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Free Study Guide for The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver BookNotes

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1) "One has only a life of oneís own." Orleanna, pg 8.

Orleanna is commenting on her daughtersí accusation that she never had a life of her own but had given everything for either her husband or the girls. Yet, in Orleannaís perspective, the girls never needed her and her husband was probably incapable of loving her. Thus all she really had was herself.

2) "We aimed for no more than to have dominion over every creature that moved upon the earth. And so it came to pass that we stepped down there on a place we believed unformed, where only darkness moved on the face of the waters." Orleanna, pg 10.

Orleannaís words have ironic echoes of both Conradís novel Heart of Darkness and the creation story from the Bible. Her husband also places himself in a god-like position over his family and over the people he is attempting to convert even though he himself is emotionally prostrate before God. It is a misplaced perception of himself, and the observation comes as close to satire as Orleanna is able to get. Neither she nor her husband had dominion over themselves, let alone the "creatures" of the earth. And the darkness which they imagined to be a part of Africa was in reality a blindness in their own hearts.

3) "We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesnít look to me like weíre in charge of anything, not even our own selves." Rachel, Pg 22.

Rachelís early perception of how little control they have over their own situation is thoroughly accurate in spite of her own immaturity and teenage arrogance. From the very beginning, Nathan Price made the mistake of trying to run the people rather than trying to work with them. The comment is a foreshadowing of Rachelís future as she never will get out of Africa in spite of her attempts to manipulate everyone. For her, the best means of survival will be to simply float along on the ebb and flow of events.

4) "Itís a heavenly paradise in the Congo, and sometimes I want to live here forever." Leah, pg 104.

The statement is foreshadowing. Leah is overwhelmed by the beauty and life of the jungle, but her wish will become reality.

5) "Father says a girl canít go to college because theyíll pour water in your shoes." Ruth May, pg. 117.

Ruth May takes her fatherís metaphor literally, but it is indicative of the way the girls have accepted his twisted judgements as fact.

6) "I wonder that religion can live or die on the strength of a faint, stirring breeze. The scent trail shifts, causing the predator to miss the pounce. One god draws in the breath of life and rises; another god expires." Adah, pg. 141.

Adah had gone with Leah to get water, but as usual had wandered a little farther and returned to the house at her own slower speed while Leah went on ahead. While walking along the trail, Adah thought she heard footsteps behind her, but each time she stopped the noise also stopped. She arrived home and slipped into a hammock to rest. While she lay there, Tata Ndu came to report to her father that they had found evidence of a lion having killed a little girl who dragged one foot. It was a report of thinly veiled triumph as Tata Ndu had been predicting that something would happen if people stopped serving the old gods. When Adah appears in the doorway, Tata Ndu appears defeated, and Nathan acts as if he has won something. Adahís observation reflects that fragile nature of faith and foreshadows her own abandoning of Christianity.

7) "When I finally got up with sharp grains imbedded in my knees, I found, to my surprise, that I no longer believed in God." Adah, pg. 171.

Adah had been punished in Sunday school because she questioned the justice of a God who would condemn people because of the color of their skin or the place where they were born. She is made to kneel on grains of uncooked rice and pray for her own soul. While she still has to comply with her fatherís expectations, she inwardly rejects Christianity and turns religious concepts in to palindromes that seem to have opposing meanings.

8) "We are going to make the Congo, for all of Africa, the heart of light." Patrice Lumumba, pg. 184.

Lumumbaís inauguration speech promises a new life to the people of the Congo, but ends in disaster. Lumumba is arrested and assassinated, and the dictator who takes his place plunges the Congo into thirty years of the darkness of cruelty and poverty. The speech supports the motif of light versus darkness.

9) "I have pictured it many times-Hope!-wondering how I would catch such a thing one-handed, if it did come floating down to me from the sky. Now I find it has fallen already, and a piece of it is here beside our latrine, one red plume. In celebration I stooped down to pick it up." Adah, pg. 185.

Adah frequently quotes Dickinson, finding a personal connection in the terse verse. The feather on the ground, however, is from the bird Methuselah. He was killed by a cat on the same day that the Congo was supposedly granted independence.

10) "You always think you know more about their kind than they know about yours, which just goes to show you." Rachel 253.

