The Poisonwood Bible Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 3:part 4

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Summary: Rachel is understandably upset at the idea of marrying Tata Ndu, despite reassurances from her mother that such a marriage will not take place. Her agitation leads to increased conflict with and punishment from her father (but fortunately for Rachel, Adah and Leah secretly help her copy out The Verse). Meanwhile, Ruth continues to grow sicker. When the girls move Ruth’s bed into the main room of the house, they discover 61 malaria pills pressed into the wall behind the bed—one for each week that the family has been in Kilanga.
Analysis: Leah grasps that a refusal of Tata Ndu’s “proposal” will offend not only the chief but also the entire village: “Tata Ndu is the voice of the people. And that voice was now telling us we’d be less of a burden to ourselves and others if we let him buy Rachel off our hands for some goats. It kind of put us on the spot” (p. 266). It is further evidence of her growth as one who understands the people of Kilanga, in contrast to the rest of her family. She recognizes the complexity of the situation, and seems to be developing an aptitude for looking at life from other points of view (even if she does not herself accept them). Her friendship (and perhaps more?) with Anatole contributes to this development, since he can explain multiple points of view to her; for example, in regards to the Western system of elections imposed upon the Congo by Belgium before Independence. The system of majority rules stands in contrast to the native ethos of consensus (“The way it seems to work here is that you need one hundred percent,” p. 265). The mention of this difference so soon in the novel after the rumblings of Tshombe’s secessionist movement are likely meant by Kingsolver to foreshadow troubling political developments to come.
Readers do not know, at this point, why Ruth has not been taking her preventative malaria pills. Perhaps she forgot; perhaps she feared their taste; perhaps she was simply—as she has described herself in earlier chapters—“being bad.” Whatever the reason, the consequences have grown dire. In contrast to the hope chest projects the girls undertook earlier, this hiding of pills “had been Ruth May’s project for a very long time” (p. 267).
Summary: In an effort to dissuade Tata Ndu from seeking to marry Rachel, Nathan and Eeben Axelroot devise a plan: Axelroot and Rachel pretend to be promised to each other, and they spend a lot of time on the porch of the Price house, making a public show of their mock engagement—much to Rachel’s displeasure.
Analysis: Rachel’s penchant for malapropisms reappears in this chapter—a sign, no doubt, of her agitation (“I’m all steamed up with no place to go,” p. 268) over not only the situation involving Tata Ndu but also the resolution that “Father and Mr. Axelroot [have] hatched up” to deal with it (p. 268). “I’m willing to be a philanderist for peace,” she says (p. 269)—she means “philanthropist,” but instead uses a word used to mean a man who is carrying on an illicit sexual affair (which may perhaps cause us to wonder if there is already a Mrs. Axelroot back in the United States). She says that, among the village children, she feels “like Gulliver among the Lepidopterans” (p. 269)—she means the Lilliputians, but uses the word for the large order of insects that includes butterflies and moths (and so perhaps betrays her true feelings about the Congolese people). She says she prefers “to remain anomalous” (p. 270) when Orleanna tries to have meaningful conversations with her—she means to say “anonymous,” but instead uses a word that means deviant. Although the situation is not without its comic aspects, readers may also fear for Rachel’s safety. Axelroot has not been established as the most trustworthy man (recall that Ruth has seen him engaged in illegal diamond smuggling, and that he underpays the Kilangans for their goods and overcharges them for what he brings back from Leopoldville). To her credit, Rachel attempts to develop a plan to turn the situation to her family’s advantage: “My unspoken plan is that, if I can butter him up enough, maybe he’ll change his mind and fly us out of here” (p. 269). However, as we have learned earlier in the book, Rachel’s “downfall” in the second grade spelling bee “was the ridiculously easy word scheme” (p. 222)—an indication, perhaps, that Rachel’s “scheme” now is not likely to work. Given Axelroot’s untrustworthy nature (note all the stories he tells Rachel about himself being “a very important figure in the Congo at this moment of history,” working for the CIA and such, p. 270) and his unwanted sexual advances toward her (“believe it or not, Axelroot tried to get fresh,” p. 269), readers can only question, again, the wisdom of the way the Rev. Price treats his daughters. His and Axelroot’s “for appearance’s sake” engagement plan seems fraught with peril for Rachel.
