The Colonization of the Congo
In the late 1870s, Leopold II, king of Belgium, gained control of the territories that made up the Congo in an effort to ensure his country's prosperity. He effectively set up a colonial empire there and established the International Association as a cover for his using the natural resources there as his own personal asset. Soon after, Leopold appointed himself head of the newly established, Independent State of the Congo, an ironic name since it was literally an enslaved state, which included the land known in the early 2000s as Zaire. Leopold took control of all land and business operations, in cluding the lucrative trade in rubber and ivory as he ruled from a large estate in the region northeast of Kinshasa. Belgian-backed companies also took control of mining operations.
At the turn of the century, the public began to become aware of the harsh treatment of black Africans, especially those who worked for the rubber companies. As a result, the Belgian parliament wrested jurisdiction from Leopold in 1908 and established the Belgian Congo. Forced labor was eliminated under the new government, but Euro pean investments still controlled the country's wealth, and blacks were not allowed any part in the government or the economy. Black laborers worked the vast copper and diamond mining operations, while Europeans managed them.
The Struggle for Independence
In 1955, as calls for...
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Narrative with Multiple Voices
Multiple voices narrate this book with the point of view shifting back and forth among Orleanna and her four daughters, providing different perspectives on the family's experiences in the Congo. King-solver employs these contrasting voices to suggest the subjective nature of observation and the impossibility of achieving a single objective point of view of other cultures and of personal experience. Each of the female voices in the narrative observes the Congo through her personal lens which has been shaped by experience. Orleanna, for example, relates her story of the Congo through a mother's eyes as she struggles to provide food and shelter for her family and keep her children safe. Thus, her focus is on what food is available and what dangers lurk outside the hut.
Each narrative angle also conveys contrasts between American attitudes toward the region. Rachel sees the Congo as an American materialist who is used to the comforts of home. Her response when they first arrive is an honest account of all of their feelings toward the naked villagers and the meal they offer them. She, however, maintains her initial assessment, while the others' views change over time as they learn more about their surroundings. Leah is the American idealist, first, following her father's missionary role, and then adopting Anatole's revolutionary stance. She ultimately rejects her American home for a difficult but satisfying...
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The riskiest, but ultimately most successful, literary technique that Kingsolver uses in The Poisonwood Bible is the multiple narrative structure. Rather than a single protagonist, there are several, each of whom is affected by the events of the novel in different ways. From the outset, the voices of the five women are easily distinguishable, and each woman's story is equally compelling.
Appropriately, biblical allusion is prevalent in the novel. Many of the seven books which make up the novel allude to books of the Bible, and images of gardens teeming with life and serpents clearly point to the creation story and man's fall from grace. The girls' biblical names provide insight into their characters and their roles in the family, and Kilanga suffers a plague of driver ants. Several other animals, such as a parrot, a lion, and an okapi (a cud-chewing jungle animal that is much smaller than its grasslands cousin the giraffe), have meanings deeper than their plot implications. Another important set of metaphors is the previously mentioned depiction of Nathan as the colonizer and oppressor of his family.
The plot structure is also riskier than in Kingsolver's previous novels. The first four books of The Poisonwood Bible, aside from Orleanna's flashbacks, tell of the seventeen months the Prices spend in the Congo. Book Five ("Exodus") leaps forward rapidly in time, tracing the women's divergent paths. Some of the book's immediacy and...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
In The Poisonwood Bible Kingsolver focuses on a missionary family's experiences in the Belgian Congo (now known as Zaire), just as that nation was claiming its independence from colonial rule, and how those experiences shaped their lives.
1. Compare the character of Anatole Ngemba with Loyd Peregrina in Animal Dreams and Estevan in The Bean Trees. How does each man function in the narrative of the novel in which they appear? Is Anatole an idealized character? Why or why not?
2. What does Methuselah, the parrot, symbolize? What is the significance, if any, of his biblical name?
3. Compare the missionary styles of Nathan Price, the Underdowns, and Brother Fowles. What are their attitudes toward the Africans? How does this affect their success as missionaries?
4. Discuss the difficulties Nathan has in growing a garden in Kilanga. How does this parallel the Prices' experiences in Africa?
5. Explain the cultural significance of the hunt in the lives of the people of Kilanga. What factors cause the hunt to be a failure, and how is this related to the larger themes of the book?
6. Where did Rachel learn to "stick out [her] elbows and hold [her]self up?" How does she apply this philosophy in her own life, both literally and figuratively?
7. Compare and contrast Leah and Adah. How do their characters relate to Jacob and Esau in the Bible? They are both considered...
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The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver's most ambitious novel to date, tells the story of a missionary family's experiences in the Belgian Congo (now known as Zaire) in 1959-61, just as that nation was claiming its independence from colonial rule. The experience of living in Africa leaves an indelible mark on each member of the family, and their stories are carried forward into the present day.
The Reverend Nathan Price is a Baptist preacher who is determined to save the souls of the native population of the village of Kilanga. So strong is his zeal that his mission is not even sanctioned by the missionary society that oversees the area. Thus, the Price family are not given the kind of training and essential information they normally would have received—a circumstance that proves tragic. The novel is alternately narrated by the women of the family: Nathan's wife Orleanna, who recounts her experiences in the past tense, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, who speak of events as they are happening.
