The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

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How does Kingsolver present themes of captivity, freedom, love, and betrayal in The Poisonwood Bible?

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Kingsolver presents the double themes of captivity and freedom, as well as love and betrayal, through the family dynamics within The Poisonwood Bible.

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In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible , two major double themes are presented: captivity and freedom, and love and betrayal. The narrative centers around the Price family, missionaries from the state of Georgia in the United States, who move to Kilanga, a village in the Congo near the Kwilu...

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River.

In the Congo, there is significant political unrest, as both the United States and Belgium have attempted to colonize or succeeded in colonizing the African country. This strips the Congolese of their freedom, as they feel like captives in their own country who have fallen victim to control of Europeans and Americans.

Another way the double theme of captivity and freedom manifests is within the dynamics of the Price family. The father, Nathan, is in charge of his family of women, and he removes the freedom of both his wife and his daughters when he alone decides to move to the Congo and when he requires the daughters to abide by his religious preferences. The women within the Price family are captives within these family dynamics.

The Price family dynamics also promote the double theme of love and betrayal. Love should be the foundation for a family, but instead of making decisions based on love, Nathan makes decisions with his personal benefit top-of-mind. His wife, Orleanna, understands how difficult and unhealthy the family dynamics are for her daughters, but instead of betraying Nathan for the benefit and love of her daughters, she betrays them by keeping the family intact.

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The Poisonwood Bible, written by Barbara Kingsolver, is a multi-faceted story about a family that moves to the Congo. Throughout the story, many themes are presented through multiple points of view. Some of these themes include freedom versus captivity and love versus betrayal.

A major part of this novel is the political unrest in the Congo. Many nations have tried to colonize the Congo, including the United States and Belgium. The people of the Congo are struggling with their own freedom and feel like captives because their country is not in their control. There is also a sense of love versus betrayal on the political front, as there is an assassination planned in the story.

Another example of freedom versus captivity as a theme is in the Price family itself. Nathan, the father of the family, decides to move his entire family of women to the Congo. His wife, Orleanna, has no say in many of the decisions Nathan makes for their family and is in a sense held captive in her own marriage. The daughters in this story are held captive by their father as well. He makes demanding requests of their behaviors and beliefs. The girls are required to share his same spiritual belief system which is essentially a fundamentalist and extremist mentality. By the end of the novel, most of the Price women have found a way to free themselves from their father.

Nathan also helps develop the theme of love versus betrayal. As a father, Nathan is supposed to make decisions that are best for his family. Throughout the entire story, Nathan makes choices that only benefit himself instead. His selfishness is a type of betrayal to his family. Orelanna also struggles with love and betrayal several times throughout this novel, although less so than her husband. Orleanna must choose between her daughters several times in this story, which although beneficial to one daughter is a betrayal to the others. Orleanna also betrays all of her daughters by remaining married to her husband. Although she knows that Nathan is poisoning her family, Orleanna does not make any adjustments and her family remains stuck in their situation.

The Poisonwood Bible is a great resource to spark discussion about many important literary themes.

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There are several types of captivity explored in this novel. On the surface, the people of the Congo are captives in many ways - throughout their history of being colonized by other nations (in this novel, Belgium and then the U.S. trying to control them). So there is political captivity and freedom. The Congolese are attempting a freedom movement in this novel, and many of the characters are involved in it (Anatole, Leah, etc.) 

There is also spiritual and emotional captivity. All of the Price women are emotional captives of their father and husband, Nathan. He is abusive and controlling. They each have a unique emotional captivity as well - Adah is crippled emotionally and physically, Rachel is crippled emotionally and grows into a woman constantly seeking approval through low-life men. Orleanna is crippled emotionally and it scars her and affects her relationships with her children, etc. The women are also spiritual captives to Nathan's version of religion, which is presented as fundamental extremism in this novel. None of them experience any of the freedom that true faith allows, which is disturbing, since they are a family of missionaries supposed to be bringing the "good news" to the natives.

There is also physical captivity. Adah is handicapped physically, but eventually she is freed from her physical captivity. Nelson and Anatole all have physical issues that hold them captive for awhile (i.e. Anatole's scarred face).

There is also cultural captivity. The Underdowns are closed-minded and racist so in a sense, they are captives of their own colonizers' mentality.

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What kinds of captivity and freedom does Kingsolver explore in The Poisonwood Bible?

