Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426
The Colonization of the Congo
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In the late 1870s, Leopold II, king of Belgium, gained control of the territories that made up the Congo in an effort to ensure his country's prosperity. He effectively set up a colonial empire there and established the International Association as a cover for his using the natural resources there as his own personal asset. Soon after, Leopold appointed himself head of the newly established, Independent State of the Congo, an ironic name since it was literally an enslaved state, which included the land known in the early 2000s as Zaire. Leopold took control of all land and business operations, in cluding the lucrative trade in rubber and ivory as he ruled from a large estate in the region northeast of Kinshasa. Belgian-backed companies also took control of mining operations.
At the turn of the century, the public began to become aware of the harsh treatment of black Africans, especially those who worked for the rubber companies. As a result, the Belgian parliament wrested jurisdiction from Leopold in 1908 and established the Belgian Congo. Forced labor was eliminated under the new government, but Euro pean investments still controlled the country's wealth, and blacks were not allowed any part in the government or the economy. Black laborers worked the vast copper and diamond mining operations, while Europeans managed them.
The Struggle for Independence
In 1955, as calls for independence were mounting, Belgium constructed a thirty-year plan for independence, which the government hoped would ensure continued domination in the Congo and at the same time improve the lives of black Africans. However, nationalists such as Patrice Lumumba, who led the leftist movement called National Congolese, continued their protests against the Belgian-controlled government. In 1959, nationalists rioted in Kinshasa, initiating what became the steady decline in Belgian power.
In 1960, Belgium decided to give up the governance of the colony, and Lumumba became prime minister of the newly independent Republic of the Congo. Soon after, however, ethnic and personal rivalries threatened the stability of the new government. When the Congolese army mutinied, Lumumba sought aid from the Soviet Union as he tried to maintain control, but the country was soon seized by Joseph Mobutu who had Lumumba arrested and later murdered while allegedly trying to escape.
By the end of the 1960s, the Congo was divided into four parts, with Mobutu controlling the west, including Kinshasa. With U.S. weapons, Belgian soldiers, and white mercenaries, the central government stabilized, and in 1965, Mobutu proclaimed himself president. He ruled for thirty years with the backing of the U.S. government.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401
Narrative with Multiple Voices
Multiple voices narrate this book with the point of view shifting back and forth among Orleanna and her four daughters, providing different perspectives on the family's experiences in the Congo. King-solver employs these contrasting voices to suggest the subjective nature of observation and the impossibility of achieving a single objective point of view of other cultures and of personal experience. Each of the female voices in the narrative observes the Congo through her personal lens which has been shaped by experience. Orleanna, for example, relates her story of the Congo through a mother's eyes as she struggles to provide food and shelter for her family and keep her children safe. Thus, her focus is on what food is available and what dangers lurk outside the hut.
Each narrative angle also conveys contrasts between American attitudes toward the region. Rachel sees the Congo as an American materialist who is used to the comforts of home. Her response when they first arrive is an honest account of all of their feelings toward the naked villagers and the meal they offer them. She, however, maintains her initial assessment, while the others' views change over time as they learn more about their surroundings. Leah is the American idealist, first, following her father's missionary role, and then adopting Anatole's revolutionary stance. She ultimately rejects her American home for a difficult but satisfying African life that provides her with a sense of purpose and value.
Ruth May is the outgoing adventurer, making fast friends with the village children. Adah is the cynical observer, who is ultimately changed by her sympathetic response to the disease-ridden population. Orleanna becomes the voice of American guilt in consciousness of how Americans either allowed the corruption of colonization to occur or participated in the overthrow of governments for their own self interests. Nathan is not given a voice in the narrative, but his position is symbolized by the novel's title. Nathan's mispronounced declaration, "TATA JESUS IS BANGALA," which translates ironically to "Jesus is ironically to "Jesus is poisonwood," becomes a metaphor for the same self-serving arrogance that turns a noble ideal into poison. His misuse of the local language and the meaning he conveys accidentally in the process also suggest how the imposition of one set of cultural beliefs on a foreign culture is undermined by the outsider's inability to know the culture he is presuming to change.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 293
The riskiest, but ultimately most successful, literary technique that Kingsolver uses in The Poisonwood Bible is the multiple narrative structure. Rather than a single protagonist, there are several, each of whom is affected by the events of the novel in different ways. From the outset, the voices of the five women are easily distinguishable, and each woman's story is equally compelling.
