Poisonwood Bible Essay, Research Paper
Barbara Kingsolver is the author of many well-written pieces of literature including The Poisonwood Bible. This novel explores the beauty and hardships that exist in the Belgian Congo in 1959. Told by the wife and four daughters of a fierce Baptist, Nathan Price, Kingsolver clearly captures the realities this family and mission went through during their move to the Congo. The four daughters were raised in Atlanta Georgia in the 1950’s therefore entering the Congo with preconceived racial beliefs, and a very different way of life than they would soon experience. Throughout The Poisonwood Bible Kingsolver explores the importance and impact of faith, and a religion based on your own private beliefs.
Orleanna Price, the wife and mother, of this struggling family is a very honest woman, lacking some of the stronger religious background of which her husband possesses. Orleanna, struggles with the hardships of daily life; toting and disinfecting the family’s water, scrambling to make ends meet and trying to protect her family from the myriad terrors of the bush. Orleanna uses irony to describe the early days of her marriage. As she describes them, the days when there was still room for laughter in her husband’s evangelical calling, before her pregnancies embarrassed him, before he returned from World War II a different man, a man who planned ”to save more souls than had perished on the road from Bataan.” Her husband, Nathan Price, had escaped those miseries simply by luck, and knowing it curled his heart ”like a piece of hard shoe leather.” As her husband continually preaches the good Lord’s word, she is faced with what seems to her to be the more important burdens of life, survival and keeping her family safe and sane. She doesn’t appear to have nearly so strong of a religious background as her husband would have hoped for her, however, throughout the novel it is made quite clear that she is in fact a better person than her husband could have ever hoped to be. Her daughter, Leah, captures her mothers religion very well when she says, “my father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers, while our mother’s is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit.” This quote is very true, as her father is the evangelical missionary leader who parades his religion around, as he craves for the reputation of being a “good person,” because he preaches the bible. Orleanna does nothing of the sort she worships the lord, because she believes in him, and his word, she does not praise him, simply to look good. As Mathew 6:1 states, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven,” Nathan Price, is very hypocritical as he does his good deeds to be noticed, while Orleanna does them out of faith and moral righteousness.
Rachel is the oldest of the four daughters, at 15 years of age, the whiny would-be beauty queen who “cares for naught but appearances,” can think only of what she misses: the five-day deodorant pads she forgot to bring, flush toilets, machine-washed clothes and other things, as she says with her willful gift for malapropism, that she has taken “for granted,” the bible and her faith were no where near the top of her list. Her only way of surviving in the Congo was simply to not adapt at all; as she says ”The way I see Africa, you don’t have to like it but you sure have to admit it’s out there. You have your way of thinking and it has its, and never the train ye shall meet!” Thi
quote not only applies to her views of the Congo, but also of her views on religion. While growing up with her father, her religion was forced upon her, as for their punishment the children were sentenced to “the verse”, in which they were required to right out one hundred lines direct from the bible by memory. She doesn’t seem to enjoy the idea of faith, but there is no doubt that she realizes it’s there. Rachel chose to live a very superficial life in the Congo, as she leaves behind not only a life in America, but her religion also.
As for the youngest, 5-year old Ruth May, she brightly tries to make sense of the exotic new world in which she finds herself, even as she makes friends with the children of Kilanga. Through her games of “Mother May I?” she becomes accepted and loved by the Congolese people, and for this reason the other members of the family seem to be jealous of her; for in her childish ways she seems to be the only one accepted by the Congolese people. Ruth May, is the innocent whose words betray the guilty; she is the catalyst that splits the Price family apart. Her religion is found in her innocence, which protects her from the hardships around her. At five years of age, she doesn’t fully understand the bible, or the messages conveyed within it, but God is clearly present in her free-willed spirit that allows her purity to bless those around her. As she plays her childish games, it is as if the Congolese can feel her altruistic spirit therefore they choose to accompany her, when they wouldn’t give any other whites a chance to prove themselves. Ruth May is symbol of how God works in the lives of those who do not have the opportunity to reject him, for out of ignorance only they do not follow him.
