Narrative Authorization in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible
“[T]he truth doesn’t speak with one voice, but with many.” –Anne Marie Austenfield
If “literature weaves discourses together from disparate social sources,” then Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a very explicit display of a “multiplicity of social voices” and their “interrelationships” (Bakhtin 674). In the novel, there are five first person narrators: all women, each with their own voice. The narrators, as well as characters whose speech is refracted through this narrative framing, methodologically interact with each of the other narrative voices and with those who are not given a voice in the novel at all, namely the father, Nathan Price. So, why, in this postcolonial novel reminiscent in many ways of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, do we hear not the voice of the middle-aged white preacher, but his wife and four daughters? Nathan, I argue, embodies authority and authoritative speech; the five narrators embody internally persuasive discourse. It is through their subversion of Nathan’s dogma that these five white women—Orleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May—embody narrative authority for the reader. Each of the narrators is authorized via varied means: Orleanna frames the narratives of her children with historical consciousness, informs the novels structure, and creates an intimate relationship with the reader; Ruth May, who is unable to make value judgments, reports her observations directly (often verbatim); Adah criticizes Nathan’s politics, morality, religion, patriarchy from beginning until end, employs rationality beyond her years, presents a spiritual view that places the events of the novel into a larger perspective, and informs the novel’s title; Leah constantly reassesses her complicity and responsibility for Africa, shows a flexibility that allows her idealism to flourish, and renounces her father’s beliefs, becoming like her mother; Rachel revels in her stagnancy, preventing any sort of moral authorization and yet still provides a point by which we can judge the other narrators. This amalgamation of moral, spiritual, social, political, and narrative authority allows the reader to unearth a collective truth. That truth reveals Kingsolver’s feminist aims of focusing on the silencing forces in the world of the novel by privileging the narrators’ internally persuasive discourse. Additionally, by associating the women with Africa, Kingsolver also promotes her political goal of drawing attention to Western accountability in Congo.
If the women represent African, then Nathan Price serves as a symbol of authority, flawed morality, domination, and ultimately the destruction of the point of view he represents. He is characteristic of many types of authority (patriarchy, religion, the West) and thus authoritative speech. Authoritative speech, as defined by Bakhtin, is “religious, political, moral; the word of a father, of adults and of teachers, etc.” (Bakhtin 682-3). It is “located in a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher. It is, so to speak, the word of the fathers” (Bakhtin 683). And this presentation of authoritative speech is omnipresent via the words of Nathan. The Reverend Nathan Price is a man who demands acquiescence from his wife, his daughters, all those around him. He “simply can see no way to have a daughter but to own her like a plot of land,” according to his wife, Orleanna. Nathan only knows how to “work her, plow her under, rain down a dreadful poison upon her” (Kingsolver 191). In the same way that Nathan tries fruitlessly to cultivate an American garden on African soil, so too does he try to bend his daughters to his will. By comparing his daughters to the land, Kingsolver implies that, just as Nathan’s failed garden is a metaphor for Western colonialism, so is Nathan’s domination of his children. But that characterization is not limited merely to his daughters. Orleanna felt “[s]wallowed by Nathan’s mission, body and soul. Occupied as if by a foreign power,” and describes him as a “tyrant before men” who “is quick to blame others for his mistakes” (198). Through this recurring metaphor, both Nathan’s daughters and his wife are connected to Africa, itself portrayed as a victim of the West’s authority. Nathan, like the embodiment of authority he is, believes that his is the only speech that matters—over his family and certainly over the Congolese—and constantly asserts that power both in his own home and in Kilanga, specifically his piteously attended church services.
Nathan, however, is a flat character, serving more as a symbol than as a person. Mary Ellen Snodgrass argues that Nathan is given “no clear identity” (157); Jane Smiley claims that he is without voice, “one-dimensional,” “a cause and an effect, but never a man” (Smiley). Like Bakhtin’s definition of authoritative speech, Nathan “demands…unconditional allegiance,” and is unrelentingly inflexible (Bakhtin 683). Héloïse Meire points out, that “[i]n fact, Nathan is the only character that does not evolve from the beginning to the very end of the novel” (Meire 78). His stagnancy as a character is evinced in Adah’s observation that “[n]one of us is the same: Lehcar, Hael, Hada. Annaelro. Only Nathan remains essentially himself, the same man however you look at him” (276). And at the end of the novel, Rachel supposes that her father “was probably still preaching hell and brimstone” as he burned to death on an old Belgian tower (486). Besides a brief recounting of Nathan’s experience as a soldier in the Philippines, where he received a medal for the unheroic act of “escaping from a jungle where all others marched to their deaths,” we are not given any sort of insight into his history or motivations. Even the scant explanation that we are given for as to why, according to Adah, he “could not flee from the same jungle twice,” is not revealed until close to the end of the novel (413). The delay of this information prevents us from identifying with Nathan’s decisions, and thus prevents us from sympathizing with him as a character.
