The Poisonwood Bible

I read this book in the middle of finals week during my last quarter of college. To say the least, it was not very uplifting. I left my finals days of college with jungle fever, racial discrimination, and colonization.

To be fair though, if I had graduated without reading The Poisonwood Bible, I probably would have felt the same. (see: hatred of higher education).

Anyways, I’ve put off writing about it for more than a year because one; I was busy moving across the country, two; I was tuckered out of literary criticism, and three; it was a really long book and there’s almost too much to talk about.

I mean, I could analyze the significance of using books of the Bible as titles for the chapters, or gender construction and deconstruction. I could go on about cultural diffusion, or post-colonial cultural destruction.

But I think that today I want to talk about that glorious, self-glorified big brother, the good ole’ U S of A. And perhaps part of this is a little staggered, since I am an American Citizen myself, but I see this book as not necessarily just about a missionary family out to save the godless heathen natives of the jungle, but about the over-arching attitude that America has for our neighbors. In our efforts to improve the well-being of other nations, many times we effectively destroy cultural, economical, and psychological systems that had been doing just fine without our help. In our effort to “save” people, we have destroyed them. And the worst part is that we refuse to admit it.

In The Poisonwood Bible, an interesting theme to think about is the use of sight/ability to see: Nathan suffers from an old war wound that leaves him almost completely blind in his left eye. On the other hand, his otherwise disabled daughter Adah has remarkable vision, and is able to read words backwards and forwards, which givers her an interesting perspective on the world, and on the meaning of words, language, and symbols. We also have various modifications of this theme such as the forest itself being burning bright and blasted by sunlight during the day, but at night is so dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. We have the modification of “seeing” as a shift of cultural values; such as how the natives are nearly naked and can be fully seen in their nakedness, versus the westerners who arrive in thick, heavy, burdensome clothes that immediately become unbearable. There is also “sight” as in “inner revelation or salvation” while Nathan and his family go to the jungle to try to save the Natives from being doomed to the depths of hell, they fail to see their own shortcomings in trying to love their neighbors, the Kilanga, instead of only trying to convert them. We can even see it through the perspective of the plants that the Price’s try to plant: the western plants do not survive for more than a couple of days because they are either scorched, drowned, or crowded out by the native flora. The family refuse to “see” that their cultural ideas of agriculture die in the confines of the jungle. And of course we see it in the family: five tortured, suffering women forced to attempt an existence in a place where they clearly do not belong, because the head of the family is blind to their needs.

Obviously, the culmination of the novel is when the young and thoroughly innocent Ruth May dies; a telling symbol of American oppression indeed, as she was one of the only members of the Price family to try and openly befriend the tribe. It brings the inner turmoil to deadening finale: the actions of the greater part of the family to ignore their own ignorance, misunderstanding, and pride have lead to an irrevocable tragedy, and much in the way of American colonialism, the story concludes rather quietly with each woman’s different ending; some back to America, Rachel to set up a tourist business in the Congo, and Leah to try and “save” the natives; though in a very different way: reversing the damage that American colonialism has done.

And maybe in our typical self-absorbed way, we didn’t “see” that this novel wasn’t about savages in the heart of the jungle, but about us, the savages in crackerjack houses behind white picket fences.


About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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