Leah, a feisty tomboy, pledges herself to her father’s mission in the face of mounting opposition. She tries with all of her might to be accepted by her father, until she finally realizes what kind of a person her father truly is. Leah’s struggle then becomes the challenge to rebalance herself morally when she finally comes to the realization that her father is simply “an ugly man.” She sees that her father’s ”blue eyes with their left-sided squint, weakened by the war, had a vacant look. His large reddish ears repelled me. My father was a simple, ugly man.” Within her earlier years she practiced her religion in many of her father’s ways, however, as she realizes her fathers true spirit she wanders from this path and chooses to practice her religion, as she feels necessary. Leah not only becomes wed to a Congolese man, Anatole, but to the continent itself; however, she does not fail to come to the conclusion that, ‘‘everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place. Especially here.” Although she sees many problems within the Congolese nation she remains there, because of her love for Anatole. It is in this way that she practices her faith, through the eyes of her father, many problems with the Baptist religion were presented to her, however out of her love for God she remained a very religious person. Leah’s religion is a clear example of what faith should be, undying regardless of the difficulties that may stem from that choice.
Adah, damaged since birth and unable (or unwilling) to speak, records her observations of her family with a shrewd poetic intelligence; she is a verbal gymnast, a dedicated diarist, and a profound skeptic. Adah feels somewhat jealous, and irritated with her twin sister, Leah, as she describes how she got her condition. “Oh, I can easily imagine the fetal mishap,” she says, “we were inside the womb together dum-de-dum when Leah suddenly turned and declared, Adah you are just too slow. I am taking all the nourishment here and going on ahead. She grew strong as I grew weak. (Yes! Jesus loves me!) And so it came to pass, in the Eden of our mother’s womb, I was cannibalized by my sister.” Her condition is hemiplegia, which simply means that she is
aralyzed on one half. While referring to her father she feels as if he viewed her condition as, “God’s Christmas bonus to one of his worthier employees.” For Adah, adaptation comes in the form of unforgiving self-discovery, the realization that ”even the crooked girl believed her own life was precious.” Adah chose to remain mute within the earlier years of her life, therefore creating her own beliefs from the beginning, she was never forced to agree with her father; for they didn’t believe she possessed the verbal abilities to do so. However, she was very intelligent and religious, as she refers to the bible within many of her entries in The Poisonwood Bible. Adah chose to make a dedicated commitment to Christ within the earlier stages of her life, a commitment that stayed with her eternally.
Nathan Price narrates nothing, and yet his character is very clearly defined and developed through the females in his family. He is a fiery evangelical missionary, very similar to, Roger Chillingworth, the coldhearted, and judgmental villain of Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter.” Both characters believe themselves to be very holy in spirit, when in reality they are closer to the gates of Hell than the Serpent in the Garden of Eden is to sin. Although the Congolese people are reluctant to abandon their traditional deities (and fearful of baptizing their children in the crocodile-infested waters of the nearby river), Nathan vows to convert them. He proves equally oblivious to the welfare of his own family when he refuses their entreaties to leave, even in the face of illness and escalating violence against whites. Indeed he will end up sacrificing the life of one of his daughters, as well as the value of his own, to his self-righteous beliefs. As Nathan’s faith was superficial and to the benefit strictly of himself he was denied the bliss of a life with Christ.
The Congolese People also portrayed a very dedicated view of religion. As Nathan committed his entire life to converting them to his God, he failed to realize that they already did believe. For the Congolese were a faithful nation, they just were oblivious to the actual being of “God.” This was an idea Nathan Price could not comprehend, for the Baptist faith was the only faith he had ever been presented with, or given the knowledge of. The Congolese People simply knew God by a different name, many different names actually, but all of them combined created the same image of what Nathan Price believed in, God. These people helped to show the different forms of which our God takes on, many cultures may appear to be non-believers but in reality each society’s God aims for the same goals.
As this novel is told entry by entry, narrated by the women of the family a clear picture of life in the Congo is very accurately represented as well as the influences of faith on each character. Leah clearly points out, “We’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Each of us, she adds, “got our heart buried in six feet of African dirt; we are all co-conspirators here.” This is true of each and every character throughout the novel, as their faith is altered and influenced by the events within their stay in the Belgian Congo. Kingsolver presents to her reader many separate versions of faith, from Nathan’s forever devoted, to Orleanna’s incredibly subtle but morally strong. While reading the passages narrated by the women of the family it is realized, that without your own personal beliefs a life filled with success is unfathomable.