The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

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Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Poisonwood Bible, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon

The magazine The Nation argues that The Poisonwood Bible is, fundamentally, a book about the struggle for freedom in all its different forms. (One could say that Freedom is the overarching theme of the book, while the 4 themes listed below are particularly important cases of the struggle for freedom.) As Kingsolver sees it, everything aspect of humanity—individual people, countries, etc.—participates in a natural process of growth and change that is the essence of human freedom. And yet this natural process of growing, or coming-of-age, is always under attack. In order to understand this, we’ll have to ask: 1) whose freedom are we talking about? and 2) under attack from whom or what?

Right away, we’re informed that the Price family’s freedom is being sucked away by the tyrannical, hypocritical father, Reverend Nathan Price. Nathan takes his family to the Congo to preach the Bible, but he seems not to consider whether or not this is a good decision for his daughters, Ruth May, Rachel, Leah, and Adah; on the contrary, he seems more or less indifferent to what’s right for them. Furthermore, Nathan treats all members of his family—not only his daughters, but also his wife, Orleanna—as fools incapable of making their own decisions. For this reason, he forbids them to hunt, explore the village, make friends with the villagers, or educate themselves—in other words, all the things that his wife and children should be doing to become freer, stronger, and more mature.

Kingsolver compares the power dynamic within the Price family with a different kind of struggle for freedom, that of the Congo itself. We learn a great deal about post-WWII Congolese history in this novel, and one of the overarching ideas is that the Western world limits the Congo’s freedom by keeping its people uneducated and subservient to European and American administrators—essentially, the West refuses to let the Congo “grow up.” One of Kingsolver’s most important points is that all the exploited people in her novel—whether they’re the Price daughters or the Congolese proletariat—have something in common: they’re all going through varying degrees of oppression, in which a domineering “father” selfishly refuses to let them come of age. We see this idea come up again and again. For example, when Leah first learns about the Congo’s troubled history, her first reaction is to compare the Congo with her own troubled family. (This certainly doesn’t mean that Leah understands exactly what the Congolese are going through, but it does suggest that her family situation has trained her to be more sympathetic to the Congolese crisis of the 60s and 70s than most white Americans.)

It’s clear enough that the powerful characters and entities in The Poisonwood Bible, such as Nathan Price and the United States, want to deny the weak any autonomy or freedom. But ironically, the characters who try to limit others’ growth wind up appearing strangely immature themselves—for instance, Nathan Price spends the last 20 years of his life engaged in the same pathetic, failed mission in the same Congolese village. Meanwhile, freed from Nathan’s domination, the other Prices attain their own forms of freedom. In each case, the Prices’ newfound sense of maturity is tied to their ability to love someone else selflessly; i.e., to respect another person’s freedom and autonomy, just as Nathan always denied these things to his wife and children. (The exception that proves the rule is Rachel, who comes to the conclusion that life is about looking out for oneself, but who also winds up feeling lonely and unfulfilled.) By the same token, the Congo region is shown to attain a form of “maturity” as American forces pull out in the late 1980s. The centuries-old conflicts between tribes subsides, suggesting that the Congo may become stronger and safer by adopting a policy of freedom and mutual respect. In this way, Kingsolver steers her novel to an optimistic conclusion: although there are forces trying to limit freedom and growth, many characters find ways to attain their independence nonetheless.

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Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age appears in each chapter of The Poisonwood Bible. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Quotes in The Poisonwood Bible

Below you will find the important quotes in The Poisonwood Bible related to the theme of Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age.
Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

God says the Africans are the Tribes of Ham. Ham was the worst one of Noah’s three boys: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Everybody comes down on their family tree from just those three, because God made a big flood and drowneded out the sinners. But Shem, Ham, and Japheth got on the boat so they were A-okay. Ham was the youngest one, like me, and he was bad. Sometimes I am bad, too.

