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The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Symbols



Methuselah, Brother Fowles's parrot, serves as a symbol for the Congo. Methuselah is an African gray parrot, so he should be free in the Congo, yet he is not. He is kept in a cage to do the white man's bidding. Human beings teach him things, but not things he needs to know. Methuselah learns English words, but most of them are meaningless to him. Humans do not teach him what he needs to know to survive on his own. Methuselah is abruptly freed when he no longer pleases his human master. He has one brief joyous moment of flight but is grounded by his atrophied wings. Eventually he is eaten because he cannot defend himself.

In the same way, the people of the Congo are not free because the Belgians and the Americans want the country's natural resources. They have effectively imprisoned the Congolese people, just as Methuselah is imprisoned. They teach the Congolese people to speak French and English and to believe in Jesus, but they do not provide any education that would prepare the Congolese to govern themselves as a nation in relation to other nations. The Congo is given its independence when it becomes too inconvenient for the Belgians to rule. Like Methuselah, the Congo has a brief moment of freedom before it descends into chaos—chaos partially provoked by the machinations of white men who hope to take it back. The Congo fails as a country, and is "eaten" and misused by the dictator Mobutu because it was unprepared to function on its own.

Nathan's Garden

Nathan tries—and fails—to grow a garden in Kilanga. The garden serves as a symbol of Nathan's good intentions and the way his faults ruin those intentions. His goal is to be generous, providing food to the Congolese people, and teaching them how to grow new and different crops. The garden never succeeds. First, the seeds are washed away because he does not "make hills," as Mama Tataba instructs him. After he replants the seeds, the plants grow, but never bear fruit. He realizes later there are no pollinators for these types of plants.

Nathan starts with good intentions, but refuses to learn from the Congolese. He is confident he knows what he was doing, although he never considers issues such as pollination. He is so convinced of his own superiority that he never tries to grow other plants, or to consult with the Congolese about how they maintain gardens. Later in the story Ruth May is buried in the remnants of his garden, a symbol of how the family's hopes and plans went terribly wrong.

Leah's Globe

One day when they are still getting to know each other, Leah discovers Anatole does not know the world is round. She offers to make him a globe using a calabash—a type of gourd. She has to paint it from memory, and admits she left out many details—including several mountain ranges—"but the Congo is exactly the right shape and size." Leah's handmade globe symbolizes several things: the thirst for knowledge she shares with Anatole; the challenges of life in the Congo; and the countries that are already beginning to matter most in Leah's life.

Anatole longs to know the shape of world. He is a grown man, a schoolteacher, someone eager to learn, and yet he doesn't know the world is round. This would be shocking to most Western readers. He wants to know. Leah asks him what he wishes more than anything in the world, and this is his wish—not more food, not to be rich, but to have his question answered. Leah respects that, and their shared passion for information and knowledge is part of what draws them together. The calabash globe also symbolizes the challenges of life in the Congo. Anatole had never seen any kind of globe before, and Leah has to make one from memory because no reliable sources are available. Since the globe is based on Leah's memory, it also shows how Leah's priorities are shifting. She neglects to include multiple European mountain ranges, but she gets the Congo's size and position correct. In contrast, most American students would struggle to find the Congo on a map.

Misprinted Bibles

Near the end of the book, Adah describes how she collects misprinted Bibles. The Bibles are famous because they include typos that misrepresent God's word. For example, one Bible suggests people "sin on more," instead of "sin no more," and another has people "murdering" when they should be "murmuring." Adah associates these misprinted Bibles with her father, who believed he was sharing the good and holy word of God when he was telling people all the wrong things. So Jesus and "poisonwood" are linked in a torturous way giving rise to the whole story.

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