Rachel observes that brother Fowles and his wife had established a friendship with the village people and had been accepted by them, a fact which her father cannot accept. While the Price family is quite ignorant about the African culture, the Africans are well aware of the ways of white people who come to them as missionaries.

11) "In Congo, it seems the land owns the people." Leah, pg. 283.

Leahís casual statement is a fact of life in the Congo and one of the primary themes of the novel. The land does "own" the people in a way that demands the observance of a way of life that is difficult for pampered Americans to comprehend. Those who cannot live by its rules are doomed to be destroyed by it, nor can they ever completely escape its effects.

12) "You still think youíre the epicenter of a continent, donít you Princess?" Axelroot, pg. 293.

Rachel is trying to play the game invented by her father and Axelroot, designed to keep her from having to marry Tata Ndu. She thinks she can play it according to her own rules and persuade Axelroot to take her family out of Congo. He is well aware of her intentions and of her arrogance. His analysis of her is remarkably accurate in one sense, but in another she is emotionally a child with sisters who seem to be more intelligent and more loved than she is. Rachel, however, does not let her need get her down, but continually schemes to acquire the importance she craves.

13) "Why why why, they sang, the mothers who staggered down our road behind small tightly wrapped corpses, mothers crazy-walking on their knees, with mouths open wide like a hole ripped in mosquito netting. That mouth hole! Jagged torn place in their spirits that lets the small flying agonies pass in and out. Mothers with eyes squeezed shut, dark cheek muscles tied in knots, heads thrashing from side to side as they passed." Adah, pg. 296.

A description of the expression of grief from Kilanga mothers who have lost children to malaria and dysentery. The description reads like poetry and could perhaps be called a "found" poem. Yet it is also a subtle foreshadowing as the mothers will one day be singing their mourning song for her family.

14) "Not my clothes, there wasnít time, and not the Bible-it didnít seem worth saving at that moment, so help me God. It had to be my mirror." Rachel, 301.

During the invasion of the ants, Rachel goes back into the house to try to salvage one "important" thing. The choice of the mirror is on the surface a reflection of her vanity, but could also be considered an attempt to hang onto the image she has of herself, a need to preserve some aspect of the privileged teen that she wants to be. The mirror itself is symbolic of priorities.

15) "Live was I ere I saw evil. Now I do not wonder at all. That night marks my lifeís dark center, the moment when growing up ended and the long downward slope toward death began. The wonder to me now is that I thought myself worth saving. But I did....And if they chanced to look down and see my struggling underneath them, they saw that even the crooked girl believed her own life was precious. That is what it means to be a beast in the kingdom." Adah, pg. 306.

During the attack of the ants, Adah sees her mother carry Ruth May to safety. She thinks she sees her mother hesitate as if trying to decide whom to save and then choosing the more perfect Ruth May. Although that isnít exactly what is in her motherís mind, Adah spends several years believing that she had been left behind as not worth saving. She also sees that although she was in the process of being trampled, even she struggled for life. The "beast in the kingdom" is a metaphor for the value of every living thing and is echoed later on when she sees once again that the price of survival is always the death of some other living being.

16) "Donít expect Godís protection in places beyond Godís dominion. It will only make you feel punished....when things go badly, you will blame yourself....Donít try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you are good, bad things can still happen. And if you are bad, you can still be lucky." Anatole, pg. 309.

Leah interprets Anatoleís words as an indication that he thinks her faith is childish. Rather he is simply trying to get her to understand that regardless of a personís religion, the processes of the earth take place and effect all life unevenly. It is senseless to try to find a religious or personal cause for everything that happens. Anatoleís words are the exact opposite of the teachings of Nathan Price; according to Nathan, God rewards the just and punishes the unjust. Leah will eventually decide that Anatoleís view makes more sense.

17) "The death of something living is the price of our own survival, and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep." Adah, 347.

After watching the outcome of the hunt, Adah echoes her summation on life from the night of the ants.

18) "For women like me, it seems, itís not ours to take charge of beginnings and ending...I only know the middle ground where we live our lives....To resist occupation, whether youíre a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy. Conquest and liberation and democracy and divorce are words that mean squat, basically, when you have hungry children and clothes to get out on the line, and it looks like rain." Orleanna, pg. 383.

