The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible


Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver was born in Maryland, but she spent most of her childhood in Kentucky. When she was only seven years old, her father, a doctor, moved his family to the Congo, where he worked in the public health sector for many years (this period of Kingsolver’s life would form the basis for The Poisonwood Bible). Kingsolver studied music at Depauw University in Indiana. She began studying biology toward the end of her time in college, and graduated with a B.S. degree. She later studied ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. By the mid-80s, Kingsolver was earning a living as a science writer in Arizona. She married in 1985, and had a child two years later, but separated from her husband in 1992. It was in 1988 that Kingsolver published her first novel, The Bean Trees, a surprise hit. Kingsolver followed this book with Animal Dreams (1990), Pigs in Heaven (1993), and The Poisonwood Bible, usually regarded as her best novel. Kingsolver continues to write fiction and nonfiction.
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Historical Context of The Poisonwood Bible

Poisonwood alludes to a great many historical events—too many to name in this summary. However, some of the most important would be the rise of 19th-century imperialism, the Cold War, the election and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and the so-called “Congo Crisis.” Throughout the 19th century, the powerful nation-states of Western Europe sent expeditions to other parts of the world, especially in Asia and Africa. Over time, countries like France, England, and Belgium established strong military outposts in these continents, where they harvested the natural resources for their own benefit—essentially stealing the wealth of Asia and Africa from Asians and Africans. In the Belgian colony of the Congo, for instance, Belgians established a colony that was internationally notorious for its cruelty to the Congolese tribes. Rumors circulated (and were later confirmed) of Belgian imperialists cutting off Africans’ hands and torturing African babies. By the end of the Second World War, Belgium’s presence in the Congo had almost completely ended. But as Belgium prepared to pull out of the Congo, the United States prepared to control the Congo for the first time. The U.S. was eager to exercise political control over the so-called Third World (the underdeveloped countries of the world, largely in Asia, Africa, and South America) in order to maintain a strategic advantage over its rival, the Soviet Union: this struggle for control of the Third World was a crucial aspect of the Cold War between the two superpowers. In the early 1960s, a Congolese leader named Patrice Lumumba rose to prominence in the Congo, promoting an ideology of democracy, socialism, and equality. Because the U.S. government feared that Lumumba’s ideas would tilt the country in the direction of the Soviet Union (a Communist state), the Central Intelligence Agency arranged to assassinate Lumumba and replace him with a leader—Mobutu— who would be more sympathetic to American interests. Mobutu wielded power over the Congo for many years, since he was backed by American money and weaponry. But by the 1980s, Mobutu was dying of cancer—as Kingsolver sees it, a symbol of the limited power of the U.S. to influence democracy and freedom in the Congo.

Other Books Related to The Poisonwood Bible

No novel about Westerners journeying to Africa can help but allude to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1900), still the most influential work of fiction on this theme. And yet where Conrad’s novel (which is, like Poisonwood, set in the Congo) deals with the legacy of Western imperialism from the point of view of the colonizers, marginalizing and even demonizing the African people, Kingsolver wants to depict the Congolese with sensitivity and respect. In this way, Poisonwood draws its inspiration from such contemporary works as Song of Solomon (1974) and Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison; A Bend in the River (1979) by V. S. Naipaul, and The Conservationist (1974) by Nadine Gordimer, all of which examine the legacy of colonialism through a feminist lens.
Key Facts about The Poisonwood Bible
  • Full Title:The Poisonwood Bible
  • Where Written:Atlanta, New York City
  • When Published:Fall 1998
  • Literary Period: Post-colonial literature, third wave feminism
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Setting:Congo, Georgia, Angola (1960-1980s)
  • Climax:The death of Ruth May Price
  • Antagonist:Arguably Nathaniel Price; more generally, though, the forces of capitalism and Western imperialism.
  • Point of View:The novel switches between many different points of view: those of Orleanna, Adah, Ruth May, Rachel, and Leah Price.

Extra Credit for The Poisonwood Bible

No stranger to controversy: As you can probably guess from reading Poisonwood, Barbara Kingsolver is no stranger to political controversy. During the early 1990s, she left the country to protest the Bush administration’s decision to wage war in the Persian Gulf. A decade later, she was in the news again for criticizing Bush the Younger’s “War on Terror.”

Awards!: Kingsolver has won or been nominated for many prestigious honors over the years. She was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poisonwood, and won the Los Angeles Time Book Award. Possibly her greatest honor, though, is Poisonwood being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.