Poisonwood Bible Character Analysis Essay
Most critics consider The Poisonwood Bible to be Barbara Kingsolver’s most ambitious and serious work. The book’s narrative develops out of Kingsolver’s conviction that life is political on all levels. Her other novels showcase social or political wrongs on a small scale. The Poisonwood Bible is global in its perspective and involves matters of faith, cultural negation, colonial power, psychological and physical domestic abuse, and American interference in the internal workings of a nation neither cared about nor really understood by these same Americans. All these themes intersect in the lives of one family from Bethlehem, Georgia, who arrive in Africa with a misguided sense of their importance and mission.
Critics agree on the political commentary in the novel, but they differ in their assessments of how significant that commentary is in the end. To highlight how Kingsolver uses her characters to generate ideas about the colonial presence of Westerners in Africa, it will be helpful to consider the members of the Price family, and the story’s male characters, individually. In addition to furthering the plot, each character contributes a perspective that suggests wider implications for the story as a whole.
The four Price girls represent a range of responses to life in Africa. The self-centered approach of Rachel, the eldest daughter, leads her to exploit every circumstance or person to make her own life more palatable, that is, less African. Her never-ending sense of entitlement, along with her manipulative and forceful behavior, sets her up as a symbol of colonial power. She marries repeatedly to further her cause, using men the way the United States used the Congolese to further its own cause during the Congo’s struggle for independence. At novel’s end, Rachel owns a hotel in South Africa that serves a white clientele only. Her racist life typifies the colonial practice of taking care of the privileged classes, making a profit, and disdaining the country and people who make that profit possible.
Well-intentioned Leah is an American who is ready and able to appreciate the Congo’s language, customs, and people. Her sense of mission never overwhelms her ability to absorb Congolese life or her willingness to understand the world she is discovering. Leah remains in Africa, married to Anatole Ngemba, a teacher. With his extended family and their own sons they struggle to survive in an economy riddled with corruption and the effects of long-term poverty. Anatole is politically active and is in and out of jail, his existence precarious. Congo struggles with internal divisions and reels under the influence of the self-serving U.S. government, which sponsors the country’s dictatorship in exchange for certain natural resources. Leah “lives” Africa in a way her father never could, or would. Her route to redemption features grassroots political activity based on what is best for the African people and not on what is best for politicians, governments, or religious zealots.
Leah’s twin, Adah, physically disabled and unable to communicate well with others, acts as a type of underground conscience for the book. She rarely speaks out in the story, but her cryptic musings about the Price family’s interactions with each other and with the members of the village “congregation” call Nathan’s godliness into question—and call into question his ability to parent with compassion and wisdom. Adah’s thoughts and palindromic utterances condemn the presence of the Prices in Africa, calling attention to the hypocrisy, cruelty, and irrelevance of Nathan’s message and actions. Ultimately, Adah finds her voice and becomes a physician devoted to the study of viruses prevalent on the African continent. Her path to wholeness emerges as she makes important discoveries about the Ebola virus and AIDS/HIV. Science helps her frame a philosophy of life that incorporates not only her own past but also the past of Africa and its environment, the past of medicine, and the history of medical research.
The twins present two types of moral force: Leah’s politically active life keeps her directly involved with the fate of Congo. Adah’s medical work contributes substantially, but more obliquely than Leah’s activity, to the quality of life on the African continent. The twins represent the determination of Westerners to contribute to Africa and its peoples in positive ways.
The very young Ruth May becomes a symbol for the effects of uncompromising domination on those unable to resist. She exemplifies the most openhearted and naïve white presence in the novel. Her death shows dramatically that the ill-prepared can be struck down by forces they do not understand. Her presence typifies those who enter Africa naïvely, learn some local “culture,” such as games and language, and yet show no real concern or disdain for the social forces around them. Ruth May represents those who can be felled by forces they, or their elders, fail to comprehend. By making Ruth May a youngster, Kingsolver has heightened the poignancy of the child’s death. Ruth May, a casualty of her father’s calling, may be the single exception to Leah’s comment that “We have in this story the ignorant, but no innocents.”
Orleanna, caring for her household, becomes complicit in Nathan’s outrageous and harmful dealings with his family and the village congregation because she fails to stand up to him—and fails to do so until it is too late for Ruth May. None of Orleanna’s methods of coping or finding meaning in life transfers to her life in Africa, where her appeasing ways shore up nothing but Nathan’s autocratic behavior. Her leaving him marks the start of a new life, one defined by self-determination rather than obedience. Her survival in the United States illustrates the ability of the self-aware to save themselves even after great trauma. The resilience of thinking women is a recurring Kingsolver theme.
