The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

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How does Kingsolver present the double themes of captivity and freedom and of love and betrayal in The Poisonwood Bible?

Kingsolver presents the double themes of captivity and freedom, as well as love and betrayal, through the family dynamics within The Poisonwood Bible.

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In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, two major double themes are presented: captivity and freedom, and love and betrayal. The narrative centers around the Price family, missionaries from the state of Georgia in the United States, who move to Kilanga, a village in the Congo near the Kwilu River.

In the Congo, there is significant political unrest, as both the United States and Belgium have attempted to colonize or succeeded in colonizing the African country. This strips the Congolese of their freedom, as they feel like captives in their own country who have fallen victim to control of Europeans and Americans.

Another way the double theme of captivity and freedom manifests is within the dynamics of the Price family. The father, Nathan, is in charge of his family of women, and he removes the freedom of both his wife and his daughters when he alone decides to move to the Congo and when he requires the daughters to abide by his religious preferences. The women within the Price family are captives within these family dynamics.

The Price family dynamics also promote the double theme of love and betrayal. Love should be the foundation for a family, but instead of making decisions based on love, Nathan makes decisions with his personal benefit top-of-mind. His wife, Orleanna, understands how difficult and unhealthy the family dynamics are for her daughters, but instead of betraying Nathan for the benefit and love of her daughters, she betrays them by keeping the family intact.

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The Poisonwood Bible, written by Barbara Kingsolver, is a multi-faceted story about a family that moves to the Congo. Throughout the story, many themes are presented through multiple points of view. Some of these themes include freedom versus captivity and love versus betrayal.

A major part of this novel is the political unrest in the Congo. Many nations have tried to colonize the Congo, including the United States and Belgium. The people of the Congo are struggling with their own freedom and feel like captives because their country is not in their control. There is also a sense of love versus betrayal on the political front, as there is an assassination planned in the story.

Another example of freedom versus captivity as a theme is in the Price family itself. Nathan, the father of the family, decides to move his entire family of women to the Congo. His wife, Orleanna, has no say in many of the decisions Nathan makes for their family and is in a sense held captive in her own marriage. The daughters in this story are held captive by their father as well. He makes demanding requests of their behaviors and beliefs. The girls are required to share his same spiritual belief system which is essentially a fundamentalist and extremist mentality. By the end of the novel, most of the Price women have found a way to free themselves from their father.

Nathan also helps develop the theme of love versus betrayal. As a father, Nathan is supposed to make decisions that are best for his family. Throughout the entire story, Nathan makes choices that only benefit himself instead. His selfishness is a type of betrayal to his family. Orelanna also struggles with love and betrayal several times throughout this novel, although less so than her husband. Orleanna must choose between her daughters several times in this story, which although beneficial to one daughter is a betrayal to the others. Orleanna also betrays all of her daughters by remaining married to her husband. Although she knows that Nathan is poisoning her family, Orleanna does not make any adjustments and her family remains stuck in their situation.

The Poisonwood Bible is a great resource to spark discussion about many important literary themes.

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There are several types of captivity explored in this novel. On the surface, the people of the Congo are captives in many ways - throughout their history of being colonized by other nations (in this novel, Belgium and then the U.S. trying to control them). So there is political captivity and freedom. The Congolese are attempting a freedom movement in this novel, and many of the characters are involved in it (Anatole, Leah, etc.) 

There is also spiritual and emotional captivity. All of the Price women are emotional captives of their father and husband, Nathan. He is abusive and controlling. They each have a unique emotional captivity as well - Adah is crippled emotionally and physically, Rachel is crippled emotionally and grows into a woman constantly seeking approval through low-life men. Orleanna is crippled emotionally and it scars her and affects her relationships with her children, etc. The women are also spiritual captives to Nathan's version of religion, which is presented as fundamental extremism in this novel. None of them experience any of the freedom that true faith allows, which is disturbing, since they are a family of missionaries supposed to be bringing the "good news" to the natives.

There is also physical captivity. Adah is handicapped physically, but eventually she is freed from her physical captivity. Nelson and Anatole all have physical issues that hold them captive for awhile (i.e. Anatole's scarred face).

There is also cultural captivity. The Underdowns are closed-minded and racist so in a sense, they are captives of their own colonizers' mentality.

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