Ruth May
Summary: Sick and still bedridden with malaria, Ruth continues to have disturbing dreams. She also overhears her parents talking about the local practice of “circus mission” done to girls when they marry (i.e., female circumcision). Orleanna accuses Nathan of not being “any kind of a father” because he does not seem worried about protecting his own daughters, and even seems willing to actually let Rachel marry Axelroot. Ruth does not like Axelroot: she remembers how he “put his hands on [her] hard” the time she discovered diamonds on his plane and threatened that, should she tell anyone, her parents would grow sick and die. Ruth thinks she is now sick in her parents’ place because of various “bad things” she has done. Meanwhile, Orleanna collects and saves the malaria pills that Ruth spat out of her mouth (as it turns out, simply because they tasted bad) in order that the family may use them when their original supply of pills runs out.
Analysis: Ruth’s feverish malaria dreams continue to present readers with potentially ominous imagery, even though, for her part, Ruth prefers her sleeping to her waking: “In the dreams that I get to watch I can catch the lizards and they’re my pets… When I wake up I don’t have them anymore and I’m sad. So I don’t wake up if I don’t have to” (p. 271). She also gets confused in her dreams as to whether Rachel is going to marry Nathan. Perhaps this unusual note sounds because of Nathan’s involvement in the mock engagement scheme with Axelroot, although Ruth also gives readers occasion to wonder how committed Nathan may actually be to the plan: “Father said he was doing what he could and at least Mr. Axelroot was a better bargain” (p. 272). Nathan does not plan to actually marry his daughter off to Axelroot, does he? In her first chapter, Adah told us that Nathan regarded her condition as a “Christmas bonus” from God because it meant the home would have that much less female “blabber” (p. 34). Does the Rev. Price in some way agree with Tata Ndu that the family would be better off with one less mouth to feed, one less person to clothe? (cf. pp. 262-263). Or is his comment simply one more example of his unthinking attitude toward his daughters, not to mention his wife, who has “a conniption fit” in response (p. 272)? Orleanna accuses her husband of not being “any kind of a father”: when he is shocked to learn about the local custom of female circumcision (genital mutilation), she wonders “[s]ince when did he start to care about protecting young ladies” (p. 272). Even Nathan’s objection seems motivated less by simple human kindness and more by fundamentalist religious ideology: “Can’t you see how much work we must do? They are leading these female children like lambs to the slaughter” (p. 272). Certainly, few readers would argue that the practice of female genital mutilation is desirable. Even today, decades after the time in which Kingsolver’s novel is set, the practice continues to be a problem, viewed by much of the modern world as a human rights issue to be corrected. No amount of respect for other cultures can justify the practice—and yet: Nathan’s immediate response is focused as much upon his role as a Western “savior” than on the victims of the “circus mission.” As always, the issue becomes framed in terms of the work that “we”—meaning he—“have to do.” We are not told what Orleanna thinks of female circumcision—doubtless she opposes it, as well—but her response is arguably more properly focused upon her immediate duty as a parent, caring for her own daughters. Nathan approaches life as a divinely mandated program of social change, seeing dangers to other females while failing to see the dangers to the women in his own family (not least of which the harm he is causing them himself).