By surrounding Nathan Price with an air of aloofness and inaccessibility, Kingsolver reinforces the idea that he is less of a character and more an embodiment of symbolic authority. Neither the narrators nor the reader can divorce his authority from his person: “one must either totally affirm it, or totally reject it” (Bakhtin 683). And because Nathan personifies authoritative discourse, it becomes impossible to render him as a complex character in the way that Kingsolver presents the female narrators. They continuously undermine Nathan making him omnipresent in the background of the novel. He is the father, the patriarchy, Christianity, “the man,” the West, America, the empowered. By the Kingsolver’s own description (on her “Authorized Site”), the beliefs that he carries with him to the Congo about “religion, technology, health, politics, and agriculture,” are “high-minded” in the same way that “industrialized nations have often carried these beliefs into the developing world.” In short, he “represents an attitude” (Kingsolver, “Previous Books”), let everything and everyone follow him. As a result, the role that he plays in the novel is, ultimately, insignificant (Bakhtin 684). Although he embodies authoritatively enforced discourse, the novel is about the subversion and rejection of that very same authority. Eventually, he is “completely deflated, stripped of power and meaning” (Demory 189) in the world of the novel. Though early on his wife and daughters place him “on a pedestal,” respecting the power he yields, they do not like him as a person (Demory 189). Since they are the voices with which we identify, Nathan is consequently stripped bare of all authority for both the reader and the narrators.
Rather than Nathan, the five female narrators—Orleanna and her children—inform the novel. The novel is divided into seven different books. Orleanna’s narrative opens the first five books, which is followed by a subtitle and then her daughters’ narratives. The daughters have about the same number of narratives, although Leah tends to say more in her narratives. The sixth book, “Song of Three Children,” includes one narrative a piece for the remaining children while the seventh book is told by the spirit of Ruth May. The exclusion of Nathan from the narrative frame makes it clear that The Poisonwood Bible is not his story. Rather it is the journey of his children and his wife, all of whom were, in different ways, born from his past and from the past of his forefathers. Each of the narrators must contend with those histories which are themselves representative of authoritative discourses. In subverting Nathan, the women do nothing less than challenge the idea of traditional Western history itself. What are left in the wake of this white man’s history are the songs of his children and the tale of his Mississippi-born wife.
Orleanna Price née Wharton, “Southern Baptist by marriage, mother of children living and dead” (7), retrospectively narrates from her present home in Sanderling Island, Georgia. A tale of complacency and guilt, Orleanna is continually “assessing, reflecting, explaining, trying to come to terms with what happened” during her family’s time in Africa (Demory 187). Though she only narrates five sections in the novel (the introductions to books one through five), Orleanna sets the tone for each section, thereby framing her daughters’ narratives with her own And, notes Kristin Jacobson, because she is telling her story in the present and thus with the benefit of hindsight, Orleanna “enjoys a complete historical consciousness” as opposed to her daughters who narrate chronologically (223). This position as the opening narrative voice allows Orleanna not only to introduce the discourse between her children, but to influence how we interpret her daughters’ discourse: discourse which constitutes the bulk of the novel. In the beginning, she condemns her family for “trod[ing] on Africa without a thought” (9); consequently we consider each successive narrative with this condemnation in mind. Her thoughts on religion also color Nathan and Leah’s devotion, questioning whether “we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence” (96). Orleanna’s position in time and the novel’s structure enforces her narrative authority, as well as her ethical and spiritual authority.
Orleanna opens the novel with a description of a picnic in a jungle in Africa. Each of her daughters makes an appearance, as does Orleanna herself. In describing this scene, Orleanna addresses her story to “you.” We learn by the end of the novel that Orleanna likely refers to the spirit of Ruth May, but also Africa, the “merely real” okapi, and, in fact, the reader. The intimacy of that address furthers the illusion that she is taking us into her confidence. Orleanna confides her fear that “[s]he could lose everything: herself, or worse, her children. Worst of all you, her only secret. Her favorite. How could a mother live with herself to blame?” (6). The question that she leaves hanging at the end of the paragraph not only suggests that she trusts the reader enough to solicit advice, but also reveals to us one of the most important questions in the entire book, one which is stated more explicitly on the next page: “How do we aim to live with it?” (9). By explicitly directing her narrative at the reader, Orleanna makes “you” like one of her daughters. This address is in sharp contrast to Nathan’s practice of talking at the other characters. However, as Rachel, Leah and Adah must come to terms with Nathan’s influence, their own complicity, and how to live with their transgressions, so too must the reader if we are equated with the daughters.
