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This novel by Barbara Kingsolver is the story of an American family in the Congo. The father, Nathan Price is a Baptist missionary who takes his family to the Congo in 1959 to convert the savages. The story is told through the voices of his four daughters and his wife. Kingslover’s use of five distinct voices allows her to offer multiple viewpoints on the events of the novel. The novel also contains the story of the Congo’s independence form Belgium, the murder of the first president, Patrice Lumumba (only 51 days after independence), and the American involvement that installed a dictator (Mobutu) who would rule in terror until 1997. It is a novel that asks us to examine our own roles in colonization.

The Price Family

Nathan Price : a tyrant who is so disconnected from reality that he seems to barely notice his family being struck down by malaria and hunger, and can’t fathom why the village women won’t let him dip their children in a river with crocodiles that have been known to eat children.

Orleanna Price : The mother of the family, she struggles to keep her daughters alive, and leaves the Congo filled with guilt for the one she left.

Rachel Price : An unrepentant colonizer. She arrives in the Congo reluctantly, wanting nothing more from life than a sweet sixteen party and a pink mohair sweater set. Spouts fabulous malapropisms such as “In America we have a system of marriage and it is called monotony" or "a tapestry of justice".

Leah Price : She follows her father to the Congo seeking his approval, but she stays for herself, and to try to help right some of the wrongs done to the Congo by America.

Adah Price : The one with the slant, lacking kakakaka (Kikongo for hurrying up) spouting Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams and her own palindromes and backwards hymns (oh god, dog ho!) She is the one that doesn’t speak. Adah pokes fun at her father and the Bible.

Ruth May : The child, the innocent whose voice reveals the horror of racism with her misunderstandings and such statements as “Jimmy Crow says that, and he makes the laws” and “Their day for the Zoo is Thursday. That’s in the Bible.”

So much more to say about this book, just read it, it’s wonderful!

"And God said unto them,
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,
and subdue it: and have dominion
over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air,
and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
(Genesis 1:28)

The mid-twentieth century Western world, eyeing hungrily the ripe Congo, prowled the region looking to uphold the legacy of tyranny and exploitation fathered fifty years before by King Lèopold II of Belgium. World superpowers bludgeoned Africa with Christianity and other symbols of Western cultural 'superiority'. As rubber, cobalt, and diamond Jesuses danced atop a country stripped of its autonomy, the Congolese struggled and finally wrested their independence back...for fifty-one days. President Eisenhower had smelled 'Communist' in the Congo's newly elected Patrice Lumumba (and no doubt was aware of the surrounding natural resources) and consequently had masterminded a CIA coup that installed the anti-communist but power-hungry Mobutu Sese Seko.

The five women in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible—Orleanna Price and her four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May—find themselves set against this political backdrop in 1959. They have been dragged into the Congo by Nathan Price, head of the household and fiery Bible-thumper who trumpets the words Civilize, proselytize, Christianize! Toting along number-2 pencils and Betty Crocker cake mixes, they are jarred by sharp dissimilarities between the jungle setting and their hometown of Bethlehem, Georgia. The contrast between American and Congolese lifestyles and beliefs illustrates a huge cultural gap, revealing the injustices of neocolonialism and the White Man's Burden: dominating and assimilating other countries 'civilizes' no one, but wreaks misery and cripples the inhabitants.

The Price family brings to the Congo a capitalist and political mindset that perplexes the villagers. Democracy, an esteemed liberty in America, actually appears unfair to the villagers, who note that it forces the losers remain dissatisfied and silent; " 'if two men vote yes and one says no, the matter is finished' " (p.333) The local Kilangans, by contrast, barter after voting until everyone is satisfied. After all, says the village leader, Tata Ndu, " 'It takes three stones in the fire to hold up the pot. Take one away, leave the other two, and what? The pot will spill into the fire.' " Even the children's games differ dramatically. The Price girls, living leisurely in America, can afford to play 'Mother, May I?' and 'Hide & Seek', but the Congolese children in their brutal surroundings play much more practical games: " 'Find Food', 'Recognize Poisonwood', 'Build a House' " (p.114).

So are the Kilangans 'primitive' and deserving of oppression simply because they hold a different culture? Nathan, answering 'yes'—after all, he must think, they are savages who live "as if nakedness is nothing special" (p.24)—declares that he will plant a garden in honor of the Saviour, "who obviously is all in favor of subduing the untamed wilderness." (p.36) However, the garden becomes sterile, and the jungle swallows it; similarly, Western ideals can be preached ad nauseam, but will never take root in a cultural jungle drastically different from the white man with his Kentucky Wonder beans.

