The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

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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.
Imperialism Theme Icon

Right away, Poisonwood establishes a clash between the Third World, represented by the Congo, and the Western world, represented by Belgium and the United States. The Western world is portrayed as powerful, greedy, and sometimes deceitful, while the Third World is depicted as weak and the frequent victim of other, more powerful nations. This certainly doesn’t mean that every American character is deceitful and evil, or that every Congolese character is weak and exploited, but it does point to one of the most important themes in the novel: the influence of imperialism on the Congo.

Kingsolver’s novel includes large chunks of real-life history that establish the greed and ruthlessness of the Western world, as evidenced by the way it treated the Congo. For much of the 19th century, Belgium controlled the Congo’s industry and natural resources, and forced the Congolese to work like slaves, in conditions that even at the time were internationally condemned for their cruelty. This, as Kingsolver sees it, is imperialism in a nutshell: the systematic control of a foreign land for the benefit of an imperial power (here, Belgium). Following the Second World War, Belgium pulled out of the Congo, but almost immediately, U.S. forces established a “puppet government” in the country. Due to the CIA’s actions in the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, the popular, democratically elected leader was murdered and replaced by Joseph Mobutu, a cruel dictator whom the United States supported because of his toleration for capitalism. There are plenty of differences between Belgian and the American imperialism in the Congo (for example, the Belgians’ control of the government was direct and unambiguous, while the Americans exerted a huge but still indirect influence on the government, laundering their directions through a native Congolese leader). Nevertheless, Belgian and American imperialists both tried to control the Congo’s wealth and resources, ensuring that money would flow back to their own countries. This emphasis on profit, even at the expense of human rights or justice, is the essence of imperialism—which, as Kingsolver sees it, is just another word for greed.

In a sense, imperialism is the true villain of Poisonwood—it’s the all-powerful force that murders Lumumba and ignites a civil war in the Congo, endangering the characters’ lives. And yet the novel also suggests that imperialism, for all its power, fails in the end. In order to control a foreign country, imperialists have to suppress the citizens of the country itself (in the Congo, for example, imperialists had to kill Lumumba, the popularly elected leader). While it might be possible to do this in the short term, the populace will inevitably rebel—there are simply too many people like Anatole, too many people trying hard to be heard and to struggle against their oppressors. Sure enough, by the end of the novel Mobutu, the puppet leader, is dying of cancer, and American forces are in the process of pulling out of the greater Congolese region. In the end, Poisonwood brings us to the optimistic conclusion that imperialism and the doctrine of greed, despite being central to the novel’s plot and deeply influential aspects of history, are ultimately less potent forces than they seem.

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Imperialism ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Poisonwood Bible related to the theme of Imperialism.
Book 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

Several days later, once Father had regained his composure and both his eyes, he assured me that Mama Tataba hadn’t meant to ruin our demonstration garden. There was such a thing as native customs, he said. We would need the patience of Job. “She’s only trying to help, in her way,” he said.

Related Characters: Nathaniel Price (speaker), Leah Price (speaker), Mama Tataba
Related Symbols: The Hills of Soil
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Early on in their time in the Congo, the Prices set to work planting seeds on their property. Nathan—a boorish, tyrannical man—refuses to take any advice from Mama Tataba, an experienced Congolese woman, even after Tataba points out that Nathan is planting seeds the wrong way. Tataba insists that Nathan should makes piles of soil to protect against rain—Nathan, who’s been planting seeds since he was a child, insists that Tataba is wrong. When Mama Tataba deliberately re-plants every single seed in the garden, Nathan condescendingly says that Mama Tataba is just “trying to help.” Nathan is a pompous, arrogant man, who thinks he’s far more talented and competent than he really is. He “forgives” those like Tataba who try to help him, not realizing how good their advice really is. In a broader sense, one could say that the passage is a metaphor for the way that the continent of Africa was managed for many years: ignorant colonial leaders from the U.S. and Europe governed the Congo and other countries, convinced that they knew what was best for Africa, but actually doing more harm than good.


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Book 2, Chapter 13 Quotes

The likes of Eleanor Roosevelt declared we ought to come forth with aid and bring those poor children into the twentieth century. And yet Mr. George F. Kennan, the retired diplomat, allowed that he felt “not the faintest moral responsibility for Africa.” It’s not our headache, he said. Let them go Communist if they feel like it. It was beyond me to weigh such matters, when my doorstep harbored snakes that could knock a child dead by spitting in her eyes.

