The Poisonwood Bible Characters
by Barbara Kingsolver

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,844 words.)