The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

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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.
Women and Sexism Theme Icon

Many of the characters in The Poisonwood Bible, especially Orleanna Price and her four daughters, struggle with society’s expectations for how women should behave. On one hand, they have to contend with Nathan Price, who represents one set of sexist social expectations for women (those of the Christian and Western world); on the other, the Price women face the sexism of the Congo, where the vast majority of women have no education, and where it’s not uncommon for men to have multiple wives.

One of the basic similarities between these two forms of sexism is the idea that women should be docile and domestic. Nathan Price is reluctant to let his children attend college, because he believes that women should stay in the home, take care of the children, and not have proper jobs or careers. It’s clear enough that the villagers of Kilanga believe in the same principle—most of the women in the community are married off by the time they’re 10 or 12 (since women’s primary purpose is to take care of the house and children, there’s no point in waiting around longer to see what kinds of careers they’re fit for). Ironically, then, Nathan and the Congolese men have a great deal in common: they subscribe to the same form of sexism. This is especially surprising considering the contrast that Kingsolver draws between the domineering West (represented by Nathan and by the Belgian and U.S. governments) and the exploited Congolese (represented by the people of Kilanga, Lumumba, etc.)—even an exploited culture, it would seem, can still endorse the exploitation of its own women.

Because Kingsolver’s protagonists are women, their development over the course of the novel suggests some ways that women learn to fight sexism and misogyny. Interestingly, the Price sisters seem to end up attaining a greater degree of autonomy and power in the Congo than they would have had they grown up in the United States. Because of the fragility of Congolese society (during the course of the novel the government changes hands at least three times) Adah, Leah, Rachel, and even Ruth May are forced into situations where they’re forced to lead, teach, control, and fight—in other words, to conform to the male stereotypes of their own society. Encouraged by their successes in the Congo, the Price sisters enter adulthood and continue to disrupt sexist expectations. Adah becomes a doctor (traditionally a male-dominated profession) and even Rachel, who seems perfectly willing to play the role of a ditzy, pretty lady, ends up owning her own successful hotel. Witnessing the collapse of a culture—a sexist, misogynistic culture—teaches the Price children to question any culture that orders them to be inferior to men.

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Women and Sexism ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Poisonwood Bible related to the theme of Women and Sexism.
Book 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

“Nakedness,” Father repeated, “and darkness of the soul! For we shall destroy this place where the loud clamor of the sinners is waxen great before the face of the Lord.” No one sang or cheered anymore. Whether or not they understood the meaning of “loud clamor,” they didn’t dare be making one now. They did not even breathe, or so it seemed. Father can get a good deal across with just his tone of voice, believe you me. The woman with the child on her hip kept her back turned, tending to the food.

Related Characters: Nathaniel Price (speaker), Rachel Price (speaker)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Nathan and his family have arrived in the Congo. There, they’re welcomed into the Congolese village where they’ll remain for the next two years. Yet when Nathan is asked to say a few words to the villagers, his first instinct isn’t to extend his gratitude—instead, he uses his platform to rail against the Congolese way of life. Nathan attacks the villagers for their nakedness, implying that by refusing to wear clothes, the villagers are being sinful.

Nathan’s speech tells us a few things about the kind of man he is. First, it’s clear that Nathan is a strict, fundamentalist Christian: he has a rigid, unyielding understand of right and wrong—one that plenty of pious Christians would disagree with. Second, Nathan’s speech shows that he has no talent for leadership or politics—instead of trying to get the villagers on his side or show them any respect, he immediately treats them like naughty children. He’s so sure he’s right that he doesn’t care how many people he offends (and doesn't even care to learn the language of the people he's supposed to be "serving").


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Book 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

Once in a great while we just have to protect her. Even back when we were very young I remember running to throw my arms around Mother’s knees when he regaled her with words and worse, for curtains unclosed or slips showing—the sins of womanhood. We could see early on that all grown-ups aren’t equally immune to damage. My father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers, while our mother’s is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit.

Related Characters: Nathaniel Price (speaker), Leah Price (speaker), Orleanna Price
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Leah Price paints a tragic picture of life in the Price household. Nathan is the only man at home, but he's also in charge—and he has a rigid, sexist view of domestic life. The result is that whenever his wife or daughters do anything wrong, he's quick to yell at them or even hit them for their "sins of womanhood." Leah, her mother, and her siblings must join together to protect themselves from Nathan—and yet at this point, Leah still admires and loves her father greatly.