One of those dangers Nathan does not see is that Axelroot physically threatened, perhaps even harmed, Ruth when she happened to discover his shipment of illegal diamonds. Ruth does not go into detail, simply saying, twice, “he put his hands on me hard” (p. 273). Kingsolver thus effectively amplifies readers’ sense of Axelroot as a menacing figure. What exactly does Ruth mean? What precisely happened? We do not know, but given that we have seen Axelroot attempting to “get fresh” with Rachel on the porch, and that we have heard him make possibly sexually suggestive comments to Orleanna (regarding the price of getting the family out of the Congo), we can only wonder and worry whether Axelroot molested Ruth. Such abuse might account for her repeated insistence, earlier in the book, that she was “bad”—abuse victims often respond to the trauma in this way, even though such self-judgment has no basis in reality. Whatever the case may be, we do see that Ruth is viewing her malaria as a kind of vicarious suffering on behalf of her parents: “I didn’t tell [about the diamonds—and also, perhaps, about the abuse, since abusers generally threaten their victims not to tell?]. So I got sick instead of Mama and Daddy both” (p. 273). Strictly speaking, she got sick because she didn’t take her preventative malaria pills (“I couldn’t help it. They tasted too bad,” p. 272); but here we see Ruth assigning a larger, metaphysical aspect to her malaria—a kind of vicarious suffering readers may be tempted to see Christological overtones in. The connection may not be unreasonable, given Kingsolver’s penchant for even indirect biblical allusions. The New Testament is repelete with references to Jesus’ suffering for the sake of others (e.g., “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed,” 1 Peter 2.24). Furthermore, as we will see in Adah’s next chapter, Ruth’s eventual recovery from her malaria will be compared to a resurrection. Is Ruth May in some sense a Christ-figure, whose suffering will prove salvific for her family? Such an outcome does not, at this point in the text, allay any lingering suspicions that she may die: the last, foreboding point from her dreams is the image of the tree. “If I die,” she says, “I will disappear and I know where I’ll come back [a reference to the power of the nkisi that Nelson gave her]. I’ll be right up there in the tree…”—readers may remember biblical and Christian references to Christ’s cross as a “tree” (e.g., “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree,’” Gal. 3.13)—“I will look down on you”—from heaven? as a “judge” (cf. Orleanna’s chapter in Book Three, let alone its overall title)—“but you won’t see me”—a final, haunting reference in this chapter to the novel’s thematic interest in what is seen and what is unseen (p. 273).
Summary: Rachel’s seventeenth birthday passes largely unnoticed by her family, although Orleanna does present her with a pair of her own earrings and matching necklace, with a loving note, before returning her attention to Ruth’s sponge bath. 
Analysis: Aside from Rachel’s (justifiable) anger that she doesn’t get “a speck of attention on [her] birthday” (p. 274) apart from Orleanna’s note and gift, which Rachel does acknowledge, if somewhat begrudgingly (“it was nice to have some small token… Sometimes Mother really does try. I gave her a kiss and thanked her,” p. 275), this chapter also reveals that Anatole has enlisted Leah’s help in teaching math at the village school. “It is only math,” Rachel comments, “the dullest bore in the entire world” (p. 275)—apparently not seeing what Adah sees (in the next chapter), the affection Leah has for Anatole. (Adah, for her part, is the only other family member who knows what the date is, “on account of keeping that backwards diary of hers,” p. 274, although Rachel does not say that Adah notes the occasion of Rachel’s birthday; in fact, she essentially accuses Adah of getting stung by a scorpion that day “to detract attention away from me,” p. 275—another of Rachel’s singularly appropriate malapropisms.)
Summary: Adah updates the ways in which her family members (save her father) have recently changed. Ruth has recovered from her malaria. Orleanna is taking the girls for picnics in the jungle, and is even now unafraid to walk barefoot in the African grass. Rachel is “hysterical” over her faux engagement to Axelroot but also spends a lot of time looking at herself in the mirror in her birthday jewelry. Leah spends much time with Anatole, teaching his students math and learning French and Kikongo from him. She has also been taught to use the bow, carved for her by Anatole, by Nelson. For all of these reasons, Adah has now come to be viewed by the villagers, ironically, as more “normal” than her twin. Adah wonders what repercussions will come from Leah stepping outside Kilanga’s socially acceptable norms.
