The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

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As is typical of her fiction, Kingsolver is closer to her female characters than to her male ones. The most important male character, Nathan Price, remains something of a mystery, and he is almost completely unsympathetic, because we never enter his head or receive his perspective on the events of the novel. We receive a picture of him only as he is seen through the eyes of his wife and daughters, whom he abuses physically and mentally. The closest we get to understanding what drives and motivates him is through Orleanna's memory of the early years of their courtship and marriage. Though already preaching the Gospel fervently when she meets him, it is his World War II experience that lays a dark shadow on his character. Serving in the infantry in the Philippines, he is hit in the head with a shell fragment and wanders into a pig shed, where he spends the night unconscious. He later learns the rest of his company was killed while he slept in safety, and is forever ashamed of his cowardice. Nathan's refusal to leave the Congo—even after he is warned of the mounting danger to him and his family—is in part because he feels he cannot "leave the jungle twice." By staying and doing God's will despite the danger, he is showing his bravery. After the Price women leave Kilanga, we only hear secondhand reports of him, as he apparently goes mad, wanders through the jungle, and finally is burned alive after a tragic attempt to baptize children leaves several drowned in the river.

Orleanna Price introduces all but two of the novel's seven sections. As her narration is retrospective, from her home in Georgia several years later, her reflections hint at events and tragedies that only later become clear. From the beginning she seems to bear guilt about a lost or dead child: only later do we learn that this is Ruth May. She feels Ruth May's eyes watching her, her spirit "gnaw[ing] on my bones." She is overcome with guilt over what happened, and yet cannot see how she could have acted differently, because of her naivete when the ordeal began. At first the traditional preacher's wife, who supports her husband in all his endeavors and bends to his will, Orleanna gains strength and power as the novel progresses. After both Orleanna and Ruth May fall victim to malaria, she rises from her sickbed determined to take her daughters out of Africa as soon as she can find a way. She is now willing to stand up to Nathan and to speak her mind. She sees that Nathan's obsession conflicts with his ability to protect and support his family, and that she must step into this role. Her grief at Ruth May's death never diminishes, and she is never fully able to forgive herself. However, she does recognize that life brings change and that each person has a story.

Rachel, fifteen when the novel begins, is the most self-centered of the Price daughters. In many ways a typical teenager, she is more interested in boys, clothes, and her friends back home than in any cultural enlightenment that she may receive in Africa. Though she has inherited her father's attitude of cultural superiority, religion seems to play a minor role in her life. Her narrative voice is breezy, slangy, and full of malapropisms. Even in middle age, when she has become a successful businesswoman, her language is much the same. The believability of this is questionable, as one would expect through her social connections she might have gained more outward sophistication, even...

(This entire section contains 1422 words.)

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if, as Leah tells their mother, Rachel would win a contest at a high school reunion as the person who had changed the least. Nonetheless, even Rachel recognizes that she has been irreparably changed by her experiences in Africa, and that it is too late to ever go back to the United States and fit in with American society. Her philosophy when faced with trouble is "stick out your elbows, and hold yourself up."

Fourteen-year-old Leah is at first her father's most willing disciple. The natural leader among her sisters, she believes her family can be a positive influence in Kilanga. As Leah becomes exposed to the harshness of life in the Congo, and her father's continual failings to understand the people of the village or have any effect on their spirituality, she grows disillusioned. She learns about the African perspective of colonization, and becomes a social crusader alongside her husband Anatole. Of the characters in The Poisonwood Bible, Leah is the most like Kingsolver's previous protagonists: the bright and outspoken young woman who actively works for social change. She bears the cross of white guilt for past treatment of Africa: she chooses to live in Africa though she is subject to hatred and mistrust due to her skin color. For the same reason she does not want to live in America because of the prejudice her husband and sons would suffer. Anatole and Leah's life together is difficult, with Anatole often a political prisoner and with daily struggles to survive against poor nutrition and disease. But she cannot imagine, after her experiences, having chosen differently. In her final chapter, she wishes her father and those like him (the colonizers) could be aware of the wrongs they did. She feels there is no justice in the world, but there is the possibility of balance.

