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.
Imperialism Quotes in The Poisonwood Bible
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“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?
“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?”
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!