The Poisonwood Bible: Theme Analysis
As might be expected from a novel with the word “Bible” in its title and a missionary as a main character, theological themes permeate Kingsolver’s book. For example, Adah calls the Rev. Price “Our Father,” conflating her earthly father with God (in a way not unlike her twin does, in the book’s earlier portions; Leah seems to treat Nathan with a reverence and distant adoration often given to a deity). This question of who God is (if, indeed, anyone) and what God’s will might be in a world where colonial powers are allowed to exploit Africa so and cripple its dreams of independence recur throughout the book, and are often crystallized in a way that further conflates a religious God with the “gods” of political powers enforcing the status quo. Orleanna’s question regarding the King of Belgium—“Is this how a father rules?”—applies equally to God, Nathan, and the foreign governments intervening and interfering in Africa, and demands answers.
Another theological theme that preoccupies the novel is that of “works theology.” Generally speaking, a “works theology” posits that human beings must to some degree earn their salvation, where as a “theology of grace” states that salvation is God’s free gift, one sinful humans are incapable of earning in any way. A “works theology” often goes hand-in-hand with a worldview reliant upon blessings for good behavior and curses for bad. Nathan has already advocated such a theology to Leah: “Small works of goodness over here… small rewards over here… Great sacrifice, great rewards!... God merely expects us to do our own share of the perspiring for life’s bounty, Leah” (p. 37). What such an interpretation of human “perspiring” doesn’t seem to take into account, however, is the text of Genesis (once more, recall that Kingsolver names her novel’s first book after the first book of the Bible, implicitly inviting readers to consider the two texts together). In Genesis, God curses the soil of the earth, from which God molded the first human beings, because of Adam and Eve’s transgression in tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: “Because you obeyed your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground thanks to you; in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, but you will eat the grain of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat food until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:17-19). Nathan’s “exegesis” of human toil is much closer to the so-called “Protestant work ethic”—the idea that God rewards diligence with material blessings—than it is the plain sense of Genesis 3. For a time in this chapter, however, it seems that Nathan’s faith in “works theology” may be wavering. His demonstration garden is blooming flowers, thanks to his adoption of African tilling technique; but it is not yet bearing fruit. Readers may again be put in mind of the image of the fruitless orchard from Isaiah and other portions of the Bible. As Leah says, “In exchange for our honest sweat we’d so far earned flowers and leaves, but nothing we could actually have for supper” (p. 78). For a time, Nathan seems to be reevaluating his ideas about God, life, and the place of his perspiration! And Leah briefly shares her father’s discomfort: “Father had already bent his will to Africa by remaking his garden in mounds… a sure sign of his humility and servitude, and it was only fair to expect our reward. So what was this business of being delivered through hardships?” (p. 78).
Adah introduces the novel’s thematic interest in seeing. Early on, Adah offers breathtaking descriptions of the Congo—e.g., “Blossomy rose-color birdsong air streaked sour with breakfast cookfires” (p. 30)—and even allows her senses to blend together in unusual ways (e.g., sight and sound: “The cloths are brightly printed and worn together in jangling mixtures that ring in my ears,” p. 31). Such sensory conflation may be a symptom of her brain condition, but it also, at a literary level, attests to her keen vision—a vision of life not shared by anyone else in the family, let alone her twin sister Leah whom, readers will remember, shares her name with a biblical character noted primarily for having weak eyes. Kingsolver’s Adah, in contrast, views the world through “Adah eyes” (p. 30), eyes that perceive the beauty and vitality of Kilanga. She alone sees and appreciates “the Kilanga pageant” for what it is (p. 32). She also sees her family for who they are. “And so,” she reports, “the Price family passes its judgments” against Kilanga (p. 32). They deny the humanity of the villagers in ways subtle and explicit, and Adah sees—hence her wry comment, “My twin sister, Leah, and I are identical in theory, just as in theory we are all made in God’s image” (pp. 33-34). Adah does not really believe she is identical with her sister, any more than she believes her family believes that all people are made in God’s image. Why not? Because, quite simply, she sees. Much of The Poisonwood Bible as a whole concerns itself with whether or not, and to what extent, the Price family learns to see both Africa and themselves correctly.