The Poisonwood Bible Analysis
by Barbara Kingsolver

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

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

(Novels for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 2,979 words.)