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Free Study Guide for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver BookNotes

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STUDY GUIDE THE POISONWOOD BIBLE BY BARBARA KINGSOLVER

 

PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

 

NOTES ABOUT THE PLOT STRUCTURE / AUTHOR'S STYLE

 

The novel is written in an epistolary style with multiple narration. It is not strictly chronological, but has a backward/forward pattern to each book.

The story takes place during a crisis in Congo politics when it was considered unsafe for whites to live there. Thus the Price family has little support from the outside.

The novel does not have the traditional literary protagonist. Nor is there a great deal of action. The primary function of the voices is the "telling" of the story.

Although the author does not emphasize her American Indian heritage in this or her other books, many characteristics of both African and American Indian culture are apparent; for example, both believe that the human spirit exists in other forms both before and after death. Both traditions also see the spiritual and physical universes as co-existent and interdependent. This is contrary to European tradition in which the spiritual element of life is kept apart from the physical.

Although the author lived in Africa herself for a short time, she insists that her characters are completely fictional and in no way intended to be autobiographical.

The unseen audience to whom Orleanna addresses her pleas for forgiveness is Ruth May.


The concept of Poisonwood Bible is similar to that of a frame story in that the story of the Price family in the Congo is a story embedded within a larger story. The larger story is a story of story-telling itself. While that may seem like double talk, it is not at all uncommon for writers who share a historical oral tradition to experiment with the intricacies of language and meaning that accompany the act of "telling." Furthermore, telling the story is a means of healing for those listening and those who share the events of the story; it is also an act of preservation, of asserting identity, and of creating a history. The way in which the story teller imparts the details of his/her story, that is the choice of words, tone, irony, the insertion of commentary, the implication of an audience-all of these things give meaning and character, not only to those mentioned within the story, but to the teller herself. In this novel, the effect is multiplied because five different fictional storytellers are contributing their own details to the same overall story, all with equal significance, thereby presenting a communal protagonist. In the King James Bible, the ancient Hebrew word for God, Yahweh, is a collective noun. In Poisonwood Bible, "protagonist" is also plural or collective.

Poisonwood Bible adds yet another layer, because unlike Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Maurice Kenny and others who position themselves as a first person narrator within some of their works, Barbara Kingsolver creates a fictional persona with whom she insists she does not identify herself. This fictional persona tells her own story, thereby creating a fictional storyteller who weaves a tapestry of opinion and motives about herself. Yet, the pieces are the manipulation of the master story teller, the persona of the author herself, and fit together for a commentary on womanhood, on family, on independence, on male idealism, on failed communication and-to a more subtle extent-on politics.

Because the larger "story" is about story-telling and not about isolated events, the novel has the structure of a group of people gathered together on a hot summer evening who simply begin talking about all the things they remember, perhaps trying to explain the way things were to a younger member of the family. In this case, the audience is also unique because the audience is also a character in the story and has her own perspective on the details. The effect of such casual "remembering" is that the resulting novel is not exactly chronological. The novel is divided into seven chapters or books. Each book is introduced by Orleanna Price from her home in Georgia long after the events described in the novel had taken place. Nor does she begin telling her story from its beginning, but rather starts in the middle of her own life and moves both forward and backward in her attempts to explain how she became involved with Nathan Price, how she arrived in the Congo and how she left. In fact, although the sub-title of the first book "Genesis" is "The Things We carried," Orleanna does not even begin with their arrival in Kilanga. Rather she begins with the effect Africa had on her soul, with a discussion about misguided intentions and misunderstood responsibilities. If one were to isolate her stories from the rest of the novel and plot them on a graph, the result would be something of a zigzag.

The Price sisters tell their stories in a roughly chronological format, which follows the seasons of Africa. The only dates that are specified, however, are Rachel’s birthday, the day Congo was granted independence from Belgium and Ruth May’s death. The first four books of the novel provide details of less than two years from the summer when the Price family first set foot in Kilanga-from the summer of 1959 to January of 1961. Books five and six cover about 20 years, and Book seven is more of an epilogue and is from Ruth may alone. The stories of the sisters, therefore, are less chronological than simultaneous, clustered around the effects of the seasons, a visit from friends or village people, observations of the Kilanga people, or an event that seems to stand out. Within the framework of each book, the voices that follow Orleanna’s seem to take turns or to speak in a casual rotation. It’s as if one remembers an incident, then the others remember their own part in that same incident. Or one girl will recall some interesting detail about the people, and another will think about the effect of her father’s sermons at that particular time. It is easier to follow the progression of the book if one thinks of the different speakers in "clusters," a designation I have chosen as a method of loosely outlining the structure.

Beyond that, a reader looking for the traditional linear plot structure will come away frustrated and disappointed; the structure is built around a sequence of lessons, not a sequence of events. The lessons follow the subtitles: "The Things We Carried," "The Things We Learned," "The Things We Didn’t Know," "What We Lost," and "What We Carried Out." The remaining two chapters provide the conclusion to their individual searches for their own salvation. The ending of the novel is not triumphant, but neither is it completely tragic. Rather it is a tone of acknowledgment and acceptance as each girl admits the impact the Congo had on her and discovers her own way to live with it.


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