In each of her narratives, Orleanna struggles to deal with her own complicity in the role she played as conqueror’s wife. She admits to the reader, “I trod on African without a thought, straight from our family’s divinely inspired beginning to our terrible end” (9). Until an embarrassing situation on market-day, where Leah found herself straddling a woman’s oranges—“bare for all anyone knew”— Orleanna thought she “could have it both ways: to be one of them and also my husband’s wife” (89). “What conceit!” she exclaims, displaying her guilt plainly for the judging. And that knowledge informs her narrative heavily, warning readers to “[b]e careful,” for, later on, we will “have to decide what sympathy [each of the narrators] deserve[s]” (5). With this warning, Orleanna invites us to appraise her actions as well as the actions of her entire family. It is as if she gives us a position within the narrative: the ability to pass judgment on the narrators, just as they pass judgment on one another. But like Orleanna and her family, we too are restricted by our position as outsiders in the world of the novel. Orleanna is addressing a Western, specifically female, audience who is, according to Meire, “seen as directly or indirectly benefitting from Africa’s exploitation” (Meire 83). So, just as “Orleanna wrestles with how to live with white privilege” (Jacobson 223), it is implied that we, the reader, must do the same.
In trying to discern her family’s moral responsibility for their ill-advised sojourn to Africa, Orleanna strains to make sense of it all: “what else could we have thought? […] What do we know, even now?” (10). The answers to those questions crop up again and again for each of her children throughout the novel. And by asking those questions Orleanna indicates that her purview extends beyond the mainstream presentation of events in revolutionary Congo. It also reinforces her moral and political authority. By forcing us “not to rely on our assumptions or on what we have learned before, but to consider those who live with—or despite—the revolution” (Austenfield 253), Orleanna proves that her perspective is different than we would expect to hear from Nathan, for example. Her point of view is, in short, that of a woman, a wife, a mother, in contrast to that of her husband. She tells us: “We can only speak of the things we carried with us, and the things we took away” (10). This response to the issue of her family’s colonial participation forms part of the novel’s structure, with sections titled: “The Things We Carried,” “The Things We Learned,” “The Things We Didn’t Know,” “What We Lost,” and “What We Carried Out.” By titling each of the sections, Orleanna’s narrative authority is legitimized through her ability to construct the narrative frame. So although we understand that Orleanna does not abide by her husband’s interpretation of history, we simultaneously understand that Kingsolver authorizes her narrative as one we should accept. Orleanna may not have the authority to undermine Nathan’s conception of history aloud, but for the reader, she provides an overtly feminist revision of his viewpoint.
Ruth May’s narrative serves as a sharp contrast to that of her mother and even her sisters who are almost ten years older. At five years old, Ruth May is the youngest and most innocent of the narrators. She has yet to develop her own ideological consciousness and it is reflected in her narratives which jump from Bible stories to Jim Crow laws to comic books within the span of a page. Because Ruth May has not formed her own ideas of what is right and wrong, we hear her indecision when she is presented with two differing views. “God says,” “Rex Minton says,” and “Mama says” all hold equal weight for her in terms of judging the validity of their claims. When Ruth May’s “monkey-sock monkey” is stolen off the veranda, her “Father says to forgive them for they know not what they do. Mama says you can’t hardly even call it a sin when they need ever little thing as bad as they do.” In the face of those two viewpoints, Ruth May cannot determine “if it was a sin or it wasn’t” (51). It is only the reader’s ability to extrapolate information from Ruth May’s discourse that informs her authority. We trust that her observations are factually accurate, but we cannot trust the weight she gives to different speakers.
Though her frank portrayal of events affords her narrative authorization, her inability to make value judgments precludes any other type of authority. Because she cannot understand the undercurrents of conversations, nor their significance, Ruth May ends up reporting information. She apprises us of the social situation in the US at the time, innocently stating that Jimmy Crow says Africans’ “day for the Zoo is Thursday. That’s in the Bible” (20). If she were older, then we might take her comments for sarcasm, but Ruth May’s naïveté precludes that assumption. She misrecognizes the source of the information, but there is an element of truth to her statement. The Bible is frequently used to justify practices that would otherwise be deemed immoral i.e. slavery, segregation, racism, sexism, etc. By setting her up as a reporter, albeit an inadvertently ironic one, Kingsolver allows her to criticize her father (54, 117, 118, 157, 215), Rachel’s vanity (52, 179), Axelroot’s exploitation (119, 273), the West (120-4), and the church (120, 157-8, 238), with a measure of authority. Often her observations seem ridiculous and childish, but underlying them are echoes of reality that Kingsolver implies are equally as ridiculous. Though she often misrecognizes cause and effect, it does not detract from her authorization because we can easily see where her interpretation went wrong and deduce the truth about its origins. However, the cynicism that we must ourselves derive from Ruth May’s narratives is clearly evident in the next youngest narrator.