Related Characters: Ruth May Price (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Ruth May Price, the youngest of the Price children, describes the attitude of her father, Nathaniel Price, toward Africans. Nathan has decided to bring his family with him to the Congo, where he plans to do Christian missionary work. In spite of his devotion to Christian evangelism, Nathan seems to have little respect for the African people he hopes to “save”—indeed, he says that inferiority and sin are in their blood. The Biblical story of Ham, which Ruth May summarizes here, says that Ham—the youngest of Noah’s sons—was a disobedient, dark-skinned boy. To punish Ham for his disobedience, God cursed Ham’s descendants. Over the centuries, Ham’s curse has been regularly cited as a justification for slavery and imperialism—people have argued that black people “deserve” their subjugation because God wants them to be punished.

Although Ruth May never explicitly says so, it’s clear that Nathan’s beliefs are bigoted and absurd. Ruth May doesn’t quite realize it, but she interprets the story of Ham in such a way that she seems to identify with Ham: she thinks of herself as a bad child. In other words, Ruth May takes a story that’s supposed to justify racism and cruelty to black people and interprets it as a story about identification and sympathy. 


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Book 2, Chapter 15 Quotes

The boys said, “Patrice Lumumba!” I told Leah that means the new soul of Africa, and he’s gone to jail and Jesus is real mad about it. I told her all that! I was the youngest one but I knew it. I lay so still against the tree branch I was just the same everything as the tree. I was like a green mamba snake. Poison. I could be right next to you and you wouldn’t ever know it.

Related Characters: Ruth May Price (speaker), Leah Price , Patrice Lumumba
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Ruth May describes the Congolese enthusiasm for Patrice Lumumba, the young, charismatic leader who rose to become the President of the Congo before his assassination. Here, nobody has any idea that Lumumba is going to die—as far as the Congolese are concerned, Lumumba is a savior. (In real life, Lumumba was an extremely popular leader, famed for his brave opposition to Western colonialism in Africa.)

And yet although neither Ruth May nor we know that Lumumba is doomed, there's plenty of foreshadowing that unfolds upon a second reading of the novel. Lumumba's danger is paired with the image of Ruth May as a green mamba—a very venomous snake. (Later on, Ruth May will die from a mamba bite on the same day that Lumumba is assassinated, emphasizing the connection between their fates.)

Book 2, Chapter 16 Quotes

Anatole leaned forward and announced, “Our chief, Tata Ndu, is concerned about the moral decline of his village.” Father said, “Indeed he should be, because so few villagers are going to church.” “No, Reverend. Because so many villagers are going to church.”

Related Characters: Nathaniel Price (speaker), Rachel Price (speaker), Anatole Ngemba (speaker), Tata Ndu
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Nathan Price begins to quarrel with Tata Ndu, the leader of the Congolese village where Nathan has been sent to practice missionary work. Although Nathan sees himself as doing God's work, Ndu thinks of Nathan as a nuisance, making the villagers lazy and putting their lives in danger.

The passage reinforces a point that was already obvious: Nathan is oblivious to the fact that most of the villagers don't care about his religion in the slightest. From their perspective, Christ is just another god to worship, and is even inferior to the gods already celebrated in the village. Nathan, so blindly devoted to his work (to the point where he doesn't spend time with his family), is genuinely surprised that Christianity has become so unpopular in the village, to the point that it is even seen as a bad influence on the village's morals. The fact that he's so surprised suggests that he's been a bad missionary, refusing to pay any real attention to his audience's feelings.

Book 2, Chapter 20 Quotes

Father said, “An election. Frank, I’m embarrassed for you. You’re quaking in your boots over a fairy tale. Why, open your eyes, man. These people can’t even read a simple slogan: Vote for Me! Down with Shapoopie! An election! Who out here would even know it happened?”

Related Characters: Nathaniel Price (speaker), Rachel Price (speaker), Reverend Frank Underdown
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Nathan clashes with Frank Underdown, his sponsor and (often reluctant) supporter. Underdown tells Nathan and the rest of the Prices that there will be some sudden, potentially dangerous changes in the Congo: the Belgians are pulling out of the country altogether, and there may well be democratic elections in the Congo within a few months. Nathan—as condescending as ever—refuses to believe that there will ever be elections in the Congo. Based on what he's seen in his village, the Congolese are too foolish and disorganized to ever support a democratic movemen—they can't even communicate a simple political message to one another.

