Barbara Kingsolver calls The Poisonwood Bible a political allegory. Her choice of the missionary Prices as a lens for life in the Belgian Congo creates a frame to consider Western exploitation of Africa. The attitudes of the Price women, from disgust to acceptance, and their observations along with Nathan’s complete lack of respect for the Congo’s human or social conventions present a spectrum of Western culture’s attitudes about Africa. The morality of imposing Christian religious values on people one does not know or respect becomes an issue as the family interacts with villagers.
Insensitive responses to need and village custom undercut Nathan’s spiritual authority, while his daughters Leah, Adah, and Ruth accept both friendship and help from neighbors. Rachel remains self-centered throughout, resentful toward her father and Africans alike. Her insensitivity is not personal; it is based on a feeling of entitlement and her assumption that whatever she wants is right. She comes close to being amoral, since her desires form the core of her values. Orleanna becomes complicit in Nathan’s excesses by failing to object to his private or public cruelty. Her mother-love is undercut by a weak defense of herself and her daughters. In contrast, the African neighbors of the Prices treat them humanely, saving their lives on several occasions and thereby raising the question of which society is more morally grounded. In their lives in Kilanga, religion becomes personal and each Price family member exhibits varying degrees of sensitivity and compassion.
Nathan Price’s self-righteous preaching and insistence on his authority to change life in Kilanga stand for the West’s power relationship to Africa. Ignoring centuries of custom and survival in the tropical jungle, he overlooks the reality that daily struggles focus on survival, not redemption. He has no interest in acquiring information, learning the language, or facing real human problems of existence. His answer for everything is ideology in the guise of religious beliefs. Later in the novel, political ideology motivates meddling in the name of anticommunism, but it is hard to separate American political interference from Nathan’s methods. They stem from the same self-righteous motivation. Africa and Africans in the novel suffer colonial exploitation of their resources, religious meddling with their belief systems, political disregard for centuries-old methods of rule and social structure, and international collusion to take natural resources from independent countries by interfering in local political contests.
The question of forgiveness surfaces throughout the book. Whether it has to do with resentments between the Price sisters, Nathan’s brutality toward Orleanna while he preaches God’s love, the villagers’ suspicion that the Prices have brought bad luck to them, the political intolerance of one Congolese regime for another after Belgium has left the country, the Belgian colonial exploitation of the Congo, Eeben Axelroot’s seduction of Rachel, or Orleanna’s failure to keep Ruth May alive, The Poisonwood Bible offers myriad chances for readers to consider who deserves and who bestows forgiveness. The precepts of Nathan Price’s religious forgiveness pale in the crowd of personal and devastating circumstances in the novel. The source of forgiveness in the world emerges as a main concern.