The Cultural Arrogance of the West
The Poisonwood Bible is a rabid indictment of Western colonialism and post-colonimalism, an expose of cultural arrogance and greed. Nathan Price serves as the personal embodiment of Western hubris, unquestioning in his missionary zeal to overturn the ancient traditions of the Congo and replace them with his own religious beliefs. Yet nearly all of the non-African characters are marked by this fault for at least some portion of the book. From Leah's initial certainty in her father's mission, to Underdowns' patronizing racism, each character comes over to Africa confident that they are bringing with them a superior way of life. It is the United States government, however, that wields its cultural arrogance most dangerously, feeling entitled to assassinate a foreign nation's president and replace him with its own puppet ruler.
Pantheism as a Superior Form of Religious Faith
Brother Fowles, who symbolizes the positive side of Christianity, is the first to introduce the idea of pantheism, or a worship of all of nature as part of God, into the book. Orleanna, herself a former nature worshipper, quickly picks up on this idea and seems, on her long walks and later in her gardening, to adopt it as her own form of spirituality. By the end of the book both Adah and Leah seem to have come around to versions of pantheism as well, with Leah claiming that her sense of God is "some kin to the passion of Brother Fowles who advised me to trust in creation" (Song of the Three Children: Leah Price) and Adah declaring that, "God is everything then" (Songs of the Three Children: Adah Price).
Given that cultural arrogance is presented as the great sin of the West and traditional forms of Christianity as one of this sin's primary vehicles, it is not surprising to find pantheism being presented as the spiritual antidote. The notion that all the natural world is divine necessarily inspires a certain respect and modesty in anyone who believes it. It speaks against the attitude of "subdue and conquer" that Western thought applies to both the natural world and to the human beings who inhabit it.
The Individuality of How to Deal with the Burden of Guilt
The Poisonwood Bible is a political allegory. Though the story it tells focuses on the guilt of five women, for example their private guilt over the death of a daughter and sister, and their public guilt over the role they played in Africa's tragedies, it is really about the guilt that all United States citizens share. It poses the question: what did our nation do in the Congo, and how should we respond to this fact?
There is no one right answer to the question, "how should we live with the burden of guilt?" To pose just one answer and claim that it is the correct one would not only be narrow-minded, but also somewhat uninteresting for being so blatantly false. This is why Kingsolver chooses to have the story told by five separate narrators. Each narrator represents a different answer to the question, "how should we live with the burden of guilt," covering the spectrum from Orleanna's complete paralysis to Rachel's nonchalant refusal to even accept the burden. In between these extremes there is Leah, who responds with political activism—that is, with an active attempt to right the wrongs in the world—and Adah who responds scientifically, with an attempt to understand and make sense of the world on its most fundamental level. Even Ruth May, whose death is the cause of the more personal level of guilt felt by these women, represents a point on the spectrum of guilt, coming at the question with an all-accepting spirituality. These responses together are not meant to exhaust the possible reactions one might take toward guilt. They are only five possibilities out of an infinite number of options.
The Impossibility of Absolute and Unambiguous Justice on a Global Scale
In forming their different approaches to the world, the Price women also come to very different conceptions of justice. However, what emerges as a theme among those who address the issue is the insistence that a complete routing of injustice from the world is impossible. Adah gives up any lingering belief in a human-centric world, and so thinks of justice in global terms. Absolute justice, at least the crude sort of justice that Westerners believe in, she tells us, is impossible. We think, for instance, that it is unjust that in Africa young babies die of malnutrition and disease. To correct this injustice, we send over doctors to feed and inoculate them. Yet, Adah, points out, the result of this good deed is simply death of a different sort. Overpopulation leads to food shortage, deforestation, and the extinction of species. We cannot change the balance of the world, eliminating all that we consider sad and wrong. The world maintains its own balance. One life form will always have to die for another to live, whether that is one person for another, one animal, or one virus. Adah does not despair over this ruthless balancing act, but marvels over it. She is able to rise above her human skin and view the world as an objective observer, much as she once viewed her family and Kilanga in this way. From this vantage point the shaky accord between human, plant, virus, and mineral is admirable rather than frustrating.
More main ideas from Poisonwood Bible
Adah is the third daughter from Barbara Kingsolver’s rich, complex, satisfying book, The Poisonwood Bible. She is Leah’s twin sister, the Superego to Leah’s Ego and Rachel’s Id. She is also a sacrificial lamb, finally saved by Orleanna and her own keen intellect.
