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.
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age ThemeTracker
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Quotes in The Poisonwood Bible
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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?
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!
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.