In The Poisonwood Bible how does Kingsolver differentiate among the Price sisters, particularly in terms of their voices?

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gilbyteaches eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Writing a novel from the viewpoint of multiple characters is a challenging undertaking, but Barbara Kingsolver transitions seamlessly between the five women of the Price family. Each of the four Price daughters, together with their mother's occasional insights, recounts their family's missionary experience in the Congo in very unique ways.

The youngest Price daughter, Ruth May, is only five when we first encounter her. She speaks with the innocence—and most importantly, poignant honesty—that only a small child can deliver. Her interpretations of the events that unravel around her in the Congo reveal a lot about her family members and are full of authenticity, humor, and charm.

Leah is fourteen at the outset of the story. Her voice is full of hope and a desire to gain her oppressive father's approval. She is often confused about where she stands in her father's eyes, and she spends much of her narration excusing his behavior and attempting to make sense of his irrational decisions. She experiences a shift in voice later in the novel when she loses faith in her father and her religion, and at this point her narrative style becomes peppered with grit and a greater pride in her abilities (something she used to believe was shameful in the eyes of God and her own father) and a resolve to achieve justice and fairness for herself and those around her.

In contrast to her twin sister, Leah, fourteen-year-old Adah's narration is wry, analytical, and quirky. Adah was born with a condition called hemiplegia, which made one half of her body weaker than the other. Her condition also inspires her to speak in palindromes, as she sees the words as oddities that can be split in half, like herself. She is most critical of her father, Nathan, and offers the most insightful commentary on his hypocritical Christianity. She loves to quote Emily Dickinson, a poet who shares her love for dark humor and her healthy dose of pessimism.

Rachel, the eldest daughter, is fifteen at the start of the narrative. Her voice is dripping with naivete, self-absorption, and judgment. She wants nothing more than to be home in Georgia surrounded by her friends, and her story focuses on the perceived injustices she experiences while in the Congo. She uses a lot of malapropisms, which make her constant judgments of the Mamas and the Tatas of Kilanga appear even more ironic and unnecessary.

The four Price girls' combined narratives present the reader with a complex, engaging, and insightful picture of an American missionary family in the Congo in 1959 and beyond.

mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the most impressive strengths of Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is that she writes it from the actual voices of 5 different women, and does such a good job of it that you can open up to any chapter in the book and guess which character is speaking simply from the way they speak.  She uses a different voice for each girl, and gives each girl's narration style its own traits that set it apart from the others.

For example, Rachel always mispronounces and misuses words.  She does this in every chapter that she narrates, so if you open up to a section and see a rather headstrong and snobby girl that is whining and misusing words, it's bound to be Rachel.  Here's just a few of her misused words:  "executrate" (execute), "autography" (autobiography), "Morse Scold" (Morse Code), and "preciptation" (participation).  Rachel is also whiney, petulant, cynical, judgmental and sarcastic.  Kingsolver used all of those traits to set her apart.

Adah's chapters all show her fascination with palindromes, or words that spelled backwards are the same, and take on a symbolic meaning.  She also quotes poetry, and has a secret backwards code that she uses quite a bit.  She is also very dark, sardonic and cryptic.  She is self-deprecating and constantly demeaning her importance and emphasizing her crippled stature.

Leah is open, frank, sincere and intense.  She feels passionately about things, and focuses more on the issues of Africa and the injustices that she sees. She is less critical of her father, and wants to fit in with him and also with the African boys and culture around her.  Her openness is a key to her voice, as is her vigorous and intent nature.

Ruth May is easy to pick out because her narration is child-like, her phrases simple, and everything is infused with an innocent and touching naivety and child-like perspective.

Kingsolver uses voice to set apart the narration from each of the Price sisters, and gives each one of them distinct traits and quirks that make them all separate and unique.  It is quite a feat to accomplish, and one that draws the readers into the book even more.  I hope that helps a bit; good luck!

lawitt | Student

In The Poisonwood  Bible, author Barbara Kingsolver uses the voices of the four Price sisters (as well as their mother) to tell the story.  Each chapter is told from a specific character's point of view.  Each Price sister is a distinct individual, with her own personality, motives, beliefs, and way of speaking, and these individual traits are evident in their voices.

Rachel, the oldest sister, is whiney, self-important, a bit dim-witted, narrow-minded, and snobby.  She often misuses words in her chapters and clearly looks down on Africa and the native people in the village.  She frequently points out negative aspects of Africa without making any effort to understand the trials that the Africans face.  For example, she frequently derides the children in the village for not wearing "proper" clothing, without thinking about how their culture is different from her own.  She misuses words like "precipitation" for "participation" and shows no interest in politics or economic issues that affect the village.

