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Free Study Guide-The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver-Free Summary
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SYMBOLISM/MOTIFS

Gardening

Producing fruit has multiple meanings. Nathan was always successful in growing a spectacular garden in Georgia, but the same conditions did not apply in Africa. Symbolically, he also fails in producing human fruit as a result of his mission. After returning to Georgia, Orleanna’s first activity is to grow a huge variety of flowers and vegetables as if she "could grow tragedy out of herself." In the Congo, Leah never stops trying to grow vegetables for her family and the people of her community. She at least succeeds in Angola, but she has to learn to grow her crops, both literally and symbolically, on African rather than American terms.

Fish

Nathan Price tries to be a fisher of men and at one point dynamites the river to create a huge meal for the people. It is, however, more than they can manage and the result is failure and rot. His mission has a similar end.

Mirror

Symbolic of vanity and of the preservation and discovery of self. The Africans were fascinated by the mirror and visited the Price home to see themselves in the mirror. It was given a frame and set in a place where all could use it. It suggests an attempt to hang onto something from the past.

Elections

The people of Kilanga had a tradition of decision making based on unanimous agreement. The concept of rule by majority is foreign to them, but one they learn quickly how to use and how to turn against the white inventors of the system. The votes on whether to accept Jesus and whether to let Leah hunt emphasize the incongruity in the forced application of one cultural tradition onto another.

Green mamba snake

Although the snake is feared and ultimately causes the death of Ruth May, it is also symbolic of the spirit of the jungle. The snake is Ruth May’s hiding place, the muntu that she becomes after her death.

Baptism - Symbolic of conversion for Nathan Price

He could not be satisfied with people merely attending his church but was intent on finding some way to baptize them, thereby symbolically admitting them into the Christian religion. It was ironic that his first observation on the death of Ruth May was that she had not been baptized. He had been saving her baptism to use as an example on some occasion when he could talk the Africans into submitting to the ritual and had thereby neglected for his own daughter the thing that he considered the most important for his converts.


The Poisonwood Tree

Symbolic of the effect Nathan’s drive has on his family, himself, and the people of Kilanga. The word for poisonwood also means precious if said with a different tone. Nathan refers to Jesus as "balanga" but uses the wrong accent. Figuratively, he is creating his own religion; his bible is poison to the people on whom he is trying to force it.

The ants

The ants represent the power of the jungle and graphically illustrate the impotence of religious faith apart from an understanding of "the way things are." They also bring an additional ironic element to the story, for in devouring every particle-both living and dead-of organic matter in their path, they enact a cleansing process. Forgotten crumbs, spoiled food, mold or fungi that could bring disease-the ants remove all and give people a fresh start prior to the next rainy season.

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