Discuss the representation of African culture, place and identity in The Poisonwood Bible considering how your context and cultural assumptions influence your reading.
Identity has long been pronounced as that which defines a person, or gives them a point from which to position into society. This facet of existence can often be traced back to the environment and ability one finds oneself in. As Diogenes declared, “I am a citizen of the world”, and thus one is a consequence of the world. The representation of identity, a product of position and experience, can be portrayed through a cultural perspective. The Price women of Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 The Poisonwood Bible find themselves shaped by time and place; namely the Congo of the 1950s and ‘60s. Kingsolver presents a family exploring their way through culture, who find and rediscover each other through their reformed relations in the Congo. The stresses and reality of the Congo allows for reevaluation, for all of the women, especially through the way Africa interacts with the group as a family unit. In shaping the women of her tale, Kingsolver brings issues of familial and colonial powers to the forefront of audience consciousness, through the development of identifiable mothers, wives and daughters.
Leah Price is the healthy twin of the family, who enters the Congo at the age of fourteen, in full faith that her Baptist family’s mission to spread the message of their God is in the best interest of all involved. The development of this character is seen subtly, in the slow change of her perception of the world around her. The daughters, especially Leah, enter the Congo with ideals shaped by their wealthy, American upbringing, and their fiercely proud father; looking down upon the values, actions and appearances of the apparently alien Kikongo population. Leah admits that, initially, her and her sisters were irreverently “shocked by the [decorative] scars across” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 256) schoolteacher Anatole’s face. But months in the Congo makes Leah perceive beauty in a different light to the basic Western version of beauty that was engrained in her subconscious upon arrival to Africa. Where once Leah viewed a disfigured savage, a broad-shouldered man now stands, with a “thrilling white smile” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 256), and whose pronunciation of the English language she adores (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 255); thus contradicting a Western assumption of this man as flawed and primitive. This teenager’s realization of the beauty that surrounds her causes her to reevaluate her family situation and, furthermore, reassess her relationship with her father, in terms of conformity with his social expectations of her. The family, at first, expect to be respected in Kikongo for their position as vessels of God, and Nathan, the patriarch, expects the women in his life to retain their Western values and tradition. However, Leah, the originally most devout daughter, begins to integrate into Congolese life. Where she had once ridiculed the perceptively strange customs of the people of the land she now inhabits, in The Judges, Leah adopts the “Congolese way” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 255) of shaking Anatole’s hand (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 265). Leah concludes this scene by admitting she wishes that the Western world could associate an image as simple as “Mama Mwanza with her children” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 265) with the Congo, instead of images of “dancing cannibals” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 265). Kingsolver, perhaps, constructs Leah to represent the possibility for intrusive, ignorant colonial powers, to develop into genial and sensitive participants in cross-cultural understanding and relationships.
The Africa of The Poisonwood Bible, without doubt, left its mark on Orleanna Price’s identity, in dramatic fashion. Orleanna is, initially, a slave to the colonial Belgian and American powers that preceded her, often for the sake of her daughters. But through her growing relationship with, and understanding of the Congo, especially through Book Two: The Revelation, wherein it is revealed to Orleanna and her husband that the Congo will have an election to declare Independence. The Belgian nationals, the Underdowns, who deliver the news to the characters, appear to have come simply to “tell [them] to make [their] plans to leave” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 192), without much thought for the native Congolese; their concern lies with the benefit of the colonial nations. Where Orleanna once concerned herself with “civilisation’s evils” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 16), the worldly goods the family brought from Georgia to Africa, her concern, after months of living in a completely different culture to the one she had once known, now lies with the welfare of the still, in Western eyes, uneducated people of the Congo. She exasperatedly explains that “Not a soul among these people has even gone to college or…[studied] government” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 191). But now, instead of using education as a means by which to belittle the people of the country she trespassed into, she uses it in an attempt to draw on the empathy of her audience; so may both the Underdowns and the reader understand the, perhaps ludicrous nature of the notion, that the country that invaded the Congo in the first place, were now to leave the country to fend for itself on a Western plain. Without the means to survive, or training with which to cope in a contemporary world, this society was doomed to suffer internationally. This scene is also demonstrative of another aspect of Orleanna’s development; it is in this scene that the audience is first introduced to an Orleanna who does not surrender to her husband’s word, or to his harsh glare. Not only does she refuse to submit to the “look” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 189) he ‘shoots’ her, she addresses her husband directly and irreverently, “Well, honestly, Nathan. I talk to their wives.” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 189). Wallace (2014, p.2) suggests that Kingsolver constructs “American characters that confront their complicity” and such is no truer than in the development of Orleanna. It appears it took the harsh Congo to embolden Orleanna; it gave this perceptively meek woman a voice of her own, for the first time in more than a decade; in a land almost seven thousand miles away from her home.