Adah is a fascinating character. A victim of hemiplegia, one half of her body is paralyzed, and she usually chooses not to speak. Nevertheless, she has a brilliant mind and is fascinated by language, particularly by palindromes and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Her philosophy seems to be Dickinson's "Tell the truth but tell it slant" and she believes that her twisted body has given her a unique insight into the world. In contrast to Leah, she rejected Christianity early on and refers to Nathan ironically as "Our Father". Her dark and wry observations are underscored by an unspoken need to be loved and valued. When Kilanga is invaded by driver ants, she is hurt and angry that Orleanna chooses to carry out Ruth May rather than her. But as the only daughter to return permanently to the United States, in the end she has the closest bond with her mother. Attending medical school, she learns that there is nothing physically wrong with her body, and learns how to walk normally. She also decides to begin speaking. Now a "normal" person, Adah misses her old self, whom she calls Ada, the dark, slanted side of herself.

Finally, there is Ruth May, the child, the conscience of the book, the "eyes in the trees." Entering the jungle with a five-year-old's understanding of the world, she is the first of the family to connect with the Congolese, as she teaches the village children to play the game "Mother May I?" She likes to watch and listen, and because of her youth often goes unnoticed or unheeded; she is able to pick up and relay to the reader information she does not fully understand. Climbing a tree, she observes Congolese soldiers plotting to overthrow the whites, and during a medical visit to the city she hears discussion of the pending change in government. She becomes terribly ill with malaria, and it is discovered that she has been sticking her quinine pills on the wall behind her bed rather than swallowing them. The impact of her death from the bite of a snake, placed in the Prices' chicken house by Kilanga's voodoo priest, also indicates the culture clash between the American missionaries and the people of Kilanga: the death of a child is a normal and common part of life in the Congo, but a devastating tragedy to the Prices. At the novel's end, Ruth May is still the "eyes in the trees," looking down upon her mother and sisters. She urges her mother to forgive herself and "walk forward into the light."

The Congolese natives of Kilanga are portrayed realistically, devoid of the idealism with which non-white cultures have been portrayed in Kingsolver's earlier novels. Their culture is shown as being not necessarily superior to the white culture but more appropriate for their environment. Along with being portrayed as having an interdependent, well-integrated community life, they also can be angry, spiteful, and violent. Part of the tragedy that occurs is because the Prices hold themselves apart from the villagers and do not become integrated into the community life.


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Eeben Axelroot

Eeben Axelroot is the self-serving Afrikaner bush pilot, diamond smuggler, and CIA agent who helps Rachel escape Kilanga. They later live together in a common-law marriage until Rachel leaves him for a government official.

Brother Fowles

Brother Fowles, the missionary that had lived in Kilanga before the arrival of the Prices, "entered into unconventional alliances with the local people" and was consequently removed by the Mission League.38 He does not interpret the Bible as strictly as does Nathan and so can be much more flexible as he tries to help the villagers. His sympathetic and generous response to the villagers provides a model of what real missionary work can accomplish.

Tata Kuvundu

Tata Kuvundu, the village's spiritual leader, fears that Nathan will interfere with tradition and thus his power among his people. He tries to remove those whom he feels threaten his power by planting mamba snakes in their beds. One snake that was left in the chicken house for Nelson kills Ruth May.

Patrice Lumumba

Patrice Lumumba becomes the first elected president of the Republic of the Congo. His refusal to accept American influence in his country causes his ousting during a coup. He is later beaten to death by government forces. Anatole's support of Lumumba and the principles for which he stood makes him an enemy of Mobutu's government and as a result, he is frequently jailed.

Joseph Mobutu

Joseph Mobutu installs himself as president of the Republic of the Congo after leading a U.S. backed coup that ousted Lumumba from power. He ruled the country as a corrupt and tyrannical dictator for thirty years, enjoying a wealthy lifestyle while his people suffered in poverty.

Mama Mwanza

Mama Mwanza, one of the Prices' neighbors, had her legs burned so badly that they have become useless. She is able to move by scooting around on her hands. The Prices respect her resourcefulness, and Adah identifies with her.

Tata Ndu

Village chief Tata Ndu fears that Nathan and his teachings will usurp the chief's position among his people. Tata Ndu decides that he wants to take Rachel as one of his brides but does not pursue her when he is told that she is engaged to Axelroot.


In exchange for a place to live, twelve-year-old Nelson, a village orphan who is one of Anatole's best students, helps the Price family after Mama Tataba leaves. He teaches the girls African customs and survival skills.

Anatole Ngemba

Anatole is the village schoolteacher who later becomes a revolutionary. He interprets Nathan's sermons and becomes sympathetic to the Prices' difficulty in adjusting to village life. Leah falls in love with him, and the two marry and have four children.


Leah names her first child after nine-year-old Pascal who becomes her first friend in the Congo.