Orleanna attempts to explain why she waited so long to leave Nathan and why she didnít act earlier to prevent some things from happening. Women, to her way of thinking, were not given a part in the decision making, but were expected to complete more than their share of the labor that resulted from whatever decision was made. She was too busy trying to feed hungry mouths to ask how she arrived in that situation or whether she ought to do anything to change it.

19) "If you are the eyes in the trees, watching us as we walk away from Kilanga, how will you make your judgement? Lord knows after thirty years I still crave your forgiveness, but who are you? A small burial mound in the middle of Nathanís garden, where vines and flowers have long since unrolled to feed insects and children. Is that what you are? Are you still my own flesh and blood, my last born, or are you now the flesh of Africa? " Orleanna, pg. 385.

Orleanna is unable to answer her own questions even though she senses that somehow the spirit of Ruth May is not gone. An awareness of and her search for forgiveness from an entity she canít quite find support the "muntu" concept of the unity and interconnectedness of life.

20) "My little beast, my eyes, my favorite stolen egg. Listen. To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know. In perfect stillness, frankly, Iíve only found sorrow." Orleanna, pg. 385.

Orleannaís words echo the sentiment of American Indian N. Scott Momaday who said, "In the end, the words are all we really have." The theme of story telling as healing is the underlying thread of the entire novel.

21) "What happened to us in the Congo was simply the bad luck of two opposite worlds crashing into each other, causing tragedy. After something like that, you can only go your own way according to whatís in your heart. And in my family, all our hearts seem to have whole different things inside." Rachel, pg. 465.

Rachel survives on her own terms because she is capable of realizing that no one in her family every really had anything in common with any of the others. Her father was involved with his self appointed mission, and her mother was trapped in trying to see that they survived to adulthood. There was no one left to build real relationships or to develop common interests, so each of her sisters grew up under the name of family but with ideas that were uniquely diverse to each. Rachel made a life for herself by simply "picking up her feet" and letting life carry her along the path of least resistance. In different words, she agrees with her mother-that it was destiny, and humans can do little to control it and will accomplish nothing by taking the blame for it.

22) "The King of Kings aroused the anger of Antiochus against the rascal. And when Lysias informed him this man was to blame for all the trouble, he ordered them to put him to death in a way that is customary there. For there is a tower there, seventy-five feet high, filled with ashes, and there they push a man guilty of sacrilege or notorious for other crimes to destruction. By such a fate it came to pass that the transgressor died, not even getting burial in the ground." Adah, 487.

Adah quotes a verse from the Apocrypha, a favorite section of the Bible for Nathan although most churches did not recognize it as a valid part of the Bible. Adah had been made to copy the section numerous times as punishment and recognizes the irony. According to the stories they have heard, their father perished in a tower that had been set on fire. The end he received was one he had quoted, preached on, and inflicted metaphorically on others.

23) "Betrayal bent me in one direction while guilt bent her the other way. We constructed our lives around a misunderstanding, and if ever I tried to pull it out and fix it now I would fall down flat. Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. Itís everyoneís come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization." Adah, pg. 532.

Adah reaches a final understanding of the misconceptions that were a part of her entire family. Each person had her own misconception of guilt or responsibility. Each had their own belief about the way things ought to be, and their beliefs did not coincide with their fatherís or any one elseís. In fact, Adah realizes that illusion was not limited to her family. The Congo people thought they were about to get independence and received dictatorship. Lumumba thought he was to be prime minister and was assassinated. Her own mother thought she was at last freeing herself from Africa but found herself driven to continuously gaze over the ocean in that direction as if pieces of her were still trapped in the Congo. Perhaps freedom itself is intertwined with a peopleís success or failure in living out their misconceptions.

24) "My baby, my blood, my honest truth: entreat me not to leave thee, for whither thou goest, I will go. Where I lodge, we lodge together, Where I die, youíll be buried at last." Orleanna, pg. 382.

In an interesting reversal of a passage of the Bible from the Book of Ruth, Orleanna acknowledges that although she buried Ruth May, she never let her go. In this she is taking on an additional burden of guilt, for she feels Ruth Mayís spirit and feels that she has forced the child to remain a part of her world. In her mind, when she dies, Ruth May will then die with her. She does not understand the muntu.

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