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IMPORTANT / KEY FACTS SUMMARY
Title: The Poisonwood Bible
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Date of first publishing: 1998
Meaning of the Title: Poisonwood is a plant that is poisonous to humans. The title relates to the Nathan's mispronunciation of the word and the irony of the un-intended meaning that his mistake conveys.
Type of novel/Genre: Epic; Political Allegory; Coming of Age Story; Post-colonial Fiction.
Point of view / Tense: First person / Present tense. We are told the story through the eyes of each narrator as the events happen to them, with the exception of Orleanna, who narrates in the past tense recollecting the events.
Mood: The mood is somber overall and there is an overwhelming sense of loss and tragedy.
Narrator: Orleanna Price and her daughters Ruth May, Adah, Leah, and Rachel
Setting: Most of the novel takes place in Africa, specifically in the Belgian Congo (later known as Zaire) from 1959 to the late 1980's. In the later part of the book, events take place in Georgia, in the Congo and in South Africa, depending on which narrative voice is engaged.
Protagonist: There is no single protagonist in this novel unless a reader chooses to analyze the Congo as a silent protagonist. The female characters are equally important as each tells the story of learning to cope. Their father, Nathan could also be characterized as a protagonist through his influence on the lives of his daughters.
Antagonist: The initial antagonist for the women is Nathan Price.
Conflict: Each of the Price women has been transported to the Congo and must figure out a way to either leave or live with the situation into which they have been placed. Nathan’s feels called to convert and civilize a culture about which he knows nothing.
Climax: The death of Ruth May who is killed by a green mamba snake.
Outcome: The members of the family separate and live their individual lives and careers and meet different fates.
Rising Action: The decision to stay in Congo during the period of independence and the increased threats.
Major Themes: The Power of the Land; The Spirit of the Congo; Salvation/Redemption
Minor Themes: Love of Self and Family; Political Changes; Understanding culture; Light vs. Darkness; Freedom
Symbolism/Motifs: The Poisonwood tree; Gardening; Fish; Mirror; Elections; Green mamba snake; Baptism - Symbolic of conversion for Nathan Price; The ants; Methuselah, the parrot.
Key Plot Structure Notes:
• The novel is written in an epistolary style with multiple narration. It is not strictly chronological, but has a backward/forward pattern to each book.
• The story takes place during a crisis in Congo politics when it was considered unsafe for whites to live there. Thus the Price family has little support from the outside.
• The novel does not have the traditional literary protagonist. Nor is there a great deal of action. The primary function of the voices is the "telling" of the story.
• Although the author does not emphasize her American Indian heritage in this or her other books, many characteristics of both African and American Indian culture are apparent; for example, both believe that the human spirit exists in other forms both before and after death. Both traditions also see the spiritual and physical universes as co-existent and interdependent. This is contrary to European tradition in which the spiritual element of life is kept apart from the physical.
• Although the author lived in Africa herself for a short time, she insists that her characters are completely fictional and in no way intended to be autobiographical.
• The unseen audience to whom Orleanna addresses her pleas for forgiveness is Ruth May.