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Literature Study GuidesThe Poisonwood BibleBook 4 Section 2 Parts 9 11 Summary

The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Book 4, Section 2 (Parts 9–11) : Bel and the Serpent (What We Lost, Kilanga, January 17, 1961) | Summary




Leah says they heard a strange sound: "A gulp and a sob and a scream all at once, the strangest cry." She thinks Ruth May is scared and tries to comfort her. They watch as Ruth May's face turns blue. Nelson pushes Leah aside, and rips Ruth May's dress open. He shouts for help, but it's too late. They all stare at the marks on Ruth May's shoulder: the green mamba has bitten her, and she dies in front of them.


Adah thinks of the Emily Dickinson poem, "Because I could not stop for Death." She describes how Ruth May stopped breathing and curled up. Adah compares it to birth in reverse.


Rachel thinks of telling their mother, but none of them can face it. Rachel explains they had believed they could get through their time in Africa and "pretend the Congo never happened." After Ruth May's death, they now know that won't be possible.


Kingsolver has foreshadowed this moment throughout the book. But when it happens, even the reader tries not to believe it. It looked like the snake got away without hurting them. But a green mamba strikes quickly.

A green mamba is one of the most poisonous snakes in Africa. Its venom causes respiratory paralysis, which explains why Ruth May's face turns blue. Interestingly, the green mamba's venom is reported to kill someone in under half an hour, but Ruth May dies within seconds. She may die more quickly because she is young and weak already, plus the snake bite was close to her heart and lungs. Nelson acts as if they can save her, but it's unclear if they really could have.

The other girls' reactions provide insight into their character. Leah is distracted by the buttons falling off Ruth May's shirt: she thinks like a parent now and worries she will need to sew the buttons back on. Adah provides a clinical blow-by-blow of Ruth May's death. She tries to be objective, but almost mocks her own taste in literature, quoting Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death—he kindly stopped for me." Death stopped for Ruth May, not for Adah. Adah saved herself, but not Ruth May. She is less outwardly emotional, but no less affected.

Rachel, for once, acts unselfishly. The thought of telling her mother is what breaks her down. Sometimes talking about a tragedy makes it feel real, and Rachel states the illogical but totally relatable idea: "If we stood ... without moving forever ... we could keep our family the way it was." Rachel has a heartfelt, almost wistful quality as she describes hoping Africa wouldn't derail her life, even though she knows it already has.

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