Analysis: “Our Father was preaching the gospel of poisonwood,” Adah says, commenting on the way the Rev. Price continues to mispronounce the Kikongo language (p. 276). This is the first explicit mention of poisonwood in the novel’s text for some time, and will no doubt prove significant, even if readers cannot sense the full symbolic freight of the moment at this time. At the very least, it represents Nathan’s continuing disconnect from the culture in which he is living. Contrast his distance from Africa (he is only speaking in Kikongo because “more and more” he is “mistrusting his interpreters,” p. 276) with Orleanna’s increased connection to it. Far from her previous practice of keeping her daughters indoors, she is now taking them for picnics by a jungle stream. “When we run off and she thinks we cannot see”—note again the theme of sight: Adah sees what others do not—“she sways in the clearing, gently, like a tree blown by wind. Despite the risk of hookworm, she removes her shoes” (p. 277). It is a small detail, but full of significance. Not only does it convey Orleanna’s desire for freedom and her increased willingness to work toward it, it has biblical resonance: readers may recall that Moses, God’s reluctant prophet of liberation, was instructed to take off his shoes in the Sinai, for God told him he was standing on holy ground (see Exodus 3.5). Adah has, in previous chapters, glimpsed ways in which God may be at work in the Prices’ circumstance (despite her disbelief)—she may be seeing another one now. Theological implications aside, Kingsolver’s possible biblical allusion underscores the moment as illuminated in readers’ minds.
This chapter also contains yet another symbolic “resurrection”: “Ruth May rose from the dead” (p. 276). Adah means only that her sister has recovered from her bout with malaria, but she does go on to detail the ways in which her family members have changed. Indeed, she further illustrates the power of nommo and naming by giving her family new, palindromic names. Significantly, only the Rev. Price’s name remains relatively unchanged, whether read forward or backward (“Nathan” vs. “Nahtan”). This stubborn man refuses to change and so remains “essentially himself” (p. 276)—no mean feat, considering what the women in his life have been facing, enduring and, in some cases, rising to meet. A case in point could be Leah. Although Adah casts aspersions on Leah’s new activities (her sister, she says, has “come down with a devout interest in the French and Kikongo languages—specificially, in learning them from Anatole,” p. 277), readers can also view the same development as more evidence of Leah’s personal growth. Her burgeoning romantic interest in Anatole cannot be overlooked, of course, but neither is it the full story. Adah is right, however, to note—again, with her keener sight—that Leah “fails to see that Anatole is breaking rules for her, and this will have consequences” (p. 278). In this regard, Leah is living up to her biblical namesake: her “eyes,” fixed as they are on Anatole, are “weak.”
Adah’s mention of Hester Prynne is an allusion to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), in which Hester Prynne’s Puritan community, in colonial New England, forces her to wear a red “A” on her clothing as her punishment for adultery. In Hawthorne’s novel, Prynne is fully aware of her supposed sin and its consequences; in contrast, Adah calls Leah “an oblivious Hester Prynne” who “carries her letter, the green capital D of her bow slung over her shoulder. D for Dramatic, or Diana of the Hunt [i.e., the Roman goddesss not only of hunting but also of the moon, virginity and childbirth—an allusion within an allusion, fitting for Adah’s mental, literary and linguistic agility!], or Devil Take your Social Customs” (p. 278). According to Adah, Leah, like Hester Prynne, is violating social conventions, and, unlike Hawthorne’s heroine, is uknowingly inviting social sanctions upon herself for doing so.
Summary: Having heard reports of violence against white people in other parts of the Congo, Leah asks Anatole if his students hate her for being white. Anatole assures her that the boys’ reactions are only the product of the way women in general are viewed in his culture, as well as the boys’ fathers’ reactions to independence: “white people should not be in the Congo telling us what to do.” They discuss many Africans’ resentment of rich white nations such as America. Anatole also tells her that he is motivated to continue translating the Rev. Price’s worship services mostly because Anatole is a pragmatic realist, looking for things that will help his country, no matter the source—even if something helpful happens to come from Nathan! He also wants his fellow Kilangans to be able to make up their own mind about Christianity.  Anatole tells Leah that his name for her, béene-béene, means “as true as the truth can be.”