Adah the Crooked—so hung up on her twin’s prenatal betrayal—self-admittedly sees the world crooked, backwards, and slant, and speaks not a word. As a result of a brain injury in the womb, Adah was left “crooked,” not just physically, but mentally as well. Koza argues “Kingsolver suggests that the physical disability that marks Adah as different paradoxically enables her to see more clearly” (Koza 287). As a result, she abandons the words of her proselytizing father early on in life (well before the family’s arrival in Congo), and consequently, she “provides the subversive perspective that animates the first part of the novel” (Koza 286). In her first narration, she bitingly comments that “Our Father speaks for all of us, as far as I can see” (32). Bitter and sarcastic, Adah refers to Nathan as “Our Father” in a mockery of his religious self-righteousness and “its effects on the Price family” (Snodgrass 153). Throughout the novel, there are numerous examples of the same cynical wit: she mocks his opinion that women shouldn’t be sent to college (56), his perception of Methuselah as guilty of not only papism, but “latent femaleness” (61), his disregard for Orleanna’s ability to win over the village with food (70), his “Socratic moods” which were meant to show them all up “as dull-witted, bovine females” (73), his concern for souls unsaved over the corpses of the dead (171), his inability to comprehend the nuances of the local language (214), and his misconception that the Congolese are not attached to their children (297). Her early subversion of Nathan and his beliefs provides the reader with a much appreciated contrast to Leah’s blind worship. Later on, they both form the “narrative’s central consciousness” (Koza 286), but at the novel’s inception, we are led to trust the cynical Adah. This trust in her commentaries on religion, morality, and patriarchy, extends the length of the novel, unlike Leah, who is constantly faced with the implications of her past assumptions.
Adah’s criticism extends beyond the figure of Nathan, however; she is also quite disparaging of the West, in general. Though brought up by a Reverend, Adah recognizes at a young age “the arbitrary nature of fundamentalist beliefs that those who accept Jesus are the only ones God will save from perdition” (Snodgrass 153). In Sunday-school, she questioned the idea that “admission to heaven is gained by the luck of the draw” and was promptly disciplined for her impudence. Upon completion of her punishment, she found, to her surprise, that she “no longer believed in God” (171). This episode in Adah’s childhood endears her to the reader by evoking sympathy, possibly even empathy. Her rational inquiry and its subsequent punishment are meant to set us against the authoritarian institution of religion. Beyond her criticism of religion, Adah also condemns the relationship between Africa and the West. When she learns of the United States’ portrayal of “the story of Congo,” she derides that “[i]t makes everyone feel so much better. So, Khrushchev is said to be here dancing with the man-eating natives, teaching them to hate the Americans and the Belgians. It must be true, for how else would the poor Congolese know how to hate the Americans and the Belgians?” (174). In disparaging the United States’ depiction of the threat of communism in Africa, Adah is really criticizing the blindness of its citizens. It all comes down to her disdain of willful ignorance and uninformed judgment. But her ability to “call a spade a spade,” in the words of her mother (496), provides much needed context for the beginning of the novel. In turn, we learn to trust her mute observations on the institution of religion and politics because she is the only one to blatantly provide the reader with a reality check.
In the same manner that Adah renders the perspective scope of the novel, so too does she contextualize the spiritual beliefs of the characters. As opposed to Nathan’s and Leah’s early fundamentalist devotion, Adah serves as “a model of the recycling of a human being” (Snodgrass 153). Not only that, but she represents the idea of balance. In the first few lines of her narrative, Adah explains how the Congo functions: “Congo sprawls on the middle of the world. Sun rises, sun sets, six o’clock exactly. Everything that comes of morning undoes itself before nightfall: rooster walks back into forest, fires die down, birds coo-coo-coo, sun sinks away, sky bleeds, passes out, goes dark, nothing exists. Ashes to ashes” (30). This description immediately indicates that she holds a view of the world that is cyclic. Additionally, through the composition of her language, we understand that she sees that this cyclicity as poetic. And Adah finds poetry in the world wherever she looks. After it seemed that she had been by a lion, only to mysteriously limp into the village unscathed, Nathan’s congregation grew. Adah could only wonder that “religion can live or die on the strength of a faint, stirring breeze. The scent trail shifts, causing the predator to miss the pounce. One god draws in the breath of life and rises; another god expires” (141). The emphasis on life and death, haphazard chance and consequence, puts things into perspective for the reader and indicates her spiritual authority. She reminds us that the Prices are not the most important people to have ever walked the Earth, but neither are the Congolese. At the end of the novel, Adah explains her philosophical beliefs more explicitly, saying that she will always be a “crooked little person trying to tell the truth” despite the loss of her limp. “The power is in the balance,” she tells us: “we are our injuries, as much as we are our successes” (496). This tendency to force the reader to reevaluate the scope of their perspective not only gives Adah the power to frame the narratives of her sisters and mother, but also demonstrates Kingsolver’s authorization of her character. We are meant to take her observations and conclusions seriously, just as seriously as we take life and death.
