Western Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in The Poisonwood Bible

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The Poisonwood Bible Book Critique

Sociology can be defined as the study of human social behavior, especially the study of the origins, organization, institutions, and development of human society. The Poisonwood Bible is a perfect example of this, as a family is forced to leave their home in America, to a small shack in the Congo of Africa. Nathan Price, takes his wife, four daughters, and the mission to the Belgian Congo, where the minister hopes to educate the people there, in believing that his is most definitely the correct faith, or the right thing to believe. As the family struggles to survive and communicate in such a different society, the minister is dead set on changing the beliefs, faith, and ultimately, the people of the Congo.

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As a soldier during World War II, Nathan escaped the Battaan Death March, and the almost death that came with it. Because he escaped the fate of the rest of his battalion he views himself as a coward, despised by God. He vows to never be a coward again, which means he will never leave a dangerous situation behind again. He devotes his entire life to saving as many souls as he can, through his missionary work. His attempt to save unenlightened souls has nothing to do with the well being of those particular souls. But instead, like all others that he undertakes, has as its only goal the well being of his own soul. He is so obsessed with securing his own personal ticket to salvation that he knowingly imperils the lives of his wife and daughters. He is unable to look outside of his own need even for their sakes. It seems that Nathan not only lacks the appropriate level of concern and compassion for his family, but that he positively resents them. Nathan is, first of all, a rabid male chauvinist who dismisses the very possibility of female intelligence. However, his complex relationship to his family does not derive from anything so simple as mere sexism. Convinced that God is constantly watching and judging him, and does not approve of any activity not devoted to spreading His name, Nathan is enraged by his own sexual urges. Instead of turning his rage on himself, however, he conveniently turns his rage on his wife for tempting him, and on his daughters for being the physical manifestations, or proof, of his lapses in will power. His abusive behavior toward them, including his endangerment of their lives, can be seen as a form of revenge on those who would make him something other than who he wants to be.

The Poisonwood Bible is an extreme reflection of Western colonialism and post-colonialism, an depiction of cultural arrogance and greed. Nathan Price serves as the personal incarnation of Western hue, unquestioning in his missionary enthusiasm 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 the Underdown’s patronizing racism, each character comes over to Africa confident that they are bringing with them a superior way of life.

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” and Adah declaring that, “God is everything then.”

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 drives, it is not surprising to find pantheism being presented as the spiritual antidote. The notion that all of the natural world is heavenly, inevitably 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 live in it.

In forming their various approaches to the world, as they are forced to survive in a completely different society, the Price women also come to very diverse ideas of justice. Adah gives up any lingering belief in a humanitarian 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 unfair that in Africa young babies die of malnutrition and disease. To correct this unfairness, we send over doctors to feed and vaccinate 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 harsh balancing act, but only marvels over it. She is able to rise above her own crippled-ness and imperfections and view the world as an objective observer, as she once viewed her family and Kilanga. From this vantage point, the shaky agreement between human, plant, virus, and mineral is admirable rather than frustrating.

Leah, the compassionate person-lover, retains her humanitarian focus, and comes to lose hope of any justice even on that more narrow level. Even within human society, she admits, “there is not justice in this world.” In this sphere too there is only the possibility of balance. What balance means in this context is not as clear as what it means in the global context, where the symbol of different life forms feeding off each other’s deaths is well-known. Most likely, in referring to balance in the sphere of human society Leah means only to refer to the easing of inevitable tragedy and injustice that human beings can constantly try to effect.

Each of the Price daughters has a distinctive relationship to language. Rachael consistently and unapologetically misuses words, Adah reads them backwards, Ruth May cheerfully invents her own language, which she uses to communicate with the other children, and Leah uses language lessons as an excuse to spend time with Anatole, the man she falls in love with and eventually marries. Each of these linguistic personalities mirrors the deeper personality: Rachel is self-involved, and wholly inward looking, ignoring the larger world around her; Adah is a brilliant and perceptive observer, seeing more in a glance than most could see in a lengthy examination; Ruth May is adventurous, confident, and playful; and Leah relates to the world through her endless capacity for love.

Lingala, the regional language used in the region of Congo that the Prices inhabit, also has its own linguistic personality. Most words in the language have wildly different meanings, and the intended meaning must be indicated by subtle differences in intonation. Adah is the first to pick up on this fact, loving the language for this feature, and Leah and Orleanna follow soon thereafter. Nathan, however, never catches on, and therefore preaches every week that Jesus is a fatal Poisonwood Tree, when he really means that Jesus is dearly beloved.

Nathan first encounters the Poisonwood tree while planting his demonstration garden. Mama Tataba warns him not to touch the dangerous plant, but he ignores her and ends up with painfully swollen arms and hands. The Poisonwood’s primary role in the story, though, is in the form of a linguistic accident. In the native language the word “bangala” can mean “dearly beloved” if spoken slowly, or else “Poisonwood Tree” if spoken quickly. Unable to grasp this subtle linguistic distinction Nathan preaches week after week that Jesus is the local tree that can cause intense pain and even death. His simple-minded mistake is a result of his general inability or unwillingness to learn anything about the culture around him, a symptom of his general cultural arrogance.

WARNING: may threaten your masculinity- not for the simple minded, na, immature, or inexperienced. This novel is by far one of the best in my opinion, and I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to take the time and realize that although fiction, Kingsolver reached the depths of the human mind, combined it with society and culture, and the result was nothing short of amazing.

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