The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

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What is the significance of the opening scene in The Poisonwood Bible and why is it chosen?

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The novel opens with the meditation of a white woman, Orleanna Price, addressed to her favorite child, on Africa. Kingsolver uses this as her opening because it introduces setting, character, and most importantly, theme: what has white colonization done to Africa?

The setting is Africa, and Kingsolver immediately shows us whites as alien invaders, if—at this point—gently so: the mother and four daughters in their "shirtwaist" dresses, traveling on a path through the jungle to have their picnic lunch. They are out of place amid the spiders, ants and monkeys, and Kingsolver uses these females to introduce and foreshadow her theme of the incompatibility of the Western world with Africa and the damage the encounter has wrought: she calls these Americans "doomed blossoms" that invite our sympathy, but immediately warns us to "be careful" where we assign our sympathies.

Having lyrically and vividly set the scene of this American missionary family in Africa, with a significant focus on the women, Kingsolver expands her narrative to encompass a wider scope, wondering, for a moment, through Price, what Africa would have been like without its encounter with whites. What, she has her narrator wonder, would Africa have been like if the Portuguese, "by some miracle or dread," had turned away and Africa had been left "unconquered"?

Kingsolver introduces what the rest of the novel will be about in this opening scene: it will focus on women, it will be about Africa, it will come from the point of view of whites who have direct experience of the Congo, and it will explore, as she hints with images like "doomed blossoms," the tragic collision of Africa with western culture.

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In the opening scene to The Poisonwood Bible, Orleanna Price begins the narrative by speaking to her dead daughter.  However, in the first few pages, the narrative appears to be more the author-as-narrator addressing the reader directly.  The first line of the novel reads:  "Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened."  This direct address to the reading audience posits the reader within the setting of the Congo as the characters will experience it.  The land and its people are mysterious and strange to the Prices and a tragedy will befall them that is unimaginable to them when they begin their journey.  The narrative continues to tell the reader that he/she will have to make his/her own judgements on the actions and decisions of the woman (Orleanna) and her daughters suggesting that the novel will be told from either objective or various viewpoints (the latter is the case as the reader encounters shifting first-person narrators).  After Orleanna's voice becomes more apparent, she reveals that her daughter (unnamed) is dead and asks that her ghost quit haunting her.  The suspense of the unknown propels the reader into the novel.

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