Most critics consider The Poisonwood Bible to be Barbara Kingsolver’s most ambitious and serious work. The book’s narrative develops out of Kingsolver’s conviction that life is political on all levels. Her other novels showcase social or political wrongs on a small scale. The Poisonwood Bible is global in its perspective and involves matters of faith, cultural negation, colonial power, psychological and physical domestic abuse, and American interference in the internal workings of a nation neither cared about nor really understood by these same Americans. All these themes intersect in the lives of one family from Bethlehem, Georgia, who arrive in Africa with a misguided sense of their importance and mission.
Critics agree on the political commentary in the novel, but they differ in their assessments of how significant that commentary is in the end. To highlight how Kingsolver uses her characters to generate ideas about the colonial presence of Westerners in Africa, it will be helpful to consider the members of the Price family, and the story’s male characters, individually. In addition to furthering the plot, each character contributes a perspective that suggests wider implications for the story as a whole.
The four Price girls represent a range of responses to life in Africa. The self-centered approach of Rachel, the eldest daughter, leads her to exploit every circumstance or person to make her own life more palatable, that is, less African. Her never-ending sense of entitlement, along with her manipulative and forceful behavior, sets her up as a symbol of colonial power. She marries repeatedly to further her cause, using men the way the United States used the Congolese to further its own cause during the Congo’s struggle for independence. At novel’s end, Rachel owns a hotel in South Africa that serves a white clientele only. Her racist life typifies the colonial practice of taking care of the privileged classes, making a profit, and disdaining the country and people who make that profit possible.
Well-intentioned Leah is an American who is ready and able to appreciate the Congo’s language, customs, and people. Her sense of mission never overwhelms her ability to absorb Congolese life or her willingness to understand the world she is discovering. Leah remains in Africa, married to Anatole Ngemba, a teacher. With his extended family and their own sons they struggle to survive in an economy riddled with corruption and the effects of long-term poverty. Anatole is politically active and is in and out of jail, his existence precarious. Congo struggles with internal divisions and reels under the influence of the self-serving U.S. government, which sponsors the country’s dictatorship in exchange for certain natural resources. Leah “lives” Africa in a way her father never could, or would. Her route to redemption features grassroots political activity based on what is best for the African people and not on what is best for politicians, governments, or religious zealots.
Leah’s twin, Adah, physically disabled and unable to communicate well with others, acts as a type of underground conscience for the book. She rarely speaks out in the story, but her cryptic musings about the Price family’s interactions with each other and with the members of the village “congregation” call Nathan’s godliness into question—and call into question his ability to parent with compassion and wisdom. Adah’s thoughts and palindromic utterances condemn the presence of the Prices in Africa, calling attention to the hypocrisy, cruelty, and irrelevance of Nathan’s message and actions. Ultimately, Adah finds her voice and becomes a physician devoted to the study of viruses prevalent on the African continent. Her path to wholeness emerges as she makes important discoveries about the Ebola virus and AIDS/HIV. Science helps her frame a philosophy of life that incorporates not only her own past but also the past of Africa and its environment,...
(The entire section is 1,340 words.)