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The Poisonwood Bible | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible | Themes



Guilt is a central theme of The Poisonwood Bible. In the first chapter, Orleanna says, "Most have no earthly notion of the price of a snow-white conscience." On one level, characters feel guilt for personal deeds and experiences. Nathan's missionary fervor is driven by guilt—he believes he should not have survived the war. Leah feels guilty for Adah's paralysis. Orleanna feels guilt for leaving Adah behind when the ants attack. All the women feel guilt over Ruth May's death.

On a larger scale, however, Kingsolver also explores the guilt white people share (or should feel) because of what has happened in Africa. Orleanna talks about herself as "the conqueror's wife." Later in the book, Leah complains about "a war in which white skin comes down on the wrong side." Part of her love for Anatole seems to be because he sees her as different from other white people.

Guilt also seems to be associated with knowledge and innocence. In the Bible, Adam and Eve became guilty only after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. People often associate guilt with knowledge—small children "don't know any better." In this novel, Kingsolver dismantles this argument, at least insofar as it applies to adult Americans and Europeans. "Some of us know how we came by our fortune," Orleanna says, "and some of us don't, but we wear it all the same." The thoughtful members of the family—Orleanna, Leah, and Adah—feel guilt about how Africans suffer for white people's mistakes. The less thoughtful—Nathan and Rachel—do not. Ruth May becomes the sacrifice for their knowledge. Orleanna says, "I would be no different ... if I hadn't paid my own little part in blood." Their guilty feelings about Ruth May's death mix with their guilt over the destruction of Africa.

The book's climax—Ruth May's death—occurs almost halfway through the book because Kingsolver wants to explore these questions of guilt. How do these women live with their guilt about Ruth May and their guilt about Africa? Leah binds herself irrevocably to the Congo; Rachel tries to pretend it never happened; Adah and Orleanna, although back in the U.S., are also marked; Adah researches tropical diseases; Orleanna grieves for Ruth May but also marches for civil rights and raises money for African causes. Kingsolver seems to suggest the best way to live with guilt is to do something real about its cause.

Woman's Place

In this novel, Kingsolver explores where a woman belongs in this world of religion and danger and guilt. Orleanna initiates the conversation in the first chapter, asking, "What is the conqueror's wife, if not a conquest herself?" Up until Ruth May's death, women's roles are defined largely by the men around them. Nathan decrees his daughters will not go to college, so they aren't going. Nathan won't allow anyone to question him, not even his wife. His word is law, because he is the man of the house. Leah can help Anatole teach school, but some of the boys won't listen to her. Anatole explains, "You are a girl. These boys are not accustomed to obeying their own grandmothers." Tata Ndu, the chief, tries to negotiate to take Rachel as a wife, but insists she go through female circumcision. Tata Kuvudundu, the witch doctor, wants to keep Leah from hunting. Even Nelson, their friend, insults Tata Ndu's bad shot by calling him "a woman." A woman's place, therefore, is narrowly defined by what men permit her to do.

Once Ruth May dies, things change. Each of the remaining Price women make their own choices, defying Nathan and African culture and anyone else they have to. Orleanna leaves Nathan behind. Rachel engages in a series of sexual affairs and devotes her life to pleasure and making money, two things Nathan rejected. Leah first lives with, then marries, Anatole, becoming a permanent symbol of what a white woman in the 1960s was not supposed to do. Adah goes off to college, which Nathan forbade, and becomes a career woman at a time when American girls were still expected to stay home and raise babies. The women find their own interpretations of "a woman's place," but it takes an extraordinary event to move them outside of societal norms.

Lost in Translation

Arrogance makes it difficult to communicate across language and cultural barriers. From the moment the Price family arrives in the Congo, they struggle to communicate. Many of these struggles stem from Nathan's conviction of his own righteousness. He fails to appreciate the welcome feast because he is offended by bare-breasted women. He rejects Mama Tataba's advice on gardening until his approach fails. He uses Anatole as a translator only when he realizes his own words are not persuading anyone.

The difficulties are not solely linguistic but also cultural. Anatole and Tata Ndu both try to explain the Congolese preference for consensus rather than elections. When explained to an attentive listener, the Congolese approach is understandable, yet the American government complains when Lumumba fails to control the Congo adequately. Control wasn't the goal in Lumumba's mind: he wanted consensus.

Even when speaking the same language, things can be "lost in translation." Adah is particularly sensitive to things left unsaid. She notes later in the book that Anatole also observes these things. After they are married, Leah can speak to Anatole in three different languages, but in all three they must be careful to say the right things and use the right names. Adah spies on Eeben Axelroot, whose messages from the U.S. government are delivered in code, another barrier.

Nuances of language can be lost in translation. In Nathan's oral phrasing, Jesus might be precious or poisonwood. Many examples are given throughout of words that have multiple possible meanings and can cause much confusion. Anatole also tells Leah she is a different person when speaking Lingala (the language spoken throughout northern Congo) than when speaking English. People cannot avoid difficulties of translation, Kingsolver seems to suggest, but they must listen carefully. Careful listening requires respect for the other person, and his or her point of view—something unfortunately lacking in many American conversations with, and about, African nations.

Questions for Themes

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Three literary devices that describe a thematic idea in Macbeth - with two examples of each
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