Two of the many kinds of captivity Kingsolver explores in The Poisonwood Bible, a novel of impressive sweep, are the captivity of one's preconceived ideas and the captivity of poverty.

Nathan Price arrives in Kilanga in the Congo as a Baptist preacher and becomes the captive of his inability to change his ideas or bend to the realities of his new home. He is a captive of survivor's guilt from living through the Battaan Death March in World War II, and this makes him rigid. He wants to impress the "natives" with the superiority of his own culture in order to convert them, but he only bemuses them, such as when he dynamites the river to impress them with the number of fish he can kill. His lack of ability to communicate in the native language symbolizes his inability to communicate in general. His captivity to his own ideas makes him an ineffectual minister and father. Rachel, who is most like her father, also becomes a captive of American ideology, including keeping up a happy face, and a captive of her own emotional scars, isolated and limited in her fine American hotel.

Leah, in contrast, becomes liberated from the narrow-mindedness that holds her father captive, but, especially after her marriage to Anatole, becomes the captive of African poverty. She won't take advantage of her white privilege and so lives as the native Africans do. Through Leah, white audiences get a strong sense of how hunger and lack of protein can come to preoccupy and limit a life.

Adah Price, like the many maimed Africans who don't have the protections commonplace to more privileged peoples, transcends the captivity of her body's limitations, and as Kingsolver shows, develops her mind and soul. While she never underrates poverty or disability as a form of captivity, Kingsolver points to narrow-mindedness as possibly the worst captivity.

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What kinds of captivity and freedom does Kingsolver explore in The Poisonwood Bible?

Another way capitivity and freedom is represented is in the form of physical deformity.  Adah is deformed and in the USA she is the object of scrutiny for her deformity...she is trapped in a body that will not perform to her orders.  In the Congo, however, everyone has some sort of deformity as a byproduct of life.  Their neighbor lost her legs in a fire and scoots around on her behind using her arms as most use their legs.  Because of this, Adah feels "free" here.  The only reason people stare at her here is because she is white...not because of her deformity.

Also, Methuselah, the parrot, is freed from his cage where he had lived through three missionary families.  However, because he had been in the cage for so long, he never leaves the area.  It is as if he has forgotten how to fly.  He lives in the nearby tree by day and the latrine by night until the cat kills and eats him, thus "freeing" him from life in the Congo.

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What kinds of captivity and freedom does Kingsolver explore in The Poisonwood Bible?

Captivity and freedom is shown in two ways. First, it's shown in how Nathan treats the Africans, representing what happens when one country imposes its beliefs on a foreign culture. It's also shown in how Nathan treats his family. Both situations reflect the theme of free will.

Nathan tries to force his beliefs of Christianity upon the villagers, but he never attempts to understand their culture. He misuses their language and sees them all as heathens. He never considers things from their perspective. He represents the corruption of America's colonization and its participation in overthrowing governments for their own interests. The villagers are able to resist Nathan because they've already established their spiritual and cultural views.

Nathan's family is held captive because he controls their lives. He's never allowed them to establish a strong sense of themselves outside of the family. The freedom of his wife and daughters comes at a very high price. Orleanna, his wife, finally gathers enough courage to break away from Nathan when her daughter Ruth dies. Leah becomes independent when she joins Anatole and stays in Africa. Adah eventually rejects her cynical views and feels sympathy for the poverty-stricken lives of the natives.

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What kinds of love and betrayal does Kingsolver explore in The Poisonwood bible.

Nathan's lack of love for his family is also his betrayal of them. He rules them with an iron hand, cruelly abusing them. He betrays them when he doesn't allow his wife or daughters to explore any sense of themselves outside of the family. His wife, Orleanna, knows he could never love her because he believes it's his duty to save the Africans from themselves.

Orleanna loves her daughters, but she continues to stay with Nathan, thus betraying her daughters. It isn't until Ruth May, her youngest daughter, dies that she gets the courage to try and get her other daughters out of Africa. Ruth May's death haunts her for the rest of her life, and she feels she betrayed her by not taking her daughters out sooner.

The major theme of the book is the effect of colonialism on the people of Africa. The effect of colonialism is seen through the eyes of the Price family. Europe and the U.S. exploited Africa for its riches, forcing its people into labor. This colonialism is a betrayal of the people of Africa and the love those people have for their country. Colonialism destroyed their traditions, bringing chaos into their lives.

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