Historical Context

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The Colonization of the Congo

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...

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The Colonization of the Congo

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.

Literary Style

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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.

Literary Techniques

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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.

Social Concerns

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The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver's most ambitious novel to date, tells the story of a missionary family's experiences in the Belgian Congo (now known as Zaire) in 1959-61, just as that nation was claiming its independence from colonial rule. The experience of living in Africa leaves an indelible mark on each member of the family, and their stories are carried forward into the present day.

The Reverend Nathan Price is a Baptist preacher who is determined to save the souls of the native population of the village of Kilanga. So strong is his zeal that his mission is not even sanctioned by the missionary society that oversees the area. Thus, the Price family are not given the kind of training and essential information they normally would have received—a circumstance that proves tragic. The novel is alternately narrated by the women of the family: Nathan's wife Orleanna, who recounts her experiences in the past tense, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, who speak of events as they are happening.

The Prices arrive in Kilanga woefully unprepared and loaded down with items ridiculously useless in the Congo, such as pinking shears and boxed cake mixes. Their lack of understanding of the local culture, language, and climate leads them into disasters great and small. Nathan, who usually preaches to the Congolese using a translator, sometimes attempts to speak Kikongo—a highly inflected language with many similar words. The word for "precious", when pronounced slightly differently means "poisonwood" so the villagers believe Nathan is telling them that Jesus is poisonous. The very real danger posed by river crocodiles is a never-resolved problem with Nathan's pressure for total-immersion baptism.

As the Congo moves toward independence from Belgium, the Prices' situation grows increasingly dangerous. After decades of colonial exploitation, resentment against whites is high, and the Prices are urged to leave. But Nathan, who is emotionally and physically scarred from an experience in the Second World War in which he feels he displayed cowardice, refuses to abandon what he considers God's mission. Leah, who at first admired and believed in her father, begins to rebel, in part through the influence of her friend Anatole, a young pro-independence Congolese schoolteacher. Rachel, a self-centered teenager, attracts the attention of the village chief, who offers to marry her. To deflect his advances, Nathan has Rachel pretend to be engaged to Eeben Axelroot, the bush pilot who brings them supplies. Axelroot is also a CIA operative who is working to undermine the new democratically elected government of Patrice Lumumba, opposed by the U.S. due to supposed ties to the Soviet Union.

Tragedies unfold in rapid succession: Lumumba is deposed and killed, and his government is replaced with the U.S.- backed, but corrupt, rule of Joseph Mobutu; the villagers of Kilanga vote to follow their native gods rather than Jesus; a traditional hunt degenerates into an angry melee; and Ruth May, the youngest daughter, is killed by a poisonous snake. Orleanna, who to this point had pleaded with Nathan to leave but still bent to his will, takes matters into her own hands to remove herself and her daughters from Kilanga. Rachel flies off to South Africa with Axelroot. Leah, who is too ill with malaria to leave the country, remains with Anatole and eventually marries him. It is only her silent, physically handicapped twin Adah who returns to America with Orleanna.

As the story unfolds, we learn of each woman's fate and of how her life has been irreparably changed by Africa. Orleanna works for civil rights and retreats to a country house and a garden. Rachel becomes an oft-married social climber, hotel proprietor, and right-wing apologist for the white man's presence and behavior in Africa. Leah works to help Africans in nutrition and agriculture. Adah becomes a scientist and overcomes her handicap, at the same time losing her unique "slant" on the world. We hear secondhand that Nathan disappeared into the jungle, later to die a death of biblical proportions. The last voice we hear is Ruth May's: her spirit still in Africa, her eyes observing her mother and sisters as they try, in vain, to find her grave, the lost village of Kilanga, and what they left behind in Africa.

More than any of Kingsolver's previous novels, The Poisonwood Bible is a novel of social criticism. The effect of colonialism on Africa is seen through the eyes of the Price family, each of whom has a slightly different take on their experiences, but are never able to escape the impact their seventeen months in the jungle had on their lives. We hear how Europeans and Americans exploited Africa's riches for decades: plundering the gold and diamonds while forcing native populations into labor and cutting off their hands for punishment. We hear how President Eisenhower sought to remove Lumumba from power because of the threat of Communism, and how Mobutu's regime, supported by the U.S., kept money, food, and political freedom from the residents of what became known as Zaire.

Also at issue is the clash of cultures, personalized by the experiences of one American family in the Congo, but representative of white presence in Africa as a whole. The Prices know little about the culture of the village they are about to inhabit. Though their intention is to impose their belief system and ideas of "civilized culture" on the residents of Kilanga, even Rachel is perceptive enough to realize that it was her family who was changed instead. American ideas of religion, politics, agriculture, and economics, viewed by Nathan and other whites as superior, are illogical or unworkable in the daily life of the Congolese. For example, the Western idea of a democratic election, while seemingly fair, only brings turmoil to a village where, traditionally, issues were discussed at length until everyone agreed. Now, those holding a minority viewpoint have resentment that brings discord to the harmony of the village.

Feminism comes into play as the traditional family breaks down about midway through the novel. Nathan holds all the power in the family, and at times is physically abusive to his wife and daughters and dismissive of their desires and opinions. Leah breaks gender taboos of both white and African cultures by using a weapon and wishing to participate actively in the hunt. Orleanna loses respect for Nathan through the ordeal in Africa and leaves him, taking their remaining daughters with her. Rachel uses marriage as a tool to break into elevated levels of society and becomes a successful businesswoman. Adah chooses not to commit herself to a relationship with a man. Only Leah has a long-term romantic relationship, and her marriage to Anatole, though beset with many struggles, is a mutually supportive and egalitarian one.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

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.

Further Reading

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.

Bibliography

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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.”

Literary Precedents

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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.

Adaptations

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Available in an unabridged audiotape version from Brilliance Corporation, read by Dean Robertson.

Media Adaptations

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  • 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.
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