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The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Quotes


Most have no earthly notion of the price of a snow-white conscience.

Orleanna, Book 1, Section 1

In the first section of the book, Orleanna establishes one of its major themes: guilt. People who believe they are innocent, Orleanna argues, are simply uninformed. Orleanna suggests everyone is guilty simply by virtue of being human. Humans do horrible things to other humans, and they all share responsibility.


If I'd of had the foggiest idea ... We brought all the wrong things.

Orleanna, Book 1, Section 2 (Parts 9–11)

At this moment Orleanna recognizes how ill prepared their family was for the Congo. She acknowledges the failure and is open to learning from the villagers. Nathan, on the other hand, never admits this type of failing and never wants to learn from anyone. It is a stark revelation of the differences between the two characters.


I sensed that the sun was going down on many things I believed in.

Leah, Book 1, Section 2 (Parts 9–11)

Leah sits with her father as he ponders the failure of his garden and his mistake about baptizing children in the river. She is shaken because Nathan is not infallible. He does not know everything, particularly in Africa, and he needs help. This is a revelation for Leah, and it makes her uneasy. This is the first shift in her idolization of her father, although it takes much of the book before she really accepts him as a flawed human being.


I could never work out whether ... to view religion as ... life-insurance policy or ... life sentence.

Orleanna, Book 2, Section 1

Orleanna expresses confusion about the two conflicting images of God: an angry God who punishes, and a gentle God who forgives. In the same way, she cannot decide whether religion should be viewed as something to help protect a person (life insurance) or as part of their punishment (life sentence). Kingsolver repeatedly explores the idea of these two different Gods: Nathan's God, the punisher, and another God, the gentle one, described throughout the book by Brother Fowles and other positive characters not plagued by guilt.


We ... offered to feed their children to the crocodiles ... for them to know the Kingdom.

Adah, Book 2, Section 2 (Parts 5–8)

Adah has a particularly dry way of stating things and seems to enjoy some of her father's failings. In this section she discusses how so many white people judge the Congolese, just as Nathan has. Adah thinks white people see themselves as innocent, just doing good deeds for the ignorant and godless native people.

To the Congolese, however, white people like Nathan have offered to do terrible things to their children to honor a god the Congolese do not know. Why would the Congolese trust white people?


The gods you do not pay are the ones that can curse you best.

Nelson, Book 3, Section 2 (Parts 1–3)

Nelson, the Price family's Congolese servant, has interesting conversations with the girls. In this instance, he and Leah are discussing the idea of God cursing people. Nelson interprets the Biblical story of Job as God cursing Job, and Leah tries to explain. Nelson warns Leah that African gods may be cursing her family, and Leah tries to reassure him by insisting they do not "pay" (believe in) those gods.

Nelson's response foreshadows the tragedy still to come. Whether or not the Prices want to admit it, Africa will extract a sacrifice from them, and their family will shatter because of it.


Our childhood had passed over into history overnight. The transition ... unnoticed by anyone but ourselves.

Adah, Book 3, Section 2 (Parts 4–6)

When Orleanna becomes depressed and Ruth May grows ill, the other three girls have to work together to care for the family. They abruptly become adults but receive no praise or sympathy for it. Leah had already noticed that childhood, as Americans understand it, was virtually nonexistent for the Congolese. To them, the Price girls were overdue to begin taking responsibility. Within their own family, Nathan didn't pay attention to them anyway—he cared only about himself—and Orleanna and Ruth May were too ill to care.


It's frightening when things you love appear suddenly changed from what you have always known.

Leah, Book 3, Section 2 (Parts 4–6)

Leah describes pushing a lethargic Ruth May on the swing, and seeing an optical illusion that makes her legs look like antelope legs. Although she knows it isn't real, it makes Leah uneasy, and she comments on how she feels about changes in what she loves.

Of course Africa is changing everything Leah has loved. She learns to question—and ultimately defy—her father. Her faith changes, and she begins to fall in love with a Congolese man. She is changing, just as everything else changes, but the shifts frighten her.


If it's all up to him ... shouldn't protection be part of the bargain?

Leah, Book 3, Section 2 (Parts 7–9)

Leah admits she is beginning to doubt her father. He insists on keeping them all in the Congo after it becomes independent, but he does nothing to care for any of them, not even when Ruth May and Orleanna get sick.

Leah wants to continue believing in her father, but she wonders why he gets to insist they all stay without doing anything to help. This doubting of her father increases until she finally breaks with him forever after Ruth May's death.


The pain in my household seemed plenty large enough to fill the whole world.

Orleanna, Book 4, Section 1

Orleanna contrasts the events of her family—Ruth May's illness, Rachel's anger over her birthday, and so on—with the larger world events of Prime Minister Lumumba's arrest and eventual assassination. Orleanna understands how serious these world events are, but at the time she was so busy looking out for her family that she didn't worry about the big picture. She feels guilty about it now, but she serves as an example to the reader of how easy it can be for anyone to get caught up in his or her own life and fail to appreciate the bigger picture.


God doesn't need to punish us. He ... grants us ... long enough life to punish ourselves.

Leah, Book 4, Section 2 (Parts 1–2)

Leah acknowledges the village—and the Price family—went through an awful time. She says people can look for reasons, but the truth is that people punish themselves far more than God ever could. Leah says she learned this from Anatole, and her parents demonstrated the truth of it.


The substance of grief is not imaginary. It's as real as rope ... It can kill.

Orleanna, Book 5, Section 1

Orleanna is shaped by grief throughout the book. Every time she speaks directly to the reader, she is really speaking to Ruth May. She cannot forgive herself for Ruth May's death, and she lives the rest of her life acting out her grief.


I tell them I came from a country that no longer exists.

Leah, Book 5, Section 2 (Parts 6–7)

Leah remains in the Congo and marries Anatole. She is frequently confronted by the mistakes and the cruelty of Americans and other white people who have tried to exploit the Congo. Although she was once proud of her country, her religion, and her father, Leah has, in effect, largely renounced all of them.


If I can't yet mourn a million people ... I'll start with one.

Leah, Book 5, Section 2 (Parts 6–7)

Leah and Anatole both grieve on the same day. Leah mourns Ruth May's death, while Anatole mourns for Prime Minister Lumumba, assassinated the same day.

Leah understands how her grief for Ruth May represents another aspect of her white privilege: African families lose children often, and they do not expect the world to grieve with them. She wants to embrace Anatole's view, but since she still grieves for Ruth May, she considers this a starting point.


If chained is where you have been, your arms will always bear marks of ... shackles.

Adah, Book 5, Section 2 (Parts 12–13)

Adah and Orleanna discuss Nathan's death. Orleanna is angry because no one wanted to talk about Nathan or Ruth May—people just pretended they didn't exist. Adah acknowledges that the Congo as a country has also tried to cover up the difficult parts of its history. However, she feels this is a mistake. She uses the image of arms scarred from chains to make her point. If a person pretends not to be scarred, Adah argues, that person gives up an opportunity to craft a life story that includes those scars.

Pretending the Congo was not mistreated by white people, or pretending the Price family was not mistreated by Nathan, might be more convenient for some people, but it doesn't help the scarred persons when they must face what happened.

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