The passage closes with an interesting analogy; Nathan's faith, it's implied, is proud and militaristic. From what we've seen, Leah is right on target: Nathan is aggressive in his faith, and seems to think of himself as being superior to the people around him. Orleanna, Nathan's wife, is a religious woman, but she doesn't rub her religion in other people's faces, and she seems to have some objections to Christianity (it fits her second-hand, suggesting that she's only remained a Christian because of her family and her husband).

Book 1, Chapter 11 Quotes

“That road,” said our mother, bemused, gesturing with a lazy bent wrist out the window. “Why, I can’t imagine.” She shook her head, possibly not believing. Can she allow herself not to believe him? I have never known. “It was at the end of a dry season, Orleanna,” he snapped. “When it’s hot enough the puddles dry up.” You brainless nitwit, he did not need to add.

Related Characters: Nathaniel Price (speaker), Orleanna Price (speaker), Adah Price (speaker)
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage offers a good example of the way that Nathaniel belittles his family and keeps his wife "in line." When Orleanna asks a natural question, Nathan shoots back with an angry, irritable reply, sending a clear message that Orleanna should keep quiet.

It's interesting to consider that while Kingsolver's novel is full of scenes like this one, in which Nathan uses words in an almost violent way, there's no actual domestic violence in the novel. Kingsolver suggests that Nathan does the greatest damage to his wife and children by making them doubt their own intelligence and competence—snapping at them again and again until they've been trained to be quiet and obedient.

Book 3, Chapter 33 Quotes

But where is the place for girls in that Kingdom? The rules don’t quite apply to us, nor protect us either. What do a girl’s bravery and righteousness count for, unless she is also pretty? Just try being the smartest and most Christian seventh-grade girl in Bethlehem, Georgia. Your classmates will smirk and call you a square. Call you worse, if you’re Adah.

Related Characters: Leah Price (speaker), Adah Price
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Leah Price struggles with her Christian faith. Leah—who's always been Nathan's biggest fan—has learned from her father to work hard studying the Bible. But Leah also knows that studying the Bible doesn't count for much among her peers. No matter how pious and well-studied she is, her classmates in Georgia treat her like a square—all they care about is how pretty she is.

In short, Leah is beginning to doubt the lessons her father has always taught her. Although Nathan claims that Christian faith is sufficient to let a woman into Heaven, Leah has begun to notice that Nathan—and, for that matter, everyone else in her life—doesn't judge women according to their Christian faith at all. Nathan treats women like second-class citizens, no matter how learned or pious they are. Leah begins to realize that Christianity doesn't go far enough in addressing sexism. Eventually, Leah will turn to politics and the radical left as a way of addressing the bigotry of her society.

Book 3, Chapter 35 Quotes

Nelson squatted on his heels, his ashy eyelids blinking earnestly as he inspected Mother’s face. Surprisingly, she started to laugh. Then, more surprisingly, Nelson began to laugh, too. He threw open his near-toothless mouth and howled alongside Mother, both of them with their hands on their thighs. I expect they were picturing Rachel wrapped in a pagne trying to pound manioc. Mother wiped her eyes. “Why on earth do you suppose he’d pick Rachel?” From her voice I could tell she was not smiling, even after all that laughter. “He says the Mvula’s, strange color would cheer up his other wives.”

Related Characters: Orleanna Price (speaker), Adah Price (speaker), Lekuyu / Nelson (speaker), Tata Ndu
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tata Ndu, the leader of the Congolese village where the Prices live now, has asked for Rachel's hand in marriage. The Prices are shocked by Ndu's request, not least because Ndu already has many other wives. Here, Orleanna and Nelson laugh about the absurdity of the situation. Nelson points out that Ndu wants to marry Rachel not because he loves her, but because her skin and hair color will complement that of his other wives.

The passage is important because it reminds us of the sexism in Kingala—a parallel to the sexism in Nathan's own household. Evidently, Ndu thinks of women as objects to be collected, rather than people. Orleanna, even though she laughs at the absurdity of the situation, becomes serious as she contemplates Ndu's "desire" for her daughter. Orleanna's aim is always to protect her children, and here she realizes that her child is in danger of being "bought" by the sexist leader of the village.

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 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.