Futility in culturally transforming the Congo didn't dissuade world superpowers from ravaging Africa. Nathan, likewise, continues to evangelize despite his lack of influence. With his religious goal merely of "subduing the earth; and having dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth"1, he displays the most fundamental—and dangerous—contrast between America and the Congo. While the Congolese are content to live isolated from world affairs and political agendas, imperialist America strives to insinuate itself politically, religiously, and culturally into Africa. This Westernization irrevocably hobbles the Congo, paralleled in the Price family’s 'pet', a parrot named Methuselah. He, "a sly little representative of Africa itself" (p.60), was ripped from his native environment and enslaved. Though "curiously exempt from the Reverend's rules..., in the same way Nathan was finding the Congolese people beyond his power", Methuselah's domestication spells doom for the bird when he is abruptly freed. "What can he possibly do with freedom? His wings are atrophied, probably beyond hope of recovery. Where his pectoral muscles should be, he has a breast weighed down with the words of human beings...." (p.137) The Congo—enslaved, manipulated, and persecuted by the West, subject to successions of tyrant after tyrant—is as maimed as the abused parrot.

Evangelical Christianity historically has viewed the world only in terms of black and white, with a distinct 'evil' symbolized by a snake forever condemned to slither on its belly. In the eyes of American imperialists, Africa represents the primitive cultural snake that must be beaten into the form of propriety. Within the Congo, however, lives the green mamba, "this serpent where the diabolic genius of nature has attained the highest degree of perfection" (p.362). The snake, far from crawling on the ground, lurks overhead in the forest canopy, completely concealed above humans. However, when a vindictive local shaman uproots the snake from its natural routine for his own selfish purposes—painfully echoing the Western imperialists' subjugation of the Congo's indigenous people—the snake reveals its deadly power. Innocent Ruth May accidentally disturbs the mamba, and it retaliates in an attack that kills her. Her death mirrors the figurative death of America's innocence that has resulted from the injustices committed in the Congo, and it forebodes the disastrous consequences of reckless forays into vulnerable countries.


Sources:
The Bible (KJV). Genesis 1:28.

Any non-attributed quotes owe their source to the following:
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1998.

As one man's actions alienate him from his surrounding society, the values and morals he contrasts are highlighted. Reverend Nathan Price in Barabara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible opposed much of what Congolese life stands for during his mission in the village of Kilanga. The values of an entire society were violated by Nathan, leading to his isolation and eventual destruction. When someone disagrees with a society’s values or assumptions, such as religion, family, altruism, and equality, one will become alienated from the society and the disputed values will be accented.

The most immediate and confrontational value Nathan encounters is that of religion. While he tries to convert and save the villagers through “Tata Jesus”, he does not realize or recognize that they already have a religion, represented by Tata Kuvudundu, who “looks after many practical matters.” He is “a priest of traditions”, upholding the history of worshipping the natural world in order to survive. Nathan Price wishes to baptize children in the river, something the villagers don’t understand, especially since crocodiles in the river eat their children. This baptism distances almost the entire village, which collectively turns its back on Reverend Price. They tend to prefer their current religion, which protects them from disease and provides them with food. Price’s church ends up pleasing Tata Ndu, the chief, only because it draws “the bad-luck people away”, those who are alienated from the traditional Congolese gods. Ironically, Nathan Price was assimilated into their religious legends, believed to be “turning himself into a crocodile and attacking children.”

Some missionaries in the Congo were being used as a tool of imperialism to control the natives, in turn becoming very discriminatory themselves. Because of this, Nathan Price’s supercilious racism adds to his alienation from the villagers. He represents the bigoted attitude of whites that the Congolese have lived with for ages. In contrast, Brother Fowles was allowed into their culture because he saw them as equals, treated their society with respect, and was loved and revered by all. Reverend Price has none of this, and looks upon the villagers as living in “ignorance and darkness”. The natives know Price does not respect them, so they ostracize and disrespect him in return. “They know just one thing about foreigners, and that is everything they’ve ever done to them”, including using missionaries as tools for systematic discrimination. The Prices stumbled into a Belgian-controlled society where an oppressed people understand that “their whole existence is worth less than a banana to most white people.”

Due to his egotistical ideals, Reverend Price’s attitude towards unity, family values, and altruism opposes that of the natives. Living as one community is key to survival in the Congo, a bond exemplified by the market day and the communal hunt, events in which all people of the village participate. Reverend Price’s lack of support for his family also confounds the Congolese, where family is of the utmost importance. He is utterly discredited by this, since “a white man who has never even killed a bushbuck for his family cannot be the expert on which god can protect their village.” He also fails in the altruistic tradition of the Congo. Everyone sees the Price’s overabundance of goods, yet they give nothing to the village community. It is understood that “when someone has much more than he can use, it’s very reasonable to expect he will not keep it all himself.” Reverend Price keeps everything, gives nothing, and is alienated from the entire village.

Reverend Price does not understand the village of Kilanga, and they do not understand him, but he is the intruder and does not belong. He doesn’t respect or support his own family or honor any other traditions. His materialistic, individualistic, American ways show through in his lack of altruism and lack of communal unity. Reverend Price represents a discriminatory white society that the villagers will ostracize and isolate from their lives at any chance they get. One’s disagreement or lack of adherence to a society’s principles will lead to the person’s alienation from society, highlighting the respected values of the community.

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