Another way that Kingsolver indicates the weight of Adah’s reflections is by having Adah explain the concept of muntu that is personified in book seven. Muntu, she explains, “is the Congolese word for man. Or people. But it means more than that” because “there is no special difference between living people, dead people, children not yet born, and gods—these are all muntu” (343). Later, Adah tells us that by “[u]sing the body as a mask, muntu watches and wait without fear, because muntu itself cannot die. The transition from spirit to body and back to spirit again is merely a venture” (343). Though when she gives us this information we are unaware of its significance, in the section titled “The Eyes in the Trees” we learn that Ruth May incarnates this concept of muntu. This spirit even tells us that she is “all that is here” (537), honoring the “balance between loss and salvation” (528). By allowing Adah to voice the meaning and implications of this idea, Kingsolver is giving her a hand in the formation of the novel. And in granting her this capacity, Adah is given both narrative and spiritual authority. However, Adah’s authorization is also seen in her contribution to the novel’s structure. Like Orleanna supplies the novel with the titles for each section, so does Adah provide us with the title of the novel itself. At the end, she tells the reader that she’s begun “collecting old books that are famous for their misprints. There’s a world of irony in it. Bibles, in particular” (533). The practice leads her to consider “what Bible [her] father wrote in Africa,” while he was “standing tall before his congregation shouting, ‘Tata Jesus is bängala!’” Because although “[b]angala means something precious and dear,” he pronounces it in a way that means the poisonwood tree (176). In light of this, Adah—conscious that “mistakes are part of the story”—tells us that her history was born “of a man who believes he could tell nothing but the truth, while he set down for all time the Poisonwood Bible” (533). In the same way that her mother’s authorization of the subtitles lends her power in the novel, so too does Adah’s defining of the novel’s title.
Adah’s ability to indicate right and wrong in the novel is eventually shared with her twin, Leah. Koza argues that together, the twins “form the narrative’s central consciousness” (286). However she does not take on that role until almost two thirds of the way into the novel. At the beginning, Leah follows so closely in Nathan’s footsteps that she can’t see her own and wants nothing more desperately than approval from God, but more importantly, from her father. A classic tomboy, Leah follows her father around like a puppy hoping desperately for a glimmer of approval. Rather than help indoors, she “preferred to help [her] father work on his garden” in part to ignore the squabbling of her sisters (35), despite knowing that “he must find [her] tiresome” (36). During her adolescence, Leah imitates his beliefs, his thoughts, his actions; however, a fundamental difference remains between the two: gender. Leah will never, and could never, earn the respect of her father for the sin of womanhood. And as the story progresses, Leah finally seems to realize the impossibility of her aspirations. It is this early imitation of her father and his ideals that we see Leah’s blind idealism and naïve desire to save Africa. Later, as she reassesses her values, the idealism and desire to save Africa remain, but her conception of how to do so transforms. But by maintaining those two essential qualities, Kingsolver authorizes her voice as what Demory calls the “social conscience of the novel” (187).
It is the flexibility of her moral code and general paradigms that earns her the title of “heroine” (Meire). Only Leah evolves so drastically from beginning to end. From the outset, she focuses on the idea of balance, much like Adah. (Perhaps being twins forced them to consider the idea more closely than the other members of the family.) She comments early on that the “Congolese sense of balance is spectacular” (107) and that admiration continues with her advocation for decision-making “through discussion and consensus rather than through majority rule” (Koza 286). Leah’s sympathy for the Congolese and her wonder at their seemingly amazing ability to balance “the world on their heads” (107), in turn makes her social views sympathetic to the reader, thus authorizing those views. Rather than scorn their way of life as Nathan does, Leah tries desperately later in life to become a part of Congo. By remaining in Africa, marrying Anatole, and having children, all while advocating for a better Africa, Leah indicates her devotion to social change. Her social and political values are authorized initially by her rejection of Nathan’s beliefs in democracy, patriarchy and the US, and then later by her decision to study agricultural engineering (467), run a commune, and bring children into the world.