Nathan's position is almost nonsensical—he's ready to believe that the Belgians are pulling out of the country, but he sees no reason to believe that the Congolese have the wherewithal to replace their overlords with any other leadership. In short, Nathan seems to believe that the Belgians, with all their cruelty and hypocrisy, were the best thing for the Congolese, because they provided law and order that the Congolese could never provide for themselves.

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.)

Book 3, Chapter 26 Quotes

My downfall was not predicted. I didn’t grow up looking for ravishment or rescue, either one. My childhood was a happy one in its own bedraggled way. My mother died when I was quite young, and certainly a motherless girl will come up wanting in some respects, but in my opinion she has a freedom unknown to other daughters. For every womanly fact of life she doesn’t get told, a star of possibility still winks for her on the horizon.

Related Characters: Orleanna Price (speaker)
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to Book 3, Orleanna thinks back on her early life before she met Nathan. As a young girl, Orleanna lost her mother; yet she doesn't think of her mother's death as a great tragedy. Rather, Orleanna thinks of being motherless as a gift: a motherless woman, she suggests, is "free."

There's a lot to unpack here. First of all, it's important to note that Orleanna is looking back on her childhood: there's a sad, melancholy tone here, the tone of an older woman thinking back on her mistakes. Second, we should note that Orleanna is trying to see the "bright side" of life: instead of treating her mother's untimely death as a life-ruining tragedy, she thinks of the advantages of being motherless. Orleanna is experienced with finding silver linings: when she analyzes the changes in the Congo, for example, she refuses to accept tragedies as tragic—instead, she tries to find the hidden blessing. Finally, Orleanna's thoughts in this passage suggest her guilt about the way she's treated her own children: i.e, the fact that she sees motherlessness as an advantage suggests that she sees her own relationship with her children as being negative. As we'll see, Orleanna blames herself for allowing Ruth May to die and for being a poor role model for her daughters.

Book 4, Chapter 49 Quotes

Oh, it’s a fine and useless enterprise, trying to fix destiny. That trail leads straight back to the time before we ever lived, and into that deep well it’s easy to cast curses like stones on our ancestors. But that’s nothing more than cursing ourselves and all that made us. Had I not married a preacher named Nathan Price, my particular children would never have seen the light of this world. I walked through the valley of my fate, is all, and learned to love what I could lose.

Related Characters: Orleanna Price (speaker), Nathaniel Price
Page Number: 324
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Orleanna thinks about the tragedies that have hurt her family, and the nation of the Congo, in the last few decades, Although Orelanna recognizes that these tragedies have hurt many people, she concludes that there's no point trying to imagine a world in which they didn't occur: there's no point trying to "fix destiny."

It's interesting that Orleanna thinks of her life as a manifestation of destiny: she thinks of her decision to marry Nathan and move to the Congo, for example, as fate, pure and simple. In other words, Orleanna has a hard time thinking of herself as a free agent: as she sees it, "her" decisions aren't really her own (the universe decides everything on her behalf). Orleanna is so used to being docile and submissive that she can't even conceive of a world in which she's free to do as she pleases: if she's not a prisoner to Nathan, then she's a prisoner to fate.

Book 4, Chapter 60 Quotes

Until that moment I’d always believed I could still go home and pretend the Congo never happened. The misery, the hunt, the ants, the embarrassments of all we saw and endured—those were just stories I would tell someday with a laugh and a toss of my hair, when Africa was faraway and make-believe like the people in history books. The tragedies that happened to Africans were not mine. We were different, not just because we were white and had our vaccinations, but because we were simply a much, much luckier kind of person. I would get back home to Bethlehem, Georgia, and be exactly the same Rachel as before.

