The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

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Methuselah Symbol Icon

Methuselah, the parrot who Brother Fowles kept during his time in Kilanga (and who later becomes a pet for the Price family), is a complicated symbol. At times, he symbolizes the captivity in which the Price women find themselves. Like the bird, they’re imprisoned: forbidden from learning, hunting, or joking by their harsh, tyrannical father. At the same time, Methuselah symbolizes the fate of the Congo itself: when Patrice Lumumba becomes the ruler of the country, Adah Price finds that Methuselah has gotten “free,” but also has been eaten by a predator. Similarly, Lumumba is also leading his country into an uncertain future—one that will include much tragedy.

Methuselah Quotes in The Poisonwood Bible

The The Poisonwood Bible quotes below all refer to the symbol of Methuselah. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper Perennial edition of The Poisonwood Bible published in 1999.
Book 2, Chapter 25 Quotes

Set upon by the civet cat, the spy, the eye, the hunger of a superior need, Methuselah is free of his captivity at last. This is what he leaves to the world: gray and scarlet feathers strewn over the damp grass. Only this and nothing more, the tell-tale heart, tale of the carnivore. None of what he was taught in the house of the master. Only feathers, “without the ball of Hope inside. Feathers at last at last and no words at all.

Related Characters: Adah Price (speaker)
Related Symbols: Methuselah
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Book II of the novel, Adah discovers that Methuselah, the talking parrot that the Prices have kept as a pet in their new Congolese home, has been "freed" from his cage and eaten by a carnivore. Adah muses on this, and how it relates to ideas of freedom and hope (quoting an Emily Dickinson poem in the process).

It's important to keep in mind that Kingsolver is paralleling Methuselah's "liberation" with the Congo's. Just as Methuselah is being exposed to the elements after a lifetime of imprisonment (and then is promptly eaten), so too are the Congolese being allowed to run their own government after nearly a century of subjugation to the European powers. Yes, the Congolese are "free," but as we'll see, freedom can cause almost as much pain and suffering as subjugation. (Kingsolver certainly isn't suggesting that the Congolese should have remained under Belgian rule; she's just foreshadowing the problems the newly liberated Congolese will encounter in the future.)

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Methuselah Symbol Timeline in The Poisonwood Bible

The timeline below shows where the symbol Methuselah appears in The Poisonwood Bible. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 1, Chapter 9
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
...notices a parrot that flies around the house in the Congo. She’s named the parrot Methuselah. Methuselah has learned one phrase from Nathan’s predecessor in the Congo, Brother Fowles: “piss off.”... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 10
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Methuselah learns a new word, “Damn.” Nathan finds this infuriating, and he demands to know who... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 12
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Women and Sexism Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
...that this was the reason why nobody has been baptized yet. As Nathan explains this, Methuselah cries, “Piss off.” Nathan angrily grabs Methuselah from his cage and throws him toward the... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 14
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Women and Sexism Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
...more time with Nathan, but instead, she goes hunting for Pygmies (small birds) and feeds Methuselah. She notices that most of the girls her age in the community already have children,... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 25
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
...the Congo. On this same day, Adah follows a trail of feathers and realizes that Methuselah has been “freed” from his cage and eaten by some kind of predatory animal. (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 34
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
...a man of “surprising resources.” Fowles’s last question, before he walks out, is about how Methuselah is doing. Ruth May explains that Methuselah has gone to “bird heaven,” and Fowles replies... (full context)