Leah, despite her early following of her father, ends up in many ways living her adult life like her mother. As a result, Leah’s voice is authorized by the shift in association from her father to her mother. She does not forget her father’s sins; rather she made them apart of herself, living off indignation and rage. While Orleanna painstakingly linked the lot of her family to the lot of Africa, so too does Leah symbolize that same parallel. Both agree that the best way to survive “heartache is to stay busy” (473). Both had four children and both found themselves unable to “regret the marriage” (472) that brought their children to the “light of this world” (324). And both devoted their later lives to activism. So despite Leah’s propensity to fall victim to her own idealism again and again, her imitation of her mother narratively authorizes her social, political, and maternal discourses. Considering that she is also a narrative parallel to Adah—who is authorized morally and spiritually—we understand that Leah too must be authorized, despite the fact that she constantly faces her past ignorance.
Leah’s complex authorization is mirrored in Rachel’s narrative authorization, if we consider that a mirror displays every image in reverse. Throughout the entire novel, she is a shallow, materialistic, selfish character. DeMarr notes that her “narrative voice is characterized by intense concentration on her appearance, on the way she appears to others, and on her own comfort” (127). Ognibene points out how Rachel’s narrative is different from her twin sisters: “her tone is one of contempt and her focus is on pragmatic issues, mainly her own gains and losses” (208), unlike Leah and Adah who both philosophize from beginning to end. This self-centeredness is optimized in Rachel’s symbolic worship of her mirror. Rachel considers her mirror to be the most important item that she carries with her to Africa, and it is the mirror of which she immediately thinks when Kilanga is overrun by ants. When she “only had time to save one precious thing” it was not her clothing, not her younger sisters, and it was certainly not the Bible—which “didn’t seem worth saving”—“[i]t had to be [her] mirror” (301). Symbolically, this incident demonstrates Rachel’s obsession with herself to the exclusion of all else. This is born out in her advice at the end of the novel, which is to “[l]et others do the pushing and shoving, and you just ride along. In the end, the neck you save will be your own” (516). So how can we trust a character that cares for nothing beyond her own self-interest?
The value of her moral authority is further undermined by the ubiquitous malapropisms and other linguistic errors that riddle her speech. Rachel mistakes “executrate” for ‘excute’ (22), “putative” for ‘fugitive’ (125), “child-progeny” for ‘child-prodigy’ (242), and most amusingly, claims that “we Christians have our own system of marriage, and it’s called Monotony” (405). Had her younger sister Adah made that claim, we would take it for sarcasm and irony; but with Rachel, it is simply one more malapropism in a long list of them. Furthermore, Rachel shows almost no awareness of the word around her. According to Adah, she “will win the prize for ‘Changed the Least’” if she “ever gets back to Bethlehem for a high school reunion,” “[i]n spite of remarkable intervening circumstances” (494). Adah very clearly does not mean this positively. Considering that Rachel miscalls Amnesty International, “Damnesty International” as a teenager, this does not come as a surprise. Even as an adult, her “invincible ignorance is as complete as ever” (DeMarr 128). Rachel claims that “Ronald Regan is keeping [them] safe from socialist dictators,” such as Karl Marx, belatedly asking: “Isn’t he still in charge of Russia?” (478). Because she is both linguistically challenged and willfully unaware of the world around her, the worth of her moral authority is completely decimated for the reader. We cannot trust her to give us an accurate representation of reality.
Rachel’s narrative cannot be disregarded out of hand, however, no matter her own self-involvement. In terms of religion, Rachel is often dismissive of scripture, especially her father’s application. She even gives a critical reading of the story of Lot. Rachel criticizes “the part where Lot offered his own virgin daughters to the rabble of sinners, to do with as they might, just so they’d forget about God’s angels that were visiting and leave them be. What kind of trade is that? And his poor wife, of course, got turned to a pillar of salt” (27). It is moments like this that we are prevented from relegating Rachel’s narrative to the margins of the reader’s acceptance outright. So while Leah condemns her sister for not “grasp[ing] scripture all that well,” this female-oriented interpretation seems to indicate otherwise. If nothing else, Rachel is adept at rendering “human relationships, material details, conversations, and emotions with great accuracy” (Austenfield 295). For example, her depictions of Nathan and Anatole’s theological debate (128-133), Brother Fowles visit, which was really one long subversion of Nathan’s beliefs (245-258), and Leah’s argument with Nathan over hunting with the men (336-341) each “employ a degree of minute physical and verbal detail that reveals the value she places on recognizable behavioral formulas” (Austenfield 295). This is why, perhaps, she is the first of the Prices to voice what Leah would take months, even years to comprehend: that all of their assumptions about supremacy, religious or otherwise, were useless in the face of Africa. The second sentence in her first narrative observes that “it doesn’t look to me like we’re in charge of a thing, not even our own selves” (22). Such an immediate and significant statement precludes her narrative from dismissal. Even if we do not agree with her, however, Rachel’s narratives provide a point of comparison in terms of morality for her mother and sisters. This contribution to the structure of the novel is in itself a valuable facet of the novel on the whole. She provides a moral basis by which we can judge the others.