Related Characters: Rachel Price (speaker)
Page Number: 367
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Rachel reacts to the death of her little sister, Ruth May. Rachel has been living in a dream world up to this point: she's been living in the Congo, but she holds her community at a distance. In other words, Rachel thinks of her peers and neighbors as strangers—unlike her siblings, she makes absolutely no effort to get to know them (she's just counting the days until she's back in the U.S.A.) But Rachel can no longer pretend that her life in the Congo just a bad daydream: the Congo has killed her sister.

In this moment, Rachel's racism and self-absorption are made especially clear. She's always had an easy time distancing herself from her life in the Congo—not because she thinks the Congolese are necessarily inferior, but because she just assumes that they are "unlucky," and Africa could never become anything like America.

Book 5, Chapter 62 Quotes

But his kind will always lose in the end. I know this, and now I know why. “Whether it’s wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them. The Pharaoh died, says Exodus, and the children of Israel sighed by reason of their bondage. Chains rattle, rivers roll, animals startle and bolt, forests inspire and expand, babies stretch open-mouthed from the womb, new seedlings arch their necks and creep forward into the light. Even a language won’t stand still. A territory is only possessed for a moment in time. They stake everything on that moment, posing for photographs while planting the flag, casting themselves in bronze. Washington crossing the Delaware. The capture of Okinawa. They’re desperate to hang on.

Related Characters: Orleanna Price (speaker), Nathaniel Price
Page Number: 384
Explanation and Analysis:

In this prologue, Orleanna thinks about the way that history plays out over time. As she sees it, history always has a happy ending. Even if evil people (people who, more likely than not, are hypocritical, authoritative men) cause great misery, their reign will always come to an end. The Pharaoh of ancient Egypt may have hurt a lot of Jews (according to the Bible), but ultimately this injustice led the Jews to escape and find their "promised land." Similarly, oppressive patriarchs like Nathan cannot always maintain their control—those they persecute will eventually rise up against them.

Orleanna's philosophy of history is fascinating because it reminds us how uncomfortable she is with the concept of individual agency. Orleanna is so used to being submissive and docile that she has a hard time conceiving of a world in which individual people accomplish anything lasting. Instead, she thinks of the world in broad terms like "fate" and "destiny." Regardless of what individual people do, she believes, things will "work out" in the end. In all, Orleanna's worldview is a strange combination of passivity and optimism.

Book 5, Chapter 70 Quotes

“He is the one wife belonging to many white men.” Anatole explained it this way: Like a princess in a story, Congo was born too rich for her own good, and attracted attention far and “wide from men “who desire to rob her blind. The United States has now become the husband of Zaire’s economy, and not a very nice one. Exploitive and condescending, in the name of steering her clear of the moral decline inevitable to her nature. “Oh, I understand that kind of marriage all right,” I said. “I grew up witnessing one just like it.”

Related Characters: Leah Price (speaker), Anatole Ngemba
Page Number: 456
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Anatole (Leah's husband) gives Leah an analogy to explain the troubled history of the Congo. Anatole suggests that the Congo is like a beautiful but fragile woman, exploited by various powerful men (Belgium, Europe, the U.S.). Anatole implies that the Congo, while full of resources and strong, intelligent people, has never been allowed to grow to its full potential. Like a housewife forbidden from pursuing her own dreams, the Congo has been held in captivity, forced to work for others.

It's important to note Leah's reaction to Anatole's story—she immediately sees an analogy between the Congo and Orleanna's marriage to Nathan. At one point, Leah admired her father, but now she sees him for the hypocrite he is. Nathan has held Orleanna in "captivity" for years, ignoring her feelings and forcing her to serve him. Furthermore, Nathan has justified his behavior by accusing Orleanna of being weak and sinful--i.e., he's used Christian dogma to hold Orleanna accountable for her sinful femininity.

In short, the passage is something like a "thesis statement" for the novel itself. By studying the close, intimate relationship between Nathan and his wife and children, Kingsolver suggests, we can better understand the broad, historical relationship between the Congo and the international community.

Book 5, Chapter 71 Quotes

What happened to us in the Congo was simply the bad luck of two opposite worlds crashing into each other, causing tragedy. After something like that, you can only go your own way according to what’s in your heart. And in my family, all our hearts seem to have whole different things inside. I ask myself, did I have anything to do with it? The answer is no. I’d made my mind up all along just to rise above it all. Keep my hair presentable and pretend I was elsewhere. Heck, wasn’t I the one hollering night and day that we were in danger?