As Kingsolver progresses into The Judges (Book Three), Reverend Nathan Price features less and less, and the focus of each of the chapters is significantly more female and culture-oriented. For most of this section of the novel, the daughters are forced to survive without the guidance of their critically ill mother. Orleanna sickens as the unforgiving Congo takes its emotional and physical toll. Helen Keller suggested that “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared” (Keller, 1938, p. 60), this is especially true in the case of Orleanna. The weight of both her environment, and role as minister’s wife, cripple Orleanna to the extent where even her youngest, Ruth May, can observe the toll this torment has taken and empathize (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 205). The mother proceeds to spend a “month in bed” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 273), and on the few times she emerges from her temporary tomb, her children describe her as “flushed and spotted… and tired” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 246), and her eyes as “Empty” (Kingsolver, 1998, p. 251). It is here that Kingsolver brings forth evidence of a previously underlying, deep mental illness and instability. While Orleanna may have been able to remain collected and balanced for the sake of her status and children in Georgia, the harsh reality of the Congo, where she is stripped of the respected status she preserved in America, presents an immobilizing authentic realization of the alternate everyday-life concerns that Kingsolver may wish to represent. Namely, the starkly survivalist concerns one faces in the severe Congo, against the shallow values of Bethlehem, Georgia. This results in a dramatic mental decline for an initially strong mother. The only thing that the Congo does not change about Orleanna, is her inherent ‘mother-ness’ that we can identify from a Western context; her debilitated month ends sharply out of necessity. The only thing that will expel her from a life of sleep is the need to help her daughters survive (p. 273). This expulsion from her sleep-state results in a metaphorical rebirth for Orleanna, who is now willing to “say whatever [is] on her mind right in front of God and everybody.” (Kingsolver, 1998, p.273), where once she had held her tongue at the charge of her husband. Kingsolver’s representation of the cruel Congo reveals the Orleanna that had been hidden by compliance and complacency, in her old home in the south-east of America.
In The Poisonwood Bible (1998), Barbara Kingsolver constructs characters as representations of Western identities and colonial powers. The individuals of her tale each represent an aspect of Western, colonial culture, and suggests a reality, where even the most ignorant of these may evolve to form cross-cultural understandings and relationships. Vygotsky (1987, Vol 4, p. 97-120) suggests that “Through others, we become ourselves”. The powerful, complicated female characters of The Poisonwood Bible develop into true, realised adaptations of their selves, thanks to the severity of the African Congo. As an educated audience, removed from the powerful force of fierce, devout faith, as represented in Nathan Price and his influence on those around him, it is easy to critique the troupe as ignorant. But through the development of Leah and Orleanna, Kingsolver presents individuals whose identities and relationships with each other are shaped by their status, as wife, Baptist or American, and experience. Thus the audience comes to an understanding of Kingsolver’s characters culturally-changing values. The trials and tribulations the women of the Price family face while in the Congo in the 1950s and 60s, serve to expose the best and worst features of the women, resulting in characters who are more understanding and accepting of alternate cultures.