Adah, the oldest of the twins, is interested in palindromes (words or phrases that read the same backward and forward).  Many of her chapters include palindromes.  She also describes herself as crippled, because she has bad leg and walks with a limp.  She does not speak much, but her voice is dark, sarcastic, and often contains codes or palindromes.


Leah, the younger of the twins, is eager, curious, and intense.  She wants to learn about Africa and its people, and is open to accepting the culture as different from her own.  She is more accepting of her father than her sisters, and wants to be part of the village around her.

Ruth May is the youngest Price sister.  In her chapters, she speaks in a child-like voice and often mixes up words, phrases, and stories.

Readers can easily differentiate between the four Price sisters by looking for differences in tone, word choice, and the individual character traits and quirks of each sister.

nicowk | Student

In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver narrates through the voices of all five major female characters: the four Price sisters, as well as their mother Orleanna Price. Kingsolver makes this approach work by giving each woman distinct characteristics, both in what they say and the ways that they say it. The reader experiences the personalities and life attitudes of the Price sisters by seeing the world through their eyes. Here is a breakdown of some of their defining features:


Rachel -- Rachel is the eldest of the Price sisters. She is portrayed as narrow-minded and shallow. However, as the book progresses we get to see how she positions herself for survival, using her looks and disarming those around her (usually men) with her seemingly dim wit. During the stampede, Rachel sticks out her elbows and is carried to safety by the force of the crowd. This is a perfect metaphor for Rachel’s way of life: she leans on others, she allows them to carry her, but ultimately she does survive.


Kingsolver communicates Rachel’s features in the way she speaks. Rachel commonly misuses words, undermining her effort to sound sophisticated. Some of Rachel’s malapropisms include granite (instead of granted), lombarded (for bombarded), and syllabus (for syllable). Rachel doesn’t tend to think deeply about what’s happening around her, she likes to complain, and her thoughts are often superficial.


Ruth May - Ruth May is the baby of the Price family. Of all the Price girls, Ruth May seems most open to the experience of living in Africa. She is adventurous, pure of heart, and her actions are not driven by fear. Like Rachel, Ruth May misuses words, but it’s done in an innocent way. For instance, Ruth May calls the young African Soldiers the “Jimmy Crow boys” instead of the Jeune Mou-Pro. She tells us this is a “name [she] know[s] from home,” which shows a lot of insight.


Although she is childlike (or maybe because she is), Ruth May has the ability to see things the other girls take for granted. Ruth May is the embodiment of the phrase “out of the mouth of babes.” In other words, by virtue or her innocence and openness, she often speaks a profound truth. Like the time she said, “I was glad nobody wanted to cut off my hands. Because Jesus made me white, I reckon they wouldn't.”


Leah - Leah is the good girl of the family, the golden child. She is pretty, amicable, and good at her studies. Leah’s character also runs deeper. She is direct and compassionate, and she struggles with guilt. Over the course of the novel her compassion compels her to become a powerful advocate for human rights. She explains, “There is not justice in this world. . . . This world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I'll not live to see the meek inherit anything.”


In the case of Leah, it’s less about how she speaks, and more about what she says. Her voice is intelligent, careful, and clear. She does a good amount of both looking at what’s in front of her, and turning in. Gradually, the reader sees Leah deepen and solidify her worldview, and this gives her the strength to fight for what she believes is right.


Adah - Adah is the twin of Leah, but the two are very different. Adah had been diagnosed with hemiplegia. This has resulted in limited control over one side of her body, and caused her to walk with a limp. Adah doesn’t speak much out loud to those around her, and for this reason (combined with her disability) she is frequently underestimated and overshadowed by her sisters.  


As readers, we get to a know a private Adah, and we are privy to her eloquent personal thoughts. Adah likes to speak in palindromes, or words and phrases that are the same backwards as they are forwards. She even prefers to spell her name “Ada,” so that it creates a palindrome. Like Ruth May, Adah sees things that aren’t always noticed by the group. Her voice is poetic and cutting, both thoughtful and unremorseful. She uses palindromes to express her feelings, such as her disdain for love (“Eros, eyesore”), or her attitude about her twin sister (“star pupil. Lineup rats”).  

Read the study guide:
The Poisonwood Bible

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