The Prices arrive in Kilanga woefully unprepared and loaded down with items ridiculously useless in the Congo, such as pinking shears and boxed cake mixes. Their lack of understanding of the local culture, language, and climate leads them into disasters great and small. Nathan, who usually preaches to the Congolese using a translator, sometimes attempts to speak Kikongo—a highly inflected language with many similar...
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Topics for Further Study
- Some critics have complained that the novel Some critics have complained that the novel does not give Nathan a voice. Write one of the Price family's experiences in the Congo from his point of view.
- Read one of Kingsolver's novels that is set in the American Southwest, such as Pigs in Heaven. Compare and contrast in essay form the family dynamics in that novel and The Poisonwood Bible.
- Research and prepare a PowerPoint demonstration about missionary work in the Congo.
- How would you depict the novel's five narrative voices in a film? Write a screenplay of a portion of the novel that incorporates the Price family's different points of view.
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White men traveling to the jungle and discovering the dark side of human nature has been a common literary theme, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast. As a depiction of a dysfunctional family employing multiple narrators, The Poisonwood Bible has been compared to The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. As Kingsolver has mentioned Faulkner as an early literary influence, this comparison is particularly apt.
The subtitle of Book One—"The Things We Carried"—alludes to Tim O'Brien's award-winning short story "The Things They Carried." Like the American soldiers in Vietnam in O'Brien's story, the Prices carry both physical items and emotional baggage into the jungle, and they are weighed down by both.
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Though bearing some similarities to her previous work, particularly in its juxtaposition of the personal and political, The Poisonwood Bible is so different from Barbara Kingsolver's other novels that it could almost have been written by a different person. The familiar Southwestern setting is gone, as are the folksy characters and smart-alecky dialogue. Though there is humor in The Poisonwood Bible, it is almost always dark-tinged and ironic. The pat endings and overall feeling of "niceness" Kingsolver's critics have taken aim at are nowhere to be found. Though there is resolution at the novel's end, the Price's story, like Africa's, is ultimately tragic, and in no way a traditional "happy ending."
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What Do I Read Next?
- In her first novel The Bean Trees (1988), Barbara Kingsolver writes of the beginning of the relationship between Taylor Greer and her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle, a story that is picked up in the sequel, Pigs in Heaven (1993).
- Barbara Kingsolver's Homeland and Other Stories (1989) contains twelve short stories centering on various characters who struggle to form and maintain relationships.
- Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa (1935) is a stirring account of a two-month safari Hemingway and his wife Pauline joined in 1933. In the work, Hemingway reveals what the experience taught him about Africa and about himself.
- Beryl Markham's West with the Night (1942) chronicles her exciting life as an African bush pilot in the 1930s.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Fox, Stephen D., "Barbara Kingsolver and Keri Hulme: Disability, Family, and Culture," in Critique, Vol. 45, No. 4, Summer 2004, pp. 405-18.
Greene, Gayle, "Independence Struggle," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 7, April 1999, pp. 8-9.
Kingsolver, Barbara, The Poisonwood Bible, HarperPerennial, 1998.
Koza, Kimberly A., "The Africa of Two Western Women Writers: Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Laurence," in Critique, Vol. 44, No. 3, Spring 2003, pp. 284-94.
Leonard, John, "Kingsolver in the Jungle, Catullus and Wolfe at the Door," in Nation, January 11/18, 1999, pp. 28-30.
Review of The Poisonwood Bible, in Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1998, p. 366.
Stafford, Tim, "Poisonous Gospel," in Christianity Today, January 11, 1999, pp. 88-90.
Edgerton, Robert, The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo, St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Edgerton chronicles the turbulent history of the Congo, from its pre-European colonization to the early 2000s.
Siegel, Lee, "Sweet and Low," in the New Republic, March 22, 1999, pp. 30-36.
Siegel critiques Kingsolver's characterizations of black...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Jacobson, Kristin J. “The Neodomestic American Novel: The Politics of Home in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 24, no. 1 (Spring, 2005): 105-127. Compares and contrasts The Poisonwood Bible with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, with particular attention to the genre of the (neo)domestic novel.
Kakutani, Michiko. “No Ice Cream Cones in a Heart of Darkness.” The New York Times, October 16, 1998. Review of the book that takes up the symbolic significance of several main characters in line with political allegory.
Kerr, Sarah. “The Novel as Indictment.” The New York Times, October 11, 1998, p. SM53. An examination of The Poisonwood Bible and Kingsolver’s ideas about writing and influencing the world.
Ognibene, Elaine R. “The Missionary Position: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.” College Literature 20, no. 3 (Summer, 2003): 19-36. This lengthy analysis concludes that “words, Kingsolver warns, have multiple meanings, especially in the Congo. To decode those meanings, readers must ’look at what happens from every side. . . .’ Kingsolver dares us to do so and to discover the moments of truth in the telling.”
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