The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

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What is the main theme of Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible?

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Although it is difficult and reductive to discuss any significant work of literature in terms of a single theme (on this point see, for instance, Richard Levin’s classic indictment of thematic criticism, titled New Readings vs. Old Plays), certainly a few major themes do suggest themselves to anyone reading Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible.  Partly this is because Kingsolver is clearly intent on making various thematic points, sometimes stating them quite openly (as in the second quotation below).  One of those points, for instance, involves attempts to impose domination and the kinds of resistance such attempts often provoke.  Perhaps the main example of a person in this novel who tries to impose domination is the father, Nathan Price, who not only attempts to dominate (and thereby eventually alienates) his wife and daughters but who also tries to dominate nature and native Africans during his time as a Christian missionary in the Congo. He is in many ways a representative of arrogant colonialism, and both his family and the Africans with whom he comes into contact suffer the results of his efforts to impose control of various kinds.

In one passage, for instance, his young daughter Leah describes how her father attempts to prepare a garden in their new African location:

He beat down a square of tall grass and wild pink flowers, all without ever once looking at me.  Then he bent over and began to rip out long handfuls of grass with quick, energetic jerks as though tearing out the hair of the world.  . . . He often says he views himself as the captain of a sinking mess of female minds. I know he must find me tiresome, yet still I like spending time with my father very much more than I like doing anything else.

This passage suggests both the positives and the negatives of Nathan Price as a father, a Christian missionary, and a man.  On the one hand he is hard-working, energetic, and determined. On the other hand he is not especially sensitive either to natural beauty or to the needs or perceptions of others.  There is a certainly violence implied in the passage just quoted, as well as a clear implication of patriarchal domination and the desire to transform things and people (in this case the landscape) to suit his own sense of what he needs and wants.  His frustration with his wives and daughters is somewhat comic at this point in the book, but, as the novel develops, he will ultimately lose their affection and be deserted by them.  Finally, the villagers whom he came to “help” will turn against him and in fact burn him alive. His efforts to dominate and control his family and the native Africans will eventually result in great losses for himself and for his wife and children. Toward the end of the book, another daughter, Adah, who is now an adult and who has not only escaped her father’s influence but who has also become a medical researcher, reflects on the ambiguities of colonialism, including (implicitly) the kind of colonialism represented by Nathan Price:

In the service of saving Africa’s babies and extracting its mineral soul, the West has built a path to its own door and thrown it wide for the plague.

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