The Poisonwood Bible Criticism
by Barbara Kingsolver

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Wendy Perkins

(Novels for Students)

Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines the theme of survival.

The threats to the Price family's physical survival in The Poisonwood Bible are obvious and immediate. They must find enough food to eat, stay away from poisonous snakes and tarantulas, and guard against dysentery and malaria. Less obvious but more complex are the personal obstacles that they face. One such problem is created by Nathan's religious fanaticism, fueled by his own insecurities, which prevents him from successfully adapting to his surroundings. His inability to overcome this obstacle ultimately destroys two lives—his and Ruth May's. The rest of the Price family are able to cope with many physical and personal trials during their time in the Congo. Yet, like the malaria that lingers in their systems long after their escape from Kilanga, emotional damage remains, which has a profound effect on the next three decades of their lives.

As they are taught by the villagers to keep external dangers at bay, the Price women learn how to evade, to adapt, and to confront internal obstacles to their survival. Initially, they face a profound sense of culture shock compounded by their homesickness after their relocation to a foreign, often dangerous world. Their first response is to try to hold onto their American identity. They bring with them artifacts from American culture, like Underwood deviled ham, Band-Aids, Anacin, and number 2 pencils. As these goods run or wear out, however, they are forced to adapt to local customs regarding diet, farming methods, and social interaction—all except Rachel, who refuses to relinquish her American identity with its pronounced superiority and entitlement.

At first, Ruth May and Leah have the easiest time. Ruth May, who exhibits a child's natural adaptability, is the first to make friends with the village children. Leah soon makes friends of her own while she gains an appreciation of the beauty of the jungle, which she considers a heavenly paradise. Adah's gradual acceptance of her surroundings is made less complicated by her status as outsider. As she arrives in the Congo, she feels the same sense of disconnection she felt at home in a world that both pitied and ostracized her for her disability. When the villagers, who are used to physical deformities, do not treat her as more odd than they consider the rest of her family, she is able to settle into her new home. Orleanna's task is more difficult since her main focus is her family's health and security.

The family's process of adaptation is made more complex and challenging by Nathan's rigidity and righteousness. In his steadfast refusal to accept any point of view other than his own, he presses all to conform to his rules. His insistence that the villagers be baptized causes palpable tension between the family and the village that he refuses to try to alleviate. Adah complains that he speaks for everyone in his family since "he views himself as the captain of a sinking mess of female minds."

Adah and Rachel try to stay out of his way as much as possible to avoid his wrath. Orleanna, however, must deal with his tyranny on a daily basis as she struggles to protect and nurture her daughters. During their first few months in the Congo, she is "too dumbfounded to speak up for herself" or for her family when Nathan ignores their needs, since this is the role he has forced upon her from the beginning of their relationship. She admits, "Nathan was in full possession of the country once known as Orleanna Wharton…. Because in those days, you see, that's how a life like mine was known." In an attempt to justify her passive stance, she insists that she was "thoroughly bent to the shape of marriage," likening herself to the parrot Methuselah who, like she, had no wings.

Leah deals with her father's autocracy by fully accepting his dogma. She devotes herself to his mission wholeheartedly and spends her days trying desperately to please...

(The entire section is 8,659 words.)