stories accomplish one of King-solver's stated aims: they "connect consequences with actions" in the Price family and the broader world as well (Sarnatoro 1998, 1).

In the beginning, "God said unto them … have dominion … over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Genesis 1:28). The Prices's journey into the heart of the Congo begins with Nathan, like King Leopold, taking the words of "Genesis" literally. The daughters' stories come from decades of journal-keeping but are recounted as circumstances unfolded; Orleanna's story comes from a kind of guilty hindsight. The voice that opens each of the first five chapters ("Genesis," "The Revelation," "The Judges," "Bel and the Serpent," and "Exodus") where scriptural titles set the themes is that of Orleanna Price, the wife of a man "who could never love her," a woman who tells her story to the ghost of her dead child, and a person who sees herself as "captive witness" to events that occurred during her year and one-half (1959–61) in the Congo. To Orleanna, "hell hath no fury like a Baptist preacher." Her narrative focuses upon the family stepping down "on a place [they] believed unformed," on their desire to have dominion, on their limited knowledge of almost everything, and on the unnameable guilt that she still carries with her. Or-leanna's story illustrates the complicity that comes with silence and the "common hunger" shared by Nathan and others out to conquer the Congo.

In "The Revelation," Orleanna explains her initial ignorance about bringing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle and her slow learning about Congolese cultural practices. She wanted to be a part of Kilanga and be Nathan's wife, but she acknowledges her true position: "I was his instrument, his animal. Nothing more … just one of those women who clamp their mouths shut and wave the flag as their nation rolls off to conquer another in war." Orleanna muses retrospectively on her political mistakes as well as her cultural ones, recognizing parallel behaviors between Nathan and national leaders. Thinking about Eisenhower's need for control and retired diplomat George F. Kennan's belief that the U.S. should not have "'the faintest moral responsibility for Africa' ", she reconstructs Nathan's similar need for control, as well as his desire for distance from the consequences of his acts.

The longer she lives in Kilanga, the clearer Or-leanna's vision becomes. Remembering a man who seduced her with promises of "green pastures," she now sees a "righteous" and unbending judge, an abusive husband and father for whom ownership is the norm. Trying to make sense of Nathan's transformation to a tyrant, Orleanna correctly identifies the turning point to be World War II and Nathan's escape from the Death March from Bataan that killed the rest of his company. Returning home a man who blamed others for his own sense of "sin," Nathan refuses her touch. When she jokes, Nathan hits her. When she listens to stories about the war on the radio, he tells her not to "gloat before Christ" about her "undeserved blessing." When they have sex, he blames her for her "wantonness." When she stands still, he condemns her "idleness." When she or one of the girls suffers, he accuses them of "a failure of virtue." Occupied by Nathan's mission "as if by a foreign power," she falls prey, allowing him "full possession of the country once known as Orleanna Wharton…." Drawing parallel behaviors between Nathan and the colonizers, Orleanna sees how her own "lot was cast with the Congo … barefoot bride of men who took her jewels and promised the Kingdom."

Reconstructing the political espionage in the Congo, when America and Belgium "divided the map beneath [her] feet," the fifteen years after Independence, when Senator Church and his special committee looked into the secret operations in the Congo, Orleanna itemizes specifically the people and the politics involved. Appropriately she does so under the title heading of "Bel and the Serpent," a text from the Apocrypha; to most a book "of fear mongers who … want to scare people." Her history reveals the men who fit that description, including her husband. While the Congolese station chief, hired by CIA head Allen Dulles to arrange a coup, hired a scientist, Dr. Gottlieb, to make a poison that would kill or disfigure Patrice Lumumba, Orleanna was trying to protect her children and escape the "dreadful poison" raining down upon her from her husband's obsessive behavior. Sponging her five-year-old who was dying from malaria, Or-leanna was oblivious to the "scent of unpleasant news" that she now knows: on that same August day, Mobutu Sese Seko was promoted to colonel in exchange for one million dollars in United States money to guarantee his loyalty; Lumumba is put under arrest in a house surrounded by "Mobutu's freshly purchased soldiers;" and, after Lumumbu's execution in January, the Congo is "left in the hands of soulless, empty men." Tracking the history of that period, author Bill Berkeley confirms that the Congo was left in the hands of tyrants, white and black, who, throughout Mobutu's thirty-four years of "brutality unmatched" in the colonial era and after, "took the jewels" and killed the people (2001, 117).