Analysis: Leah’s romantic and physical interest in Anatole is, by this chapter, explicit and undeniable: “Anatole’s face drawn in profile… looks like a Pharaoh of a god in an Egyptian painting” (p. 279). Leah’s choice of comparison is arresting, evoking as it does the “pagan” mythology of ancient Egypt, comparing Anatole to a divine being. Even though the language is, of course, figurative, such word choices in richly symbolic novels like Kingsolver’s carry consequences. It provokes as yet unanswered questions in readers’ minds, chief among them wonderings about how Leah’s feelings for Anatole affect and are affected by her feelings about God—and, inevitably bound up with those, her feelings about her father. “I oughtn’t to laugh at my father,” she tells Anatole (p. 285), even as the two of them are sharing laughter at Nathan’s stubborn insistence on his work, work that seems as futile as “trying to put rubber tires on a horse” (p. 284). Clearly, Anatole is, knowingly or not, in the process of replacing Nathan as the most important man in Leah’s life. Such a development is only to be expected as girls grow into women, but readers may wonder how Nathan will react—especially to the fact that this newly important male figure is African and, in Nathan’s eyes, “other.”
Her feelings for Anatole do lead her to engage him in further, revelatory conversations, in which Leah comes to see herself and her nation through different eyes. The symbols of sight thus continue to play an important role in this chapter—for instance, Anatole’s spectacles, which “have good lenses that magnify things; when I try them on, even French words look large and easy to read” (p. 279). When Leah looks at her situation, the Congo and the world through Anatole’s lenses, both literally and figuratively, she sees in a new, clearer way: “we were nothing but little mice squirming through [the Congo] in our dark little pathways. In Congo, it seems the land owns the people. How could I explain to Anatole about soybean fields where men sat in huge tractors like kings on thrones, taming the soil from one horizon to the other? It seemed like a memory trick or a bluegreen dream: impossible” (p. 283). (This new outlook on the world is to some extent mutual—note how Leah teaches Anatole that the world is round, and offers to make a globe for him, p. 287—but Leah seems to gain far more insight from Anatole than he from her.) Leah’s awareness not only of the differences between life in America and in the Congo but also of those differences’ significance, and further of the possibility of a new way of ordering life more in harmony with the land, continues to grow. Unlike her father, Leah is learning that she must adapt to the Congo, and not vice versa.
Summary: Axelroot visits Rachel the day after her birthday, taking her for a long walk through the village and, eventually, into the jungle—even though Rachel had promised her mother they would not go anywhere out of sight. Axelroot gives Rachel a cigarette and also gives her an unsolicited kiss, which Rachel finds she both does and does not enjoy. He brags to Rachel that he knows a big secret: “Somebody’s going to die… Somebody that matters.” He alludes to his purported involvement in a covert operation, telling Rachel that “Big Shot” has ordered “Devil One” to replace the newly elected Congolese government by force. Patrice Lumumba has been marked for assassination. Rachel doubts that Axelroot is really involved in the plan, convinced that he is just trying to impress her.