Adah Price

Adah suffers from a condition called hemiplegia, which makes the left side of her body useless. She blames her twin sister, Leah, for this infirmity, insisting that she grew weak in her mother's womb while Leah grew strong. Adah, who has decided not to speak, takes a cynical view of the world but notices everything. She claims, "When you do not speak, other people presume you to be deaf or feebleminded and promptly make a show of their own limitations." Since, according to her, she is "mostly … lost in the shuffle," she isolates herself from others. Diagnosed like her twin as gifted, she spends her time thinking of palindromes, poetry, and math.

Adah feels more accepted in the Congo where so many black Africans have disabilities that "bodily damage is more or less considered to be a byproduct of living, not a disgrace." As a result, she enjoys "a benign approval in Kilanga that [she has] never, ever known in Bethlehem, Georgia." She later admits that she has "long relied on the comforts of martyrdom." After she returns home, she is able to regain the use of her left side and becomes a researcher, studying deadly viruses that afflict Africans.

Leah Price

When she and her family arrive in the Congo, Leah is a firm believer in their mission and is devoted to her father, whom she idolizes. Initially, she is desperate for his approval and always wants to be with him. She never contradicts him or questions his autocratic rule of their family. Her compassionate nature, however, forces her to recognize her father's self-serving motives, and she rejects him as well as his religion. As she falls in love with Anatole, her new ideal, she becomes deeply involved with the plight of black Africans. Adah claims that "her religion is the suffering." Anatole warns her against trying "to make life a mathematics problem with [her] in the center and everything coming out equal." His nickname for her is "béene-beene," which means "as true as the truth can be."

Nathan Price

Nathan Price, the Baptist missionary who brings his family to the Congo, is an autocratic man whose religious zeal makes him rigid and unsympathetic. Orleanna recognizes that he could never love her because that "would have trespassed on his devotion to all mankind." He has antiquated views of women and their abilities, illustrated by his pronouncement: "Sending a girl to college is like pouring water in your shoes…. It's hard to say which is worse, seeing it run out and waste the water, or seeing it hold in and wreck the shoes."

His experiences during World War II made him "contemptuous of failure," and caused his "steadfast disdain for cowardice [to turn] to obsession." He had narrowly escaped the Death March from Bataan during the war, which claimed the lives of all the men in his unit except his because he had been evacuated due to an injury. Since then, he has carried the guilty suspicion and the fear that he was a coward, believing that God was always watching and judging him. As a result, he determined to prove his worthiness by saving more souls than were lost in his company. He "felt it had been a mistake to bend his will, in any way, to Africa," and so he became harder as time passed there. His monomania-cal pursuit of salvation for himself and the villagers blinds him to the dangers he and his family face, and so he refuses to let them leave.

Orleanna Price

Orleanna blames herself for her family's troubles. Adah's disability, she feels, was punishment for her own despair over getting pregnant with twins so soon after Rachel was born. She also blames herself for failing to protect her children from Africa and from their father, which results in Ruth May's death. When they first arrive, Orleanna tries to stand up to Nathan but is not strong enough to question the traditional role he forces upon her. Their difficult life in Africa begins to embolden her, however, as Ruth notes, "Mama has this certain voice sometimes. Not exactly sassing back, but just about nearly." When Ruth May dies, something in Orleanna snaps that gives her the courage to attempt to get her remaining daughters out of Africa. Ruth May's death, for which she continues to take responsibility, haunts her for the rest of her life.

Rachel Price

Rachael is a teenage prima donna when she arrives in the Congo, a status she struggles to maintain there. Her self-centered and materialistic nature does not change during the three decades that she lives in Africa. She does show certain resilience, however, as she weds three different men and eventually inherits a successful resort, all the while refusing to acknowledge the suffering that surrounds her.

Ruth May Price

Fierce, imperious Ruth May is "surprisingly stubborn for a child of five" and is always ready for a new adventure. Ironically, she is the one who is ultimately destroyed by Africa, which triggers feelings of guilt in her mother and her sisters.

Mama Bekwa Tataba

Mama Bekwa Tataba works as the Prices' servant after they arrive in the Congo. The girls initially are wary of her, but she teaches them how to survive. She also stands up to Nathan, who eventually frustrates her so much with his demands that the villagers submit to baptism that she leaves.

Mr. Underdown

Mr. Underdown and his wife are Belgian nationals who manage the finances for the missionary programs in the Congo. They represent the white ruling class in the Congo as they live in relative comfort in Leopoldville amidst of the overwhelming poverty of the black Africans. They flee immediately after the Congo gains independence.




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