Plagued by unanswerable "if" questions, Or-leanna closes her narrative in the "Exodus" chapter on a note that is sad, insightful, and redemptive. Free of Nathan's control, she chooses to speak and in voice comes redemption. She begins by defining the need to understand the deceptive nature of words, a recurring theme in the novel: "Independence is a complex word in a foreign tongue. To resist occupation, whether you're a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy. Conquest and liberation and democracy and divorce are words that mean squat … when you have hungry children … Orleanna's wisdom about the space between words moves her to change. She accepts responsibility for her complicity and acquires the words for her story. For Orleanna, telling her story is a syncretic process, as she aims to reconcile what has gone before.

Like Orleanna, the highly intelligent fourteen year old twins, Leah and Adah, stand still and silent under their father's autocratic rule for much of their time in the Congo. They stand, however, at different ends of the Nathan continuum. Leah, an avid conversationalist, likes spending time with her father more than she likes "doing anything else," pays him due homage, and vows "to work hard for His favor, surpassing all others." She is, as her twin sister notes with disdain, "Our Father's star pupil." Adah, the twin who suffers from hemiplegia, loves palindromes, and does not speak until she is an adult, ridicules her father throughout her narrative with a brilliant ironic wit. Both, however, capture Nathan's destructive behaviors in their narratives. Leah via unconscious irony that grows into conscious knowledge and Adah via conscious understanding of her father's pride and ignorance. Both undergird their "Father" story with a narrative of domination and greed in the Congo, demonstrating similarities. By the end of the novel, their diverse views connect, and each woman names herself a pagan of sort, an "un-missionary." Like their mother they come to see that the Emperor, in this case "Our Father," is not wearing any clothes. Like their mother, they also believe that they are responsible in some way for the horrors that happen in Africa and they seek forgiveness.

Leah begins with stories about Nathan's arrogance and abuse. Watching Nathan correct Or-leanna's mistaken notions about items to take to the Congo, she sees his disdain for the woman he associates with the "coin-jingling sinners" in the temple. Leah next observes Rachel fall victim to a strap thrashing when she paints her fingernails bubble-gum pink, to Nathan a warning signal "of prostitution." A third example appears as the family lands in Leopoldville, and Nathan arrogantly dismisses Reverend Underdown's kind efforts as an attack on his self-reliance. Leah's comments upon landing in Kilanga are ironic: "He led us out … into the light…. Our journey was to be a great enterprise of balance. My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God—which fortunately weighs nothing at all." Leah is both wrong and right about "light" and "balance" in ways that she cannot yet imagine.

In Kalinga, Leah's sisters prefer to be mother's helpers, but she prefers to help father "work on his garden." Her garden story becomes a parable of the minister's inability to harvest either seeds or souls. Nathan plans his Garden of Eden to be his "first African miracle" and instructs his daughter while they work with a moral paradigm about the balance of God's "world of work and rewards." He states, "Great sacrifice, great rewards!" When Mama Tataba cautions Nathan about both his method and the poisonwood plant, he cites scripture and ignores her words. Next morning, with "a horrible rash" and swollen eye caused by the red dust from the tree, Nathan, one of "God's own," feels unjustly cursed. Denying responsibility for his own foolish acts, he screams out his rage at his family.

While Nathan heals, Mama Tataba reconstructs the garden shifting the design from flat to hills and valleys so that the seeds will grow, and later Leah watches as an angry Nathan levels it again. When Nathan does follow Mama Tataba's design, plants do grow but bear no fruit, because, they lack pollinators. To Leah, Nathan's failed efforts contradict his theory of balance and rewards, and his words about cause signify nothing: the Bible convention in Atlanta, Nathan tells Leah, "debated about the size of heaven …" and "there's room enough for everybody," especially the "righteous." Empty words, like empty vines, bear no fruit, Leah understands.

At fifteen, the more Leah learns about the ways of Kilanga, the more complicated her life becomes. As the sisters spy on Eeben Axelroot, securing information about the CIA, guns, tools, army clothes, and "distant voices in French and English" that she will later comprehend, Leah also learns the language of Kikango and begins to recognize the wide gap between cultures, between American games like "Hide and Seek" and the Congolese children's game of "Find Food." Embarrassed by her father's ignorant and arrogant behavior, Leah shifts her ground. Catalysts are many, but the most important ones are her relationship with...

(The entire section is 7126 words.)