Analysis: Once again, a knowledge of the Congo’s historical background increases readers’ appreciation of Kingsolver’s novel. Rachel’s “make-believe date for appearances” with Axelroot takes place, she states, on August 21, 1960 (p. 288). On that date, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Ralph Bunche, who had represented the United Nations at Prime Minister Lumumba’s inauguration and who had remained for a time to offer the new government assistance, departed; his health had grown quite poor, due in no small part to the stressful state of affairs in the Congo (although Lumumba had, on August 13, already demanded the withdrawal of all white UN peacekeeping forces; for a detailed timeline, see “Crisis in the Congo,” http://www.ralphbunche.com/education/pdf_resources/Bunche_module10.pdf). There is great irony, therefore, in Rachel’s statement at the chapter’s conclusion: “I may be a preacher’s daughter, but I know a thing or two. And one of them is, when men want to kiss you they act like they are just on the brink of doing something that’s going to change the whole world” (p. 294). Rachel does actually seem to know something about (stereo)typical male behavior around women they want to impress; for example, she correctly predicts that her silence will egg Axelroot on into revealing his secret (“I could tell he was itching to, so I didn’t ask. I know a thing or two about men,” p. 293). She does not, however, possess knowledge of her larger context—as Axelroot himself tells her: “You still think you’re the epicenter of a continent, don’t you, Princess?” (p. 293). To be fair, readers do not know, at this pont, whether Axelroot is telling the truth, although our knowledge of his other illicit activity (i.e., diamond smuggling) might lead us to suspect that he is. Such suspicions will be confirmed by Adah in the next chapter. Thus, while Axelroot is definitely trying to impress Rachel, he is, in fact, “on the brink of doing something that’s going to change the world”—at least, the world of African politics (not only internally but with international implications), as well as the immediate world of the Price family. Further evidence of Rachel’s ignorance of her context, if any were needed, may be found not only in the fact that she does not know the location of Elisabethville but also in her particularly amusing malapropism earlier in the chapter: when Axelroot informs Rachel that “Katanga has seceded from the Congo,” Rachel responds she’s simply glad that “somebody has succeeded in something” (p. 292). The repeated emphasis on Rachel’s malapropisms may remind readers of Adah’s earlier observation about the perils of “failures of words… It is a dangerous thing, I now understand, to make mistakes with nommo in the Congo” (p. 213).  Unlike her sister, Rachel never seems to understand that reality. The danger in her case is the danger of ignorance. Instead of choosing to engage with Africa and its people, as Leah does, Rachel holds her environment at arms’ length. She is not completely without appreciation for it; several times in this chapter, she comments that she can almost find beauty in it. “Sometimes you can start thinking the Congo is almost pretty. Almost” (p, 288); and again, “[S]ome of [the women] here I guess are very pretty in their way” (p. 291). But Rachel does not accept Kilanga and the Kilangans on their own terms. She continues to judge them (recall the title of this third book of the novel) by her own, Western standards (e.g., she surmises, in the same breath, that she may only be seeing suggestions of beauty in the Kilangan women because “it has just been too long since I’ve seen a fashion magazine,” p. 291).
In the end, however, Rachel is still young, despite Axelroot’s perhaps—or probably—flattering comment, “I’d have taken you for older,” p. 290. “Honestly, did he think I was a child?” (p. 292). Yet Rachel both is and is not a child. Young people (no less, of course, than many older ones) often have trouble learning to see the world and other people in different, non-judgmental ways. So readers are likely not entirely unsympathetic to Rachel, any more than she is entirely unsympathetic to Africa. They may especially fear for her, as Orleanna clearly does, when she is alone with Axelroot (Orleanna “doesn’t trust him as far as she could throw him, and believe you me from the look in her eye”—here again, the novel’s emphasis on sight; Orleanna “sees through” Axelroot for the threat that he represents when Nathan does not—“I think she could throw him pretty far,” p. 288). As a 17-year-old, Rachel is experiencing the same adolescent awakening regarding sexuality that Leah is, but Rachel’s experience is complicated by the fact that she has been thrust into a “make-believe” courtship with Axelroot by her father, a situation that readers may suspect Axelroot wants to take advantage of. At some level, Rachel seems to suspect his motives, too; but she is fascinated by her development as an object of romantic and sexual interest, and seems unable to navigate the nearly impossible situation her father has put her in. Notably (given the novel’s title), she refers to the outfit she wears on her “date” as “poison-green, which has now officially faded to poison drab” (p. 288)—her choice of the word “poison” seems significant, indicating that she is aware of an element of danger. She sees “the telltale signs that [Axelroot] is a certified creep,” but nonetheless can also see him as “very nearly almost… handsome” (p. 288). When he places both of their cigarettes in his mouth to light them and then puts her cigarette in her mouth, Rachel feels a sensation she cannot identify as “thrill chills or the creeps” (p. 290). And when Axelroot plants an unsought kiss (her first kiss) on her, she find she both “didn’t and did want him to do it. Mostly I did” (pp. 292-293). Rachel, readers can see, is in a very vulnerable position with a potentially very dangerous man—dangerous to her, and to the Congo.


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