Related Characters: Orleanna Price (speaker)
Page Number: 95-96
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Orleanna, reflecting on her time in the Congo, thinks about the United States's relationship with Africa. Years before, when Orleanna and Nathan were both in the Congo, the U.S. had a conflicted relationship with Africa. Some diplomats believed that foreign aid to the continent would be pointless, while some like Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out the country's moral responsibility to help the Third World. It's important to note that Kingsolver portrays women as being more sympathetic to foreigners' pain than men—an idea that generally plays out in the novel.

For the time being, Orleanna sees no real connection between her own situation and that of the Africans—in other words, there's no experiential overlap between her life and the Congolese villagers'. Over the course of the novel, Orleanna will reevaluate her relationship with the Congo, seeing a great similarity between the Congolese sense of helplessness and submission and her own. 

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 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 43 Quotes

My knees plunged, a rush of hot blood made me fall. A faintness of the body is my familiar, but not the sudden, evil faint of a body infected by horrible surprise. By this secret: the smiling bald man with the grandfather face has another face. It can speak through snakes and order that a president far away, after all those pebbles were carried upriver in precious canoes that did not tip over, this President Lumumba shall be killed.

Related Characters: Adah Price (speaker), Patrice Lumumba
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Adah Price discovers something shocking. Eavesdropping on Axelroot, the secret American agent who lives in the village, Adah learns that President Eisenhower is planning to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected leader of the Congo. (In real life, Eisenhower was supportive of a military coup in the Congo. He believed that Lumumba, a suspected socialist, would be more sympathetic to the Soviet Union; wanting to avoid an African alliance against the United States, Eisenhower had Lumumba murdered and replaced with a pro-U.S. dictator.)

Adah can't believe that Eisenhower—whose popular image is that of a kind, grandfatherly old man—is secretly capable of ordering the murder of innocent people. On a more symbolic level, Adah's surprise in this scene reflects her general distrust of patriarchy in general, whether that of Eisenhower or Nathan himself. The image of respectability and trustworthiness that strong, authoritative men project is often an illusion, concealing hypocrisy or duplicity.

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 68 Quotes

Neto is about Anatole’s age, also educated by missionaries. He’d already gone abroad to study medicine and returned home to open a clinic, where his own people could get decent care, but it didn’t work out. A gang of white policemen dragged him out of his clinic one day, beat him half to death, and carted him off to prison. The crowds that turned up to demand his release got cut down like trees by machine-gun fire. Not only that, but the Portuguese army went out burning villages to the ground, to put a damper on Neto’s popularity. Yet, the minute he got out of prison, he started attracting droves of people to an opposition party in Angola.

Related Characters: Leah Price (speaker), Anatole Ngemba , Agostinho Neto
Page Number: 431-432
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Leah describes the life she's made for herself after Ruth May's death (the event that broke up her family). Years have passed, and Leah is now married to Anatole Ngemba, the young man who tutored her when she first arrived in the Congo. Anatole has been in correspondence with Agostinho Neto, a young, ambitious political leader who sees himself as the successor to Patrice Lumumba. Like Lumumba, Neto is enormously popular with the people of the Congo (and Angola), though he alienates the government with his socialist views.

Leah's impressions of Neto suggest how political she's become since Ruth May's death. By marrying Anatole, Leah has committed to a lifetime of political engagement: support for Neto and other elected leaders, and general investment in the wellbeing of the Congo. Although Leah is clearly shocked by the way the government has treated Neto, she has a quiet optimism that Neto will succeed in his political goals—he has enough supporters to guarantee his success in the long run.

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 73 Quotes

“Oh, Rachel, Rachel,” Leah said. “Let me give you a teeny little lesson in political science. Democracy and dictatorship are political systems; they have to do with who participates in the leadership. Socialism and capitalism are economic systems. It has to do with who owns the wealth of your nation, and who gets to eat. Can you grasp that?”

Related Characters: Rachel Price (speaker), Leah Price (speaker)
Page Number: 478
Explanation and Analysis:

Years after Ruth May's death, the remaining Price sisters reunite in Africa. During their trip across the continent, Rachel claims that the socialists of the Congo are immoral and un-American, and that Ronald Reagan is going to install democracy and freedom in the country. Leah, clearly impatient with her sister's small-mindedness, corrects her sarcastically, pointing out that socialism and democracy are unrelated concepts—one doesn't exclude the other.

Leah's exchange with her sister shows how ignorant Rachel is of the realities of global politics: Rachel is totally willing to believe that socialism is un-American, simply because Ronald Reagan says so. As teenagers, Leah and Rachel were equally ignorant of politics and economics, but now that they're adults, it's clear that they've grown apart, intellectually and emotionally.

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.