The Poisonwood Bible Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 1:part 4

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Summary: Adah describes how she and her Leah were identified as gifted children in the Bethlehem schools, and discusses her fascination with numbers and language (particularly palindromes). She talks about Methuselah, the cursing parrot left behind by Brother Fowles; and describes “The Verse,” the punishment of copying out one hundred verses of Scripture (culminating in a verse that is applicable to the offense) meted out by her father. The rainy season descends upon Kilanga, severely damaging the Rev. Price’s demonstration garden. He and Leah set about replanting it; this time, Nathan follows Mama Tataba’s advice, and shapes the ground into burial mound-shaped embankments. 
Analysis: This chapter further acquaints readers with ways in which Adah is unique. We learn that she is a voracious reader, reading much more broadly than the Bible and certain approved spiritual classics: “I had also recently read The Pilgrim’s Progress and Paradise Lost, which have weaker plot lines than Dr. Jekyll [and Mr. Hyde], and many other books Our Father does not know about” (p. 55). The inclusion of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous work about the warring good and evil natures of humanity (and, indeed, and extended quotation from it at the chapter’s beginning) is notable, further reinforcing the theme of “doubleness” introduced by the fact that Leah and Adah are twins. Adah confesses “a strong sympathy for Dr. Jekyll’s dark desires and for Mr. Hyde’s crooked body” (p. 55) alerts readers to be aware of ways in which, like Stevenson’s character, Adah may be harboring a secret identity. Surely, this chapter gives readers plenty of evidence that Adah keeps what she regards as her true self hidden from the world (e.g., “My hobby is to ignore the awards and excel when I choose… Speaking, as I said—along with the rest of life’s acrobatics—can be seen in a certain light as a distraction,” p. 57). Adah relishes her private view of life, a fact evidenced in her employment of wordplay, especially palindromes (words and sentences that read the same, forward and backward). She communicates—mainly with herself—in ways that only she can decipher and understand. She is quite clear on the fact that she does not have “a normal brain” (p. 57), and she seems glad of it: “I do owe a great debt to Miss Leep for saving me from the elementary [school] discard heap” (p. 56). Her father is opposed to the gifted education she and Leah were receiving, and does not hold high expectations for any of his daughters. Adah delights in the fact that he is wrong, just as she proved her doctors wrong; but she chooses not to reveal the true extent of her giftedness. Perhaps she feels, given her father’s and society’s attitudes toward any who are “different,” that not much good could come of it; perhaps keeping the knowledge of her giftedness to herself has become for her a sense of empowerment. Either way, she treasures her identity as “a perfect palindrome” (p. 58). (Incidentally, Adah’s practice of reading books themselves as palindromes—“When I finish reading a book from front to back, I read it back to front. It is a different book… and you can learn new things from it” (p. 57)—may prove important as, in effect, advice from Kingsolver about how best to read her novel.)
Methuselah—Brother Fowles’ parrot, named after the biblical figure said to have lived 969 years (Genesis 5:27) because “[p]arrots are known to be long-lived” (p. 58)—acquires symbolic value in this chapter. Although the Rev. Price is displeased by the bird’s cursing, “Methuselah could not be made to copy [verses from] the Bible,” Nathan’s preferred method of disciplining his children (p. 60). As Adah tells readers, “Methuselah was a sly little representative of Africa itself,” as undomesticated and unconquerable as the Africa represented by the opaki in Orelanna’s prologue. Methuselah is beyond the Reverend’s rules “in the same way Our Father was finding the Congolese people beyond his power” (p. 60). Again, readers may well wonder whether Adah’s name for Nathan refers solely to him in this context, or whether it is a transparent naming of God (or, perhaps more specifically, God as the Western Christian tradition, in its imperialistic and colonizing ways, has presented God). Another symbolic element in this chapter is the “large, oval white platter” (p. 61); although readers may not yet know all that it represents, it certainly represents some reality beyond itself. “Its origin is unfathomable,” says Adah. “If we forgot ourselves we might worship it” (p. 61). Like Methuselah, the platter was in the house before the Prices were; like the parrot, the platter is a beautiful thing; and, like the bird, the platter will figure prominently in upcoming action.
The chapter concludes with the image of Nathan reworking the soil of his garden into the “rectangular, flood-proof embankments, exactly the length and width of burial mounds” (p. 63) into which Mama Tataba had previously worked it. Adah concludes, “Our Father had been influenced by Africa” (p. 63). He has indeed, and readers may wonder whether this influence will continue, or remain an isolated incident. As Adah presents him, he is a stubborn man, but “[n]o one can say he does not learn his lesson, though it might take a deluge” (p. 63). This is one of the important questions the novel raises: what does it take, what will it take, to influence Nathan and his family, who have come seeking to influence Africa but who meet, time and again, its influence upon them instead? And what does such influence ultimately mean? 