The men in The Poisonwood Bible also display Western ways of thinking about Africa. Nathan’s hard-hearted pursuit of righteousness makes him an overbearing husband, father, and pastor—an authority figure inspiring fear and mockery, not respect or allegiance. He views Africans as children, incapable of subtlety or self-help. On the other hand, Brother Fowles’s respect for African ways allies him with Leah and Adah as a character devoted to positive change in the Congo. He is the better person, and Nathan, their father, is the enemy.
Eeben Axelroot is a white South African-born bush pilot. His exploitive behavior springs from his sense of entitlement and an understanding of the power he can wield. The self-serving use of his talents brings him money and influence in a limited sphere. He is worse than Nathan because he exploits with intention. Nathan exploits from a platform of moral righteousness, blind to the Congolese society he seeks to redeem. Rachel marries Eeben to escape the fate of being her father’s daughter and living in dirt and chaos. Eeben is the first of Rachel’s husbands, all of whom end up supporting white privilege at the expense of Africans. Rachel embraces this materialistic philosophy, which makes her worse than Nathan; she exploits without even the pretense of faith’s moral underpinnings.
Themes spotlighting the morality of the Western missionary, the nature of goodness, and the trauma of political upheaval and colonial hubris weave throughout The Poisonwood Bible. Some critics find that the lens of the Price family is too limiting, that the novel is too domestic for serious consideration as a text dealing with political destiny the interference of the U.S. government in the Congo’s internal affairs. Other critics read the novel in the context of Kingsolver’s political activism and, thereby, understand her intent.
This novel took Kingsolver fifteen years to complete, much of that time devoted to collecting material and mulling over the deeper issues. Kingsolver wrote other books while moving toward the epic scope of this story, a cautionary tale about the trespasses of Western governments in the Congo and about America’s role in the tragedies that ensued.
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Nathan Price is the one major character who is never given a voice of his own in the course of the novel. He is seen only through the eyes of his wife and daughters, yet he is the mechanism that gets them to the Congo and the domineering force around which their lives revolves. He is cruel, insensitive, arrogant, cold, and obstinate in the extreme, but in spite of these characteristics which only intensify as the story progresses, he does have occasional flashes of insight that would have value if expressed in a different more loving manner. He is a tragic villain for his actions are the result of a sincere belief that he is serving God to the point of self-sacrifice. His motivation-life-long search for forgiveness for his own cowardice-may be a result of fanaticism in his pre-war days or even an effect of his head injury. Nevertheless, while we see Nathan as a force that leads his family to disaster and accomplishes more negative than positive among his intended flock, his motivation is genuine and all consuming. As each new attempt to reach the African people fails, Nathan is doomed to cave in on himself a little more, believing that he has failed the test of righteousness.
Orleanna is Nathans wife and the lead voice of the novel. Each of the first five books begins with Orleanna as she tries to piece together the situations and events that culminated in the death of her youngest. She does her best to mother her daughters but did not have the strength she needed to counteract the negative influence of Nathan. Her character is more complex than her influence over her daughters would seem to indicate. As an individual within her family, she is weak, merely going along with whatever Nathan expects and trying to maintain a normal if not always happy home. She makes no major decisions until the moment when she leaves the Congo and only expresses her opinion by implication and by slamming dishes around. Although she does beg Nathan to take them back to the States, she in unable to get him to even pay attention when Ruth May is close to death.
On the other hand, her role in the story telling process is strong and unifying. As a storyteller, she fills in the gaps between what the other narrators saw and what they fully understood. She explains the role of women in a male chauvinist society in which the white, middle class home was a miniature version of a nations politics and the underdog countries were at the mercy of decisions made by dominant states in the same way that a woman was subject to her husbands demands and wishes. In the 60's and 70's women in many areas were just beginning to realize that they could and ought to have more authority in their own homes. Thus, while Orleanna appears to be a weak character in the context of the plot, she is a complex part of the story telling team, simultaneously filling the roles of character in her own story, commentator, and social critic.
The oldest child of the family, Rachel had the longest exposure to modern American conveniences and, ironically, the least amount of attention from her pre-occupied parents. Since her family moved frequently and was never financially stable, Rachels notions of high society and her personal vanity are a bit of a mystery. One conclusion that can be drawn is that Rachel has her fathers temperament without her fathers guilt. She is capable of divorcing herself from any sense of responsibility for a situation she did not choose for herself. At the same time, she has the tenacity to simultaneously despise and survive along with a peculiar ability to tap into only as much of her own intelligence as she needs to accomplish her own ends. Ignorance is her physical salvation in a climate hostile to whites. Deliberate arrogance is her emotional stability in a situation, which has isolated her from the people who should mean the most to her.