Related Characters: Rachel Price (speaker)
Page Number: 465
Explanation and Analysis:

Rachel, now a grown woman living in South Africa, thinks back on everything that's happened to her family since moving to the Congo. Rachel has always held herself aloof from other people, even her sisters, and here she doesn't seem particularly upset by the fact that the family has essentially split up.

In other words, Rachel has always been selfish. She's so obsessed with her own beauty and wellbeing that she can barely force herself to care about her sisters or mother. Rachel isn't presented as an evil character, but rather one with a very "Darwinian" worldview—life is about looking out for one's self. Rachel acknowledges that she herself is fortunate enough to be white, pretty, wealthy, and American, but she doesn't feel that this means she "owes" anything to anyone else, or ought to help them.

Book 5, Chapter 74 Quotes

Don’t we have a cheerful, simple morality here in Western Civilization: expect perfection, and revile the missed mark! Adah the Poor Thing, hemiplegious egregious besiege us. Recently it has been decided, grudgingly, that dark skin or lameness may not be entirely one’s fault, but one still ought to show the good manners to act ashamed. When Jesus cured those crippled beggars, didn’t they always get up and dance off stage, jabbing their canes sideways and waggling their top hats? Hooray, all better now, hooray!

Related Characters: Adah Price (speaker)
Page Number: 493
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Adah, now an adult (and a prominent scientist), thinks about the shallowness of the Western world's notion of imperfection. In the West, Adah realizes, pain and disability are thought of as hideous diseases, to be transcended through religion or medical treatment. Disabled people are thought of as imperfect—they're pitied for their physical problems, and expected to act apologetic and grateful at all times. Adah, who was disabled for many years (she could barely walk), has a more complex and subtle relationship with her disability. She doesn't resent her "imperfect" body—on the contrary, she embraces it, even after she regains full motor control.

Adah goes further, seeing in the Western world's treatment of disabled people a more general problem. Westerners, she believes, think of "different" people either as monsters to be killed or invalids to be pitied—but never as human beings. In other words, the West's shallow treatment of disabled people reflects a more general bigotry—the same racism that led Belgium and later the U.S. to intervene militarily in the Congo. Adah embraces her body in all its perfections and imperfections, and by the same token, she embraces people of all races.

Book 6, Chapter 78 Quotes

My work is to discover the life histories of viruses, and I seem to be very good at it. I don’t think of the viruses as my work, actually. I think of them as my relations. I don’t have cats or children, I have viruses. I visit them daily in their spacious glass dishes, and like any good mother I cajole, I celebrate when they reproduce, and I take special note when they behave oddly. I think about them when I am not with them. I have made important discoveries about the AIDS and Ebola viruses. As a consequence, I must sometimes appear at public functions where I am lauded as a savior of the public health. This startles me. I am nothing of the kind. Certainly I’m no mad exterminator bent on killing devil microbes; on the contrary, I admire them. That is the secret of my success.

Related Characters: Adah Price (speaker)
Page Number: 530
Explanation and Analysis:

As a grown woman, Adah has developed her own unique philosophy. Adah has become a medical researcher—her job is to study viruses, including Ebola and AIDS. While most of her colleagues think of these viruses as deadly enemies, to be wiped out Adah thinks of them as fascinating strangers--to be greeted, embraced, and understood.

In short, Adah's attitude toward AIDs and Ebola reflects the way she's learned to treat unfamiliar people, and also her rather detached way of viewing the world and morality itself. By the same token, her colleagues' attitude toward viruses reflects the Western world's narrow-minded way of understanding difference. Most people think of viruses as enemies to be eradicated; Adah, trained by her years in the Congo to understand strangers, opts for a more nuanced, accepting point of view. While it may seem unusual to treat a deadly disease as anything other than an enemy, Adah has had great success in curing sick patients because of her unique worldview.