The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

Start Free Trial

Christian Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The major theme is an indictment of colonialism. Against the backdrop of colonial Africa, the Price family itself is a metaphor of a colonized society. Nathan is the oppressor, who rules his family with "a strong hand, tightly clenched." Orleanna refers to him as "occupying a foreign country." Colonizers are similarly referred to in the novel as ruling "with a fatherly hand." Nathan exploits his wife and daughters to further his own...

(This entire section contains 398 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

agenda and wrestle with his personal demons, and does not seem to care if he sacrifices their well-being in the process. As the strongest driving force for their presence in Africa, Nathan also has the least understanding of the people he's trying to convert of anyone in his family. To varying degrees, the Price women adapt to their surroundings, learn about the Congolese, and rally in order to survive against their harsh conditions. As the Congolese move toward independence, and the women in Nathan's family lose their faith in and respect for him as a provider, they begin to take on added responsibilities. They become self-sufficient, though they are never able to escape the repercussions of their time in Africa. Similarly, African nations are unable to fully recover from European exploitation, though now more in charge of their own destinies.

Also, an important theme is the collision of the Congolese versus the Christian view of religion. Book One opens with a verse from Genesis: "And God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." The Western ideal is to dominate and suppress the earth, whereas the villagers of Kilanga have learned to live in harmony with nature and their particular environment. The people of the village have many gods, and religion is a part of their daily lives, rather than something separate and sacred. Nathan was outraged at the idea that the church building could be used for purposes other than worship, whereas from the perspective of Tata Ndu, Kilanga's chief, it was wasteful to have a building used only for praying. When the hunt, so important for the village's survival both physically and spiritually, results in disagreements and turmoil, the Prices are blamed for bringing the anger of the gods down onto Kilanga.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

White Supremacy

The novel chronicles the Belgian colonization of the Congo as well as U.S. efforts to control the country after it gains independence. The Price family unwittingly becomes involved in this process after they relocate to Kilanga. The doctor who sets Ruth May's broken arm tries to point this out to Nathan when he tells him, "We Belgians made slaves of [the black Africans] and cut off their hands in the rubber plantations. Now you Americans have them for a slave wage in the mines and let them cut off their own hands." He insists that Nathan and his family "are stuck with the job of trying to make amends." Nathan, however, refuses to accept this responsibility, insisting that "American aid will be the Congo's salvation."

Nathan and Rachel accept and insist upon the supremacy of their position in Africa, but the other members of the Price family feel a sense of guilt. Orleanna articulates this emotion when she notes, "I was just one more of those women who clamp their mouths shut and wave the flag as their nation rolls off to conquer another in war." Leah tries to alleviate some of the damage by devoting herself to improving the lives of black Africans.

Free Will

Free will is a term used to describe one's ability to make choices independently of internal compulsions or external, environmental influences. Those who believe that humans can exercise free will reject the Puritanical notion of predestination. The issue of free will relates to the interactions between Nathan and his family and the Africans. When he tries to impose his interpretation of Christian doctrine on the villagers, they are able to resist his control since they have already established their own spiritual and cultural views. Nathan's wife and daughters, however, who have not had the opportunity to establish a strong sense of themselves outside the family, have allowed Nathan to take control of their lives.

Their experiences in the Congo eventually prompt Orleanna and Leah to stand up to Nathan and determine their own destiny. After Leah observes her father's self-serving motives in his interaction with the Africans, she refuses to allow him to control her behavior and begins to adopt some of the villagers' customs.

While Orleanna also recognizes Nathan's cruel treatment of the Africans and his family members, her movement toward independence occurs much more slowly. During one of her monologues to Ruth May, she tries to explain why she chose to stay in the Congo as long as she did: "I wonder what you'll name my sin: complicity? Loyalty? Stupefaction? How can you tell the difference? Is my sin a failure of virtue, or of competence. I knew Rome was burning, but I had just enough water to scrub the floor, so I did what I could." Gradually, however, she becomes strong enough to exercise some measure of free will as she makes active choices in her attempts to protect her children.

After the wars of independence begin, Orleanna gains the courage to question Nathan's authority as she tries to convince him to leave the Congo even though she knows she will face his wrath. When the ants invade the village, she is able to make the difficult choice of which daughter to save, determining, "When push comes to shove, a mother takes care of her children from the bottom up." Ruth's death causes Orleanna to break away completely from Nathan's dominance and to take control of her family's destiny. Kingsolver suggests that the desire to determine one's own destiny can be strong enough to overcome impediments to free will.