Leah is the embodiment of her mothers compassion and her fathers determination. She is also exceptionally intelligent and very capable of making up her own mind. In the beginning of the story, she exerts a lot of energy in trying to say the things her father wants to hear and in trying to believe in what he is doing. However, she sees contradictions very early-for example in the inhumanity of telling Tata Boanda he would have to get rid of one of his wives. Leah is the most capable of giving and receiving love, but struggles with some guilt over her sister. Later in the story, she feels ironically guilty for being white.
Leahs primary fault is that she can be impetuous and sometimes speaks or acts without thinking. She is ready to stand up for what she believes, but doesnt always stop to think about the source of her opinion. A good example is the hunt. Is her motivation solely to acquire food for her family, or is she also mindful of an opportunity to show that she can do something no one else in her family-or even the village can do. Given the cultural traditions, it is logical to assume that her family would have received some of the meat from a successful hunt, perhaps even more than the meager quarter of antelope they ended up with. Furthermore, the division over her insistence on participating created a major conflict within the community; she did not ask whether or not her independence was really worth the consequences.
Leah is also intensely loyal. She tries to defend her father even though she sees the humor and irony in some of his methods. When she can no longer believe in what he is doing. She looks to Anatole. Her relationship with him may be initially gratitude and friendship, but that grows into love. She never complains about hardships of life in the Congo and never finds fault with Anatoles beliefs or activities. She is a loyal and devoted partner who develops her own life, but also never forgets her twin sister and mother. She returns to the States for a visit when possible and gives her boys opportunity to get acquainted with their grandmother.
Adah grows up with a series of misconceptions that she realizes later. She is insightful, extremely intelligent, and creative, but she believes the world sees her as defective and therefore of less value than her siblings. Her impressions are at least partially created via the attitudes and treatment at the hands of adults. As a child she was placed in a class for mentally retarded because of her crippled side and apparent inability to talk. She felt the frustration exhibited by parents of other children who had to acknowledge that the crippled child could out-perform their own children. She also experienced rejection at the hands of her Sunday school teacher when she questioned the wisdom of a God who would condemn people because of their skin color or place of birth.
Although Adah can talk if she wants to, she communicates primarily by writing her comments and questions. This forces her companions to communicate on her terms. And, since she has already decided that she wants no part of her fathers religion, she is more open minded toward concepts and cultures of the Africans. Her own disability gives her an appreciation for hardships that other people overcome.
Ruth May is the baby of the family. Her exact age is unclear, but Orleanna implies that she is six or more years younger than the twins, and the other girls refer to her as "our baby sister." She is old enough to be able to read fairy tales, but young enough for babyishly literal interpretations of her fathers words and is small enough for her mother to carry her when the ants attack. A reasonable guess seems to be that she might be about 8. In any case, she is a precocious youngster, observant, friendly, and sympathetic. She is a static character and functions primarily as the mechanism for holding the women of the family together and driving them apart upon her death. She is the innocent recipient of everyones love, the catalyst that reaches the hearts of even the African chief when she is hurt. Although she is a flat character herself, she is has significant importance in the activities and focus of Orleanna and her sisters.
Anatoles primary importance is in his function as a mediator for the Price family and in his role in Leahs life. When she realizes that her father has emotionally abandoned the family, Leah turns to Anatole. Although he is not cold or calloused like her father, Anatole at first refuses her love, forcing her to find some way other than words to accept her. We never hear from Anatole himself, but his presence and understanding of his people creates a foil for the continuously bungling Nathan. He is a quiet force for good that everyone in the family accepts except Rachel whose primary hang-up is his color.
It seems impossible to do other than view the Congo as a vast, silent character in the novel. Her voice comes through in the cycles of the jungle, in the traditions of the people which are closely allied with the demands of the land itself, in the variety of plants and animals, and in the triumphs and hardships of a people whose simplicity has often been mistaken for ignorance. Adah and Leah both observed that in Africa, it seemed as if the Congo owned the people. The natives exhibit a unique, if un-discussed, respect for the land; it is no less than the land demands and those who spurn such respect pay a hefty price.
The Congo is like an organism itself; its a gigantic parasite that gets a grip on the intruders and does not let go even if they manage to leave. She beckons and teases with her vast mineral wealth, punishes with her intense climate conditions and poisonous plant and animal life, and fights for her own identity through a unique and beautiful people who are her very soul. The Kilanga word "muntu" for all-spirit seems the most accurate expression after all.
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