Like her sisters, Africa exacted a price of each of the women, yet the only easily visible cost to Rachel seems to be the loss of her imagined future. Adah, however, acknowledges that Rachel must contend with the sins of her father just as much as her sisters and mother. Though “Rachel seems incapable of remorse,” observes Adah, “she is not. She wears those pale eyes around her neck so she can look in every direction and ward off the attack” (491). Throughout the novel, Rachel refuses to see that which challenges her view of the world. While still living in Kilanga, Rachel admits to picturing hands like Anatole’s “digging diamonds out of the Congo dirt.” And although picturing Marilyn Monroe “her in her satin gown and a Congolese diamond digger in the same universe gave [her] the weebie jeebies,” Rachel rejected the image out of hand, refusing to even “think about it anymore” (127). As a result of ignoring any notion that might complicate her worldview, her initial conception of the Congo as a “backward place never wavers” (Koza 286), despite spending the rest of her life in a continent torn by blatant inequality. Her propensity to ignore that which upsets her further undermines her ethical judgments. But just as we cannot disregard her role as a narrator, neither can she completely dismiss the ways in which Africa affected her.
In the end, Rachel spends her life in hiding: from Africa, from her past, from Ruth May’s tragic end, from her complicity, and from her inaction. Although Snodgrass argues that throughout the span of her life, Rachel’s “motto changes little from her outlook at age fifteen” (162), I would argue that it only appears so outwardly. Internally, her motivations for upholding the belief that “the neck you save will be your own” (516) changes. At the outset, she really is ignorant of her role as an imperialist. Her refusal to acknowledge the value of others is more a product of her selfish ignorance than anything else. However, at the moment of her sister’s death, Rachel has a brief epiphany that she can no longer return home “and pretend the Congo never happened.” It is here that she understands “the tragedies that happened to Africans” were hers as well, that the illusion her family was “different, not just because [they] were white and had [their] vaccinations, but because [they] were simply a much luckier kind of person” momentarily shattered before her eyes (367). And this is the truth that Rachel spends the rest of her life running from. Each narrative that follows, demonstrates her efforts at running away from this unpalatable truth, finally ending up a sort of quasi-hermit in her own “little country” (512). Kingsolver may explicitly use Rachel to criticize racism, Western exploitation, and economic inequality, but implicitly Rachel represents Kingsolver’s criticism of apathy and cowardice. Unlike Nathan who embodies many of the same beliefs, however, Rachel uses the power of predominating authoritative discourses to protect herself from her own actions as opposed to embodying them. This criticism is born out in Rachel’s inability to have children (as opposed to Leah’s four boys), the fact that she does not authorize the novel’s structure in any way, and her ultimate inability to participate in the world outside her hotel.
In fact, what we do not hear in the 500 plus pages of this novel are the voices of pretty much anyone except its narrators. Though the narrators subvert Nathan constantly, this subversion of Nathan’s white, Western, patriarchal authority is not complete, for only white women—Nathan’s family members—narrate. Certain characters weave in and out, some garnering more importance than others. But narrative authority: only Orleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May are granted that privilege. Though we might hear echoes of Nathan, Anatole, Mama Tataba, we never hear their voice. All that we get are the often misinformed, and always biased, voices of four children turned adults and their mother. Often it is all too easy to distinguish their ignorance, their assumptions, their Western-ness: Ruth May describing the possibility of Rachel’s “Circus Mission” (271) Rachel’s “Damnesty International,” Leah who felt “wise, blessed, and safe from snakes” because of the “grace of [her family’s] good intentions” (36). Yet we trust them nonetheless and the question remains: why? Why do we, as readers, by and large accept their words as essentially slanted truth? Why are their voices authorized over Nathan and the Congolese, over Axelroot and Anatole, over Eisenhower and Lumumba?
To answer this question, it is necessary to look at what exactly our female narrators are indicating beyond their explicit words. Anne Marie Austenfield’s article, “The revelatory narrative circle in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible” argues that Kingsolver’s novel is a departure from traditional social views and literary depiction of history. The use of five female narrators, all of whom subvert and extend the ways we read the conventional novel, offer a feminist, or at least female-centered, portrayal of historical writing. Rather than dealing with military events and key facts and figures, Kingsolver present us with an image of the family and familial relationships. According to Pamela Demory’s “Into the Heart of Light: Barbara Kingsolver Rereads Heart of Darkness,” they come to Africa, “not to make money or to convert the natives, but to support their men. Their job is to keep the house together, to learn how to procure and cook the food, how to clothe the family, how to deal with disease. The day-to-day engagement with these necessities requires the women to learn how to live with their environment, rather than imposing their wills upon it” (185). Though it might seem as if their concern for what Nathan considers the quotidian would detract from their authority as narrators, the opposite is true, because those are truly matters of life and death. The three remaining narrators agree at the end of the novel that it was surprising Nathan did not die immediately after they left him because he was unable able to care for himself. Kingsolver, then, is explicitly privileging their roles over Nathan’s, or the role of the “conqueror’s wife” who is a “conquest herself,” over the conqueror (9).