Appropriately, biblical allusion is prevalent in the novel. Many of the seven books which make up the novel allude to books of the Bible, and images of gardens teeming with life and serpents clearly point to the creation story and man's fall from grace. The girls' biblical names provide insight into their characters and their roles in the family, and Kilanga suffers a plague of driver ants. Several other animals, such as a parrot, a lion, and an okapi (a cud-chewing jungle animal that is much smaller than its grasslands cousin the giraffe), have meanings deeper than their plot implications. Another important set of metaphors is the previously mentioned depiction of Nathan as the colonizer and oppressor of his family.
The plot structure is also riskier than in Kingsolver's previous novels. The first four books of The Poisonwood Bible, aside from Orleanna's flashbacks, tell of the seventeen months the Prices spend in the Congo. Book Five ("Exodus") leaps forward rapidly in time, tracing the women's divergent paths. Some of the book's immediacy and emotional power is lost as entire lifetimes are summarized. However, the final two sections resonate with meaning and poignancy. Book Six ("Song of the Three Children") allows the surviving Price daughters to tell the readers what they learned. Book Seven ("The Eyes in the Trees") closely parallels Orleanna's opening chapter, bringing the story to a satisfying, if bittersweet, end.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 120
White men traveling to the jungle and discovering the dark side of human nature has been a common literary theme, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast. As a depiction of a dysfunctional family employing multiple narrators, The Poisonwood Bible has been compared to The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. As Kingsolver has mentioned Faulkner as an early literary influence, this comparison is particularly apt.
The subtitle of Book One—"The Things We Carried"—alludes to Tim O'Brien's award-winning short story "The Things They Carried." Like the American soldiers in Vietnam in O'Brien's story, the Prices carry both physical items and emotional baggage into the jungle, and they are weighed down by both.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13
Available in an unabridged audiotape version from Brilliance Corporation, read by Dean Robertson.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23
- Brilliance Audio produced an unabridged audio version of the novel, read by Dean Robertson, in 2004. As of 2006, no film version had been made.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 216
Sources for Further Study
Jacobson, Kristin J. “The Neodomestic American Novel: The Politics of Home in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 24, no. 1 (Spring, 2005): 105-127. Compares and contrasts The Poisonwood Bible with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, with particular attention to the genre of the (neo)domestic novel.
Kakutani, Michiko. “No Ice Cream Cones in a Heart of Darkness.” The New York Times, October 16, 1998. Review of the book that takes up the symbolic significance of several main characters in line with political allegory.
Kerr, Sarah. “The Novel as Indictment.” The New York Times, October 11, 1998, p. SM53. An examination of The Poisonwood Bible and Kingsolver’s ideas about writing and influencing the world.
Ognibene, Elaine R. “The Missionary Position: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.” College Literature 20, no. 3 (Summer, 2003): 19-36. This lengthy analysis concludes that “words, Kingsolver warns, have multiple meanings, especially in the Congo. To decode those meanings, readers must ’look at what happens from every side. . . .’ Kingsolver dares us to do so and to discover the moments of truth in the telling.”
Riswold, Caryn D. “Four Fictions and Their Theological Truths.” An assistant professor of religion surveys four novels, including The Poisonwood Bible, concluding that “Kingsolver describes justification by grace and the difficulty of living liberated from guilt.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249
Fox, Stephen D., "Barbara Kingsolver and Keri Hulme: Disability, Family, and Culture," in Critique, Vol. 45, No. 4, Summer 2004, pp. 405-18.
Greene, Gayle, "Independence Struggle," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 7, April 1999, pp. 8-9.
Kingsolver, Barbara, The Poisonwood Bible, HarperPerennial, 1998.
Koza, Kimberly A., "The Africa of Two Western Women Writers: Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Laurence," in Critique, Vol. 44, No. 3, Spring 2003, pp. 284-94.
Leonard, John, "Kingsolver in the Jungle, Catullus and Wolfe at the Door," in Nation, January 11/18, 1999, pp. 28-30.
Review of The Poisonwood Bible, in Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1998, p. 366.
Stafford, Tim, "Poisonous Gospel," in Christianity Today, January 11, 1999, pp. 88-90.
Edgerton, Robert, The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo, St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Edgerton chronicles the turbulent history of the Congo, from its pre-European colonization to the early 2000s.
Siegel, Lee, "Sweet and Low," in the New Republic, March 22, 1999, pp. 30-36.
Siegel critiques Kingsolver's characterizations of black Africans and what he considers her slanted view of Congolese politics.
Taylor, Jeffrey, Facing the Congo: A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness, Three Rivers Press, 2001.
In this fascinating account of his journey on the Congo River in a canoe, Taylor brings his reporter's eye for detail to his descriptions of the landscape of this beautiful but sometimes treacherous country.
Walls, Andrew F., The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in Transmission of Faith, Orbis Books, 1996.
Walls focuses on the theoretical background of the missionary movement in the Western and Eastern worlds as well as on specific missions.