In The Poisonwood Bible, how does Kingsolver use diction and syntax to create a unique voice for each of the five female characters?

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Susie Cochrane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The novel is told from five points of view—Orleanna Price, the mother, and her four daughters: Ruth May, Leah, Adah, and Rachel. The chapter headings are marked accordingly, but the uniqueness and strength of the "voices" means that we could recognize them without being told, which is why Kingsolver is able to start chapters "in medias res" (a literary term that means "in the middle of things") without confusing us.

The individuality of these characters is demarcated through their diction (the words they use) together with the syntax (sentence structure) Kingsolver employs. For example, Orleanna uses sophisticated words and metaphors and longer, complex and compound sentences, unlike Ruth May, Leah, and Rachel. Orleanna looks back at her terrible experiences in the Congo and says, "I had washed up there on the riptide of my husband’s confidence and the undertow of my children’s needs." Here she uses aquatic metaphors, which suggest something sinister and difficult, for a riptide is dangerous and can kill and an undertow drags you down. Ruth May’s diction is simple and childlike because she is very young; it has an innocence and charm, which builds pathos in the reader. She uses simple sentences and lists names and items as children tend to do. For example, "God says the Africans are the Tribes of Ham. Ham was the worst one of Noah’s three boys: Shem, Ham, and Japheth."

Rachel often muddles her words (malapropisms); she is snobbish and conceited but not very perceptive, and this is reflected in her simple sentences, colloquial language and Americanisms, such as "Man oh man, are we in for it now." In contrast, the clever but rather bitter Adah enjoys symbolism, poetic description, and complicated language choices and ideas. She relishes her differences, "I see it through my Adah eyes it is a flat plank [she is describing a road in Congo], clipped into pieces, rectangles and trapezoids, by the skinny black-line shadows of tall palm trunks." This syntax is complex and doesn’t conform to the normal sentence structure a young person would use, highlighting her differences. Kingsolver has crafted Leah’s language, on the other hand, as straightforward, somewhat artless, and open, reflecting her nature. Her humor endears her to us: "We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle."

It is noticeable that there is no male narrator in this novel; Nathan is not a narrator!

teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Kingsolver's use of diction and syntax to create unique narrative voices in The Poisonwood Bible is one of the highlights of her writing.  The novel shifts between the voices of Orleanna, Leah, Adah, Rachel, and Ruth May, and each chapter is labeled with the character's name.  However, the distinct voices speak for themselves and after the reader becomes acquainted with each character, he/she recognizes the voice of the narrator.  Ruth May is the youngest of the five, so Kingsolver manipulates grammar to make her voice sound more child-like.  For example, when Ruth May describes the toys she was allowed to take to the Congo, she says, "I only got to bring me two toys:  pipe cleaners, and a monkey-sock monkey.  The monkey-sock monkey has done gone already."  The slight grammatical mistakes are ones that a young child would likely make, yet are not bad enough to impede understanding.  Similarly, Kingsolver uses highly sophisticated diction an syntax to develop Adah's voice which is ironic because the most intelligent character in the novel chooses to remain silent.  So, Kingsolver uses the traits of each female character to characterize her narrative voice.

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The Poisonwood Bible

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