Cruelty is often a motivation for social or political change, both in works of literature and in real life.  One such work is The Poisonwood Bible. How does author Barbara Kingsolver use the theme...

Cruelty is often a motivation for social or political change, both in works of literature and in real life.  One such work is The Poisonwood Bible. How does author Barbara Kingsolver use the theme of cruelty throughout the book to develop the plot and reveal insight about the characters, including both the offender and the victim(s)?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Poisonwood Bible, author Barbara Kingsolver especially develops the theme of cruelty through the character Nathan Price, a missionary who came to the Congo with his family from the state of Georgia. Nathan is guilty of stubbornness and arrogance, which lead to cruelty, and his negative character traits and displays of cruelty stand in great contrast to how his daughter Leah sees him: as a man with a very compassionate nature and a very big heart.

Nathan's stubbornness and arrogance, leading to cruelty, become evident from the start of the book, in "Book One: Genesis." Having arrived in the Congo, he and Leah go out to cultivate a garden, using the seeds and hoe they brought with them from Georgia. However, he is also approached by Mama Tataba and warned that certain vegetation in the Congo, like the Poisonwood tree, will "bite," meaning cause severe illness, and that their garden won't grow unless they "be make hills." Nathan demonstrates his arrogance by ignoring her wisdom, putting her advice down as aspects of native customs and evidence of just how much the civilized Christians need to teach the heathens in the Congo.

However, the truth of Mama Tataba's wisdom is first revealed when Nathan wakes the next day to find himself covered in a rash that seeps "yellow pus." He and Leah even come outside to find that Mama Tataba had rearranged their garden to grow on raised hills. Yet, despite the truth of the rash, Nathan still permits his arrogance to overtake him and decides to again hoe the garden back in to its earlier flat state. Nathan even demonstrates he is capable of physical cruelty when, while his wife Orleanna tries to bandage his wounds, he "batted her roughly away."  All of his displays of arrogance and physical abuse, all elements of cruelty, take their toll when the rainy season starts, washing away the garden that Nathan had arrogantly supposed would serve as an example of how to plant a garden to all of the heathens. After finally restructuring the garden using hills as Mama Tataba had instructed, he realizes it will never grow because there are no pollinating bees in the Congo, which puts his family in desperate straits for food.

Another way in which Nathan unwittingly displays cruelty through his arrogance and stubbornness is by insisting on the need for baptism. This insistence is enough to drive Mama Tataba away as their helper. He insisted on baptizing the village children in the river and grew furious when they refused. However, as Mama Tataba later explained, the natives cannot be baptized in the river due to the threat of crocodiles, and a young girl was eaten by a crocodile the previous year while being baptized. Hence, Nathan's insistence that the natives be baptized due to his stubbornness and arrogance is also an example of cruelty.

Author Kingsolver continues to juxtapose Nathan's stubbornness and arrogance in order to portray his cruelty all throughout the story. The end result is to show that missionaries like Nathan do not truly understand what they are doing and generate more harm than good in places like the Congo. Nathan's cruelty also helps to portray the heathen natives as being far more advanced than Westerners like Nathan, despite what Westerners think.

Read the study guide:
The Poisonwood Bible

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