The biblical story of Jephthah includes his terrible sacrifice of Adah (not actually thus named in the Bible, but so-called thereafter). Jephthah barters with God in exchange for his daughter. When God delivers unto Jephthah, he must offer his daughter who does not fight for her life. She is willing to die for her father and God.
Kingsolver’s Adah also accepts her lot, even death itself or the partial death of her limbs. Her twin, Leah, consumed more from Nature while in the womb in order to survive. Adah, thus deprived, is born with a weaker, deformed side, resulting in an uneven, slow gait, one that could take her life when the Prices must flee from the oncoming plague of ants. Orleanna leads her daughters away in haste, sacrificing Adah, if she cannot keep up, in order to carry baby Ruth May to safety. A native Kilangan scoops up Adah, and it is only because of him that she survives.
Yet Adah does not resent her mother and sisters. She accepts her role without breaking or complaint. Her thoughts, however, revealed to readers, tell another story. Adah longs to be chosen, to be reassured even though she does not expect her mother to do so. Such resignation to her disability and place in the family leads to extensive reflection and cynicism, characteristics that endear readers to her.
Readers know that Adah is amazing. She possesses wry wit, is extremely well read, and not at all spiritual in spite of a Baptist, Bible-thumping patriarchal home. Few know these truths about Adah because she is reticent to speak. Many assume she cannot speak.
Thus, Adah exists at the margins of family, unlike anyone else in the family. She sees Orleanna’s failures as a woman and mother without despising her for them. She recognizes her father as a hypocrite and fraud. She sees Rachel’s childish, Id-like nature, and she recognizes Leah’s abilities to put away childish things in order to provide for and nurture not only her sisters, but all of Africa. Leah needs to build and belong, and she marries a man who wishes to do the same.
After Ruth May dies and Africa is unsafe for ex-patriots, Orleanna makes several hasty, even instinctual choices. She leaves Leah, too sick to travel, in the care of Anatole, the African man who will become her husband. Rachel climbs aboard a plane flown by Eben Axelroot without Orleanna’s objection. Orleanna also leaves behind Ruth May’s body, picking up Adah instead because now Adah is the least, the one with the greatest need.
Having at last been chosen liberates Adah. She can now come fully of age in the knowledge that she is not to be the Price sacrificial lamb any longer. She returns to the U. S. and begins to study science, finding in it a religion she can embrace. A professor helps her overcome her disabilities by training her brain to teach her errant body to become whole. Adah also overcomes her silence, but still chooses a career that does not require extensive conversation. She becomes a respected researcher who searches for treatments and cures for the diseases that plague people in poorer regions. Thus, Adah serves Africa even after she comes home.
Adah also becomes her mother’s caretaker. She watches Orleanna make and harvest from a huge garden, earning enough money to live simply and send the rest to meet the great, raw needs of Africa. Adah watches her mother try, unsuccessfully, to forgive herself for not taking her daughters to safety, for yielding to Nathan’s madness, for letting oppression and depression turn her from her duty.
Like Rachel, Adah is always older than her years. Unlike Rachel, Adah changes once she becomes the chosen one, chosen for life rather than sacrifice. This gift from her mother grants Adah the opportunity to flourish, and she does.
Pick up a copy of The Poisonwood Bible. Enjoy!
Like Sophie in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Orleanna must choose between two of her children. Defend Orleanna’s choice, then write the opposite argument in which you condemn Orleanna for saving Ruth May instead of Adah.
GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):
I’ve just finished reading A Place of Execution by Val McDermid, and it reminds me of my discomfort in using the word, hang. As a means of execution, hanging is rare, at least in the Western world and Europe so it just doesn’t roll off the tongue often. The word and its forms are more often heard in comedy routines and situation comedies when referring to the male anatomy, and this vulgar usage is what gives me pause. I would like to say hang and hanged when describing actions I might take with clothing or flags. But hanged seems archaic, even wrong. Is it? Allow me to explain.
I should not say that I hanged my coat on a hanger. I should say that I hung my coat on a hanger and that I hanged a man at dawn by order of the court.
In other words, hang, hanged, and hanged are preferred when referring to dangling people from high places while hang, hung, and hung are the go-to words when referring to things. On the other hand, the past tense distinction between hanged and hung has become blurry so you will hear and read both used as if they are interchangeable.