Free Study Guide for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver BookNotes|
STUDY GUIDE THE POISONWOOD BIBLE BY BARBARA KINGSOLVER
Nathan Price is the one major character who is never given a voice of his own in the course of the novel. He is seen only through the eyes of his wife and daughters, yet he is the mechanism that gets them to the Congo and the domineering force around which their lives revolves. He is cruel, insensitive, arrogant, cold, and obstinate in the extreme, but in spite of these characteristics which only intensify as the story progresses, he does have occasional flashes of insight that would have value if expressed in a different more loving manner. He is a tragic villain for his actions are the result of a sincere belief that he is serving God to the point of self-sacrifice. His motivation-life-long search for forgiveness for his own cowardice-may be a result of fanaticism in his pre-war days or even an effect of his head injury. Nevertheless, while we see Nathan as a force that leads his family to disaster and accomplishes more negative than positive among his intended flock, his motivation is genuine and all consuming. As each new attempt to reach the African people fails, Nathan is doomed to cave in on himself a little more, believing that he has failed the test of righteousness.
Orleanna is Nathanís wife and the lead voice of the novel. Each of the first five books begins with Orleanna as she tries to piece together the situations and events that culminated in the death of her youngest. She does her best to mother her daughters but did not have the strength she needed to counteract the negative influence of Nathan. Her character is more complex than her influence over her daughters would seem to indicate. As an individual within her family, she is weak, merely going along with whatever Nathan expects and trying to maintain a normal if not always happy home. She makes no major decisions until the moment when she leaves the Congo and only expresses her opinion by implication and by slamming dishes around. Although she does beg Nathan to take them back to the States, she in unable to get him to even pay attention when Ruth May is close to death.
On the other hand, her role in the story telling process is strong and unifying. As a storyteller, she fills in the gaps between what the other narrators saw and what they fully understood. She explains the role of women in a male chauvinist society in which the white, middle class home was a miniature version of a nationís politics and the underdog countries were at the mercy of decisions made by dominant states in the same way that a woman was subject to her husbandís demands and wishes. In the 60's and 70's women in many areas were just beginning to realize that they could and ought to have more authority in their own homes. Thus, while Orleanna appears to be a weak character in the context of the plot, she is a complex part of the story telling team, simultaneously filling the roles of character in her own story, commentator, and social critic.
The oldest child of the family, Rachel had the longest exposure to modern American conveniences and, ironically, the least amount of attention from her pre-occupied parents. Since her family moved frequently and was never financially stable, Rachelís notions of high society and her personal vanity are a bit of a mystery. One conclusion that can be drawn is that Rachel has her fatherís temperament without her fatherís guilt. She is capable of divorcing herself from any sense of responsibility for a situation she did not choose for herself. At the same time, she has the tenacity to simultaneously despise and survive along with a peculiar ability to tap into only as much of her own intelligence as she needs to accomplish her own ends. Ignorance is her physical salvation in a climate hostile to whites. Deliberate arrogance is her emotional stability in a situation, which has isolated her from the people who should mean the most to her.
Leah is the embodiment of her motherís compassion and her fatherís determination. She is also exceptionally intelligent and very capable of making up her own mind. In the beginning of the story, she exerts a lot of energy in trying to say the things her father wants to hear and in trying to believe in what he is doing. However, she sees contradictions very early-for example in the inhumanity of telling Tata Boanda he would have to get rid of one of his wives. Leah is the most capable of giving and receiving love, but struggles with some guilt over her sister. Later in the story, she feels ironically guilty for being white.
Leahís primary fault is that she can be impetuous and sometimes speaks or acts without thinking. She is ready to stand up for what she believes, but doesnít always stop to think about the source of her opinion. A good example is the hunt. Is her motivation solely to acquire food for her family, or is she also mindful of an opportunity to show that she can do something no one else in her family-or even the village can do. Given the cultural traditions, it is logical to assume that her family would have received some of the meat from a successful hunt, perhaps even more than the meager quarter of antelope they ended up with. Furthermore, the division over her insistence on participating created a major conflict within the community; she did not ask whether or not her independence was really worth the consequences.
Leah is also intensely loyal. She tries to defend her father even though she sees the humor and irony in some of his methods. When she can no longer believe in what he is doing. She looks to Anatole. Her relationship with him may be initially gratitude and friendship, but that grows into love. She never complains about hardships of life in the Congo and never finds fault with Anatoleís beliefs or activities. She is a loyal and devoted partner who develops her own life, but also never forgets her twin sister and mother. She returns to the States for a visit when possible and gives her boys opportunity to get acquainted with their grandmother.
Adah grows up with a series of misconceptions that she realizes later. She is insightful, extremely intelligent, and creative, but she believes the world sees her as defective and therefore of less value than her siblings. Her impressions are at least partially created via the attitudes and treatment at the hands of adults. As a child she was placed in a class for mentally retarded because of her crippled side and apparent inability to talk. She felt the frustration exhibited by parents of other children who had to acknowledge that the crippled child could out-perform their own children. She also experienced rejection at the hands of her Sunday school teacher when she questioned the wisdom of a God who would condemn people because of their skin color or place of birth.
Although Adah can talk if she wants to, she communicates primarily by writing her comments and questions. This forces her companions to communicate on her terms. And, since she has already decided that she wants no part of her fatherís religion, she is more open minded toward concepts and cultures of the Africans. Her own disability gives her an appreciation for hardships that other people overcome.
Ruth May is the baby of the family. Her exact age is unclear, but Orleanna implies that she is six or more years younger than the twins, and the other girls refer to her as "our baby sister." She is old enough to be able to read fairy tales, but young enough for babyishly literal interpretations of her fatherís words and is small enough for her mother to carry her when the ants attack. A reasonable guess seems to be that she might be about 8. In any case, she is a precocious youngster, observant, friendly, and sympathetic. She is a static character and functions primarily as the mechanism for holding the women of the family together and driving them apart upon her death. She is the innocent recipient of everyoneís love, the catalyst that reaches the hearts of even the African chief when she is hurt. Although she is a flat character herself, she is has significant importance in the activities and focus of Orleanna and her sisters.
Anatoleís primary importance is in his function as a mediator for the Price family and in his role in Leahís life. When she realizes that her father has emotionally abandoned the family, Leah turns to Anatole. Although he is not cold or calloused like her father, Anatole at first refuses her love, forcing her to find some way other than words to accept her. We never hear from Anatole himself, but his presence and understanding of his people creates a foil for the continuously bungling Nathan. He is a quiet force for good that everyone in the family accepts except Rachel whose primary hang-up is his color.
It seems impossible to do other than view the Congo as a vast, silent character in the novel. Her voice comes through in the cycles of the jungle, in the traditions of the people which are closely allied with the demands of the land itself, in the variety of plants and animals, and in the triumphs and hardships of a people whose simplicity has often been mistaken for ignorance. Adah and Leah both observed that in Africa, it seemed as if the Congo owned the people. The natives exhibit a unique, if un-discussed, respect for the land; it is no less than the land demands and those who spurn such respect pay a hefty price.
The Congo is like an organism itself; itís a gigantic parasite that gets a grip on the intruders and does not let go even if they manage to leave. She beckons and teases with her vast mineral wealth, punishes with her intense climate conditions and poisonous plant and animal life, and fights for her own identity through a unique and beautiful people who are her very soul. The Kilanga word "muntu" for all-spirit seems the most accurate expression after all.
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