Summary: Wanting to give Rachel a nice birthday party, Orleanna attempts to bake one of the Betty Crocker cake mixes the family brought with them. She is frustrated, however, by both the stove in the house and the oppressive tropical climate. As she tries to bake, she swears. Methuselah overhears the cursing and mimics it later in Nathan’s hearing. Nathan demands to know who is responsible for teaching the parrot the swear word; no one acknowledges the truth because the daughters are protecting their mother. As punishment, Nathan assigns all four girls the task of copying out a hundred verses from the book of Numbers.
Analysis: As in the chapter she previously narrated, Leah gives readers further indications of her intense attachment to her father. She “never fail[s] to be respectful of [her] father’s garden” (p. 64—which, readers will note, is thriving now that the Rev. Price is following Mama Tataba’s horticultural advice!). She claims that Nathan “understands everything” (p. 66). She says she has never “contradicted [her] father on any subject, ever” (p. 66). When he glares at her, she has a reaction that can read as either fear of punishment or an inappropriately erotically charged response: “Oh, dear Lord. He was staring directly at me. My heart palpitated fiercely” (p. 67). When he leaves after assigning his daughters “The Verse” (the punishment in which his daughters must copy a hundred Scripture verses, ending with a verse that names their “sin”), she says he left them “like orphans on the porch” (p. 67)—perhaps a hyperbolic reference that nonetheless indicates her depth of attachment to him. As she herself says, “I crave heaven and to be my father’s favorite” (p. 66).
The admission is striking, given that the biblical book of Genesis (with which, readers will recall, this first “book” of Kingsolver’s novel shares a title) is full of stories about parents playing favorites among their children (e.g., the conflicts between Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac and their respective mothers, Hagar and Sarah; Jacob’s favoritism toward his son Esau and Rachel’s favoritism toward Jacob; Jacob’s privileging of his son Joseph over the rest of his sons). In the Bible, little good comes of such family favoritism; readers can only suspect that the same will be true in Kingsolver’s novel. Leah’s devotion to her father contrasts with her attitude toward her mother. She claims she protects her mother’s secret even though “I’m the one to turn my back on her the most” (p. 68). Be that as it may—and readers have not yet seen evidence of her doing so—she is still sympathetic toward her mother regarding this incident She manages to understand the contrast between her mother’s harsh reality and her fondest dreams: “In her hand, Rachel’s Angel Dream cake mix, hard as a rock; in her heart, its heavenly, pink-frosted perfection, its candles ablaze, brought proudly to the table on that precious bone-china platter with the blue flowers” (p. 68). The platter here seems to symbolize the fragility of such dreams of perfection. All such dreams have to be abandoned. Recall how Ruth May earlier observed, “Anything that ever was white is not white here. That is not a color you see” (p. 50). In other, metaphorical terms, then, the whitness of the bone-china platter is an illusion. It promises a vision of domestic perfection, of familial harmony, that cannot be realized. Now, as Adah will point out in the next chapter, the lack of perfection (as white Westerners define it) is not necessarily a bad thing: “Here,” she will tell us, “bodily damage is more or less considered to be a by-product of living, not a disgrace” (p. 72)—much the same idea that Orleanna suggested to Nathan in an earlier chapter (see pp. 53-54). Adah find acceptances from and kinship with Mama Tataba “because, like me, she was imperfect” (p. 72). But at this point, in this chapter, Orleanna is still hoping against hope that she can bring some of the ideal of perfection from home into her family’s life in Kilanga (as she hinted at in her prologue). But such dreams prove to be as illusory and fragile as that beautiful bone-china platter, that object of whiteness—surely no coincidental detail—that can so easily become an idol: “If we forgot ourselves we might worship it,” said Adah (p. 61). 
Leah’s devotion to her father is also potentially troubling, given that Nathan seems to some extent misogynistic: Leah states that he gives Orleanna “words and worse”—physical blows? we are not told specifically—“for curtains unclosed or slips showing—the sins of womanhood” (p. 68). Such “sins” do not seem to merit punishment. Given what readers already know about Nathan’s discomfort with the human body—specifically, of course, the nude female body, seen in the welcoming feast at the church—we should not be surprised that he does not tolerate a shown slip. Unwittingly, perhaps, Leah gives us a further indication that marriage to Nathan is difficult for Orleanna when she invokes the image of Lot’s wife transforming into a pillar of salt (p. 65)—the second reference to that story in the novel thus far, the first having been Rachel’s mention of it in connection with her father’s first sermon (p. 27). In both instances, Lot’s wife is called the “poor wife”—and readers may some sympathy for Orelanna as a “poor wife” at this point, weeping “over the wreck of her useless cake mixes… banging in mortal frustration against that locomotive engine of a stove” (p. 68), married to a man who is quick to criticize (and perhaps worse) and who rebukes her when she even mildly ventures to express her own opinion (as we saw in their discussion of how the Kilangans view their bodies). Readers may well wonder to what extent Orleanna feels trapped by her relationship to this man; and they may fear that Leah is trapped, as well. She assumes her father’s reaction to the Methuselah episode “just goes to show I have much to learn” (p. 68), rather than questioning whether any wrong has, in fact, been done. 


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