The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

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The Poisonwood Bible Book 2, Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s January, and the Underdown family shows up from Leopoldville, riding in Axelroot’s plane. Orleanna is upset that the Underdowns see her doing housework in her worn clothing, as she’s embarrassed to be caught in such a position. Mrs. Underdown greets Orleanna and then teases her about her accent, something that always bothers Rachel. The Underdowns tell Orleanna that the Congo will have democratic elections this year, leading up to their declaration of independence in June. Nathan points out that Belgium won’t accept the terms of the election. Rachel is annoyed that Nathan always acts like he can predict the future. She also notices Leah, standing very close to Nathan. Rachel remembers that Nathan beat Leah for trying to keep an owl as a pet—ever since, Leah has been trying to win Nathan back.
The Underdowns’ behavior around Rachel reminds us that the Prices are outsiders, even among other white people in the Congo (let alone in Kilanga). The Underdowns offer important information about the Congo’s upcoming independence, and Nathan shows his true colors, acting as if the Belgians have some right to continue controlling their colonial territory. Rachel, for all her faults, is in some ways more insightful than Leah: Leah is still trapped in the delusion that she should be trying to please her father, even though Rachel can see very clearly that this is a fool’s errand.
Themes
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Women and Sexism Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
The Underdowns continue talking about the upcoming election. They explain that Belgium has agreed to accept the terms of the election. Frank Underdown says that both the Russians and the Americans have a stake in the Congo’s future. As a result, it’s like that they’ve pressured Belgium into accepting the election results; furthermore, it’s likely that Lumumba will be elected in a landslide.
Patrice Lumumba was a real-life political leader in the Congo, who campaigned on the platform of Congolese independence from European influence of any kind. Underdown is realistic about Lumumba’s popularity, even though Nathan refuses to accept the obvious truth.
Themes
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Frank Underdown reminds Nathan that he wasn’t really supposed to come to the Congo at all, as the Mission League thought that the country would be too unstable for missionary work. Also, it never offered the Prices the usual language training. Underdown claims that the Mission League’s monthly stipend—the income that allows the Prices to continue living in the Congo—is an act of charity, nothing more. Orleanna yells at Underdown for insulting her family, and Nathan reprimands her, as if he’s punishing a dog that’s peed on the carpet.
Nathan comes across as particularly childish and weak in this section—he acts as if he’s above Orleanna, when in fact Orleanna is doing a better job of defending the family from Underdown’s criticism than Nathan ever could. He is powerless in his position in the world at large, so he clings to and abuses his power within his own home.
Themes
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Women and Sexism Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Frank Underdown tries to restore calm, and he tells Orleanna and Nathan that he doesn’t know how much longer the Prices should be staying in Kilanga, due to the independence movement. Orleanna tells Frank that he should have expected “trouble,” what with the way the Belgians rule the Congo: just last month, a local woman told Orleanna about a man in the mines whose hand was cut off as a punishment. Frank says that Belgium has always controlled the Congo with a “strong, tight hand,” so when the hand lets go, there won’t be any kind of transition period.
Orleanna’s attention to the actual people of Kilanga has made an obvious impression on her; because she’s talked she other neighbors, she can’t believe the naïve myths of benevolent colonialism that Nathan subscribes to.
Themes
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Women and Sexism Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
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Frank proceeds to tell the Prices about what will happen in June: Belgium will pull out of the country, leaving the Congolese to rule themselves. Orleanna finds this terrifying. The Congolese are uneducated and unorganized, in large part because of the Belgians’ cruelty over the decades. Frank doesn’t have a response to this. Nathan claims that the Congolese wouldn’t even know if there were an election—they’re too isolated and ignorant of their country. Nathan concludes, “in God’s benevolent service we will stay.”
Once again, Orleanna is more insightful and intelligent about the future of the Congo than Nathan is: she recognizes that the Belgians’ refusal to allow a Congolese elite has jeopardized the country’s chances for success following the Belgians’ departure. (In real life, the Belgians forbid the Congolese from attending Western schools or attaining advanced degrees of any kind.)
Themes
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon