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Free Study Guide for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver BookNotes

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Major Themes


The Power of the Land

The spirit of the Congo and the relationship between the land and the people permeates the novel. The native people live in harmony with the land while the European and American "guests" survive-if they do- in spite of it. Disease and health, feast and famine are natural rotations, which kill off the weak. Adah and Leah develop an understanding of the land, Orleanna and Nathan are destroyed by it, Ruth May becomes a part of it, and Rachel successfully sets herself above it.


Salvation and redemption are closely linked with concepts of guilt and forgiveness and take on different meanings for different members of the family.

Story Telling

The novel is not an adventure tale with exciting events that one frequently finds in "missionary" stories. Rather, its focus is on the act of "telling." Thus, the author moves in a loose rotation from one voice to another, allowing each speaker to give her perspective on the condition of their lives at any given point. Events themselves are less important than the development or destruction of each character.

Minor Themes



Love of self as well as love of family.


Changing politics in the Congo is used as a device for bringing about situational changes in the lives of the characters.

Understanding culture

A willingness to adapt to the African culture has an impact on each characterís emotional health.

Light versus darkness

Several references are made to the "darkness" of Africa, echoing Conradís novel Heart of Darkness. Nathan commands the people to "enter into the light" on several occasions, but even as he preaches enlightenment to his tiny congregation, his own heart grows darker and more distant from even his own family.


Nearly everyone in the story is bound by something whether it be a domineering man, a political entity, or an obsession with religion. Conflict arises when people try to assert their own right to liberty, partly because they donít always know where the enemy is.


The mood of the novel is overall somber and a bit detached, creating a feeling of voyeurism on the part of the reader. Yet, each speaker is given a unique voice ranging from self-imposed guilt to fierce independence bordering on arrogance. In spite of some degree of triumph, there is an overwhelming sense of loss and tragedy.

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The Poisonwood Bible Free BookNotes Summary Study Guide

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Ruff, Karen DA. "TheBestNotes on The Poisonwood Bible". . 09 May 2017