It is the personal and intimate form of address by each of the narrators that allows these women to voice their histories with authority. But by having each of the Price women alternate in the telling of their tales, the structure of the novel itself “promotes narrative and ideological instabilities” says Kristin Jacobson (220). Counter to that claim, Austenfield argues that the “varied angles of view, the varied intellects and spirits, the varied ages and personalities of the narrative voices” supply the novel’s “vital depth, enhance its historical quality, and provide a high level of tellability” (Austenfield 257) because the narrative is “chosen, colored, and interpreted” by Orleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May (Austenfield 248). Although Austenfield’s argument is a pertinent one, it is important to note that we do not morally agree with each of the narrators, nor are we meant to. They are all authorized to speak, but we are not meant to accept all their value judgments. Those narratological differences allow us to contextualize the multiplicity of discourses supplied by the other narrators and by those voices who are marginalized. Nevertheless, we trust the women as a group because they could be our friend, our sister, our mother, perhaps even ourselves.
By presenting the story though a first-person point of view, Kingsolver allows us to see the narrators as often wrong and yet still collectively trustworthy. The creation of a narrative circle, as defined by Austenfield, integrates the reader into an “intimate circle of storytelling” which implicitly gives “credence to the truths expressed there” (254) without the “silencing influences from the world at large” (255). Just as one could either accept or reject the judgments infused into a diary, a letter, or oral storytelling, so too can we evaluate the narratives of each woman. The personal tone of The Poisonwood Bible allows the reader to both doubt their conclusions and empathize with their histories. In short, readers need the differing narratives of each of the women in order to make sense of Kingsolver’s Africa. Though each narrator has their own take on the events that propel the story—some accounts which agree and others which do not—we can take each of their narratives and discern the “Truth” more easily than would be expected with such disparate sources of information.
Taking the varying narratives which inform the novel’s progression into account, The Poisonwood Bible provides the reader with the opposite of authoritatively enforced discourse. While Nathan may represent authoritative speech à la Bakhtin, Orleanna and her children embody internally persuasive discourse. Rather than discourse which is seen as hierarchically superior, the narrators provide the reader with a discourse that is personal, a discourse “that is denied all privilege, backed up by no authority at all, and is frequently not even acknowledge in society” (Bakhtin 683) in the world of the novel. And the discourse of these women changes significantly over the course of the novel. The women who enter Africa are not ideologically the same when they flee from Nathan’s suffocating reach; nor are they the same by the denouement of the novel. And internally persuasive discourse is precisely that: a sort of ideological becoming. The discourse of the narrators is neither static nor isolated; unlike authoritative speech, it is flexible, open, mutable (Bakhtin 685).
Furthermore, Bakhtin emphasizes that this mutability allows internally persuasive discourse to constantly interrelate with other discourses and other contexts. This intense “struggle with other internally persuasive discourses” (Bakhtin 685) is mirrored quite clearly throughout The Poisonwood Bible. The discourse of each narrator interacts with the discourses of the other narrators as well as in the mind of the reader. For both the narrators and the reader, the length of the novel is a process in contextualizing a multiplicity of histories and discourses. Throughout, each of the narrators contextualizes the alien discourses surrounding them by “distinguishing between [their] own and another’s’ discourse, between [their] own and another’s thought” (Bakhtin 684-5). And this awakening of ideological consciousness—which, according to Bakhtin, “is activated rather late in development” (684-5)—establishes the foundation of the entire novel.
The ideological development of each narrator begins when they separate internally persuasive discourse and “authoritarian enforced discourse” (Bakhtin 684-5). Only when they think in “an independent, experimenting and discriminating way,” and reject “those congeries of discourses that do not matter” and do not affect them (684-5), can the narrators diverge from the path Nathan intends them all to dutifully follow. Each of the women—with the exception of Ruth May—must determine their own ideologies in the face of Nathan, Africa, their past and their hopes for the future. So while the first two thirds of the novel contend with the enforcement of Nathan’s authority, the last third details how the remaining Price women (though Rachel quickly rids herself of this designation) find their own voices.
It is important to note that by giving the women a voice, Kingsolver is commenting on the forces that silence them in the world of the novel. It is significant that narrators do not convey their stories aloud; “they do not have an audience within the world of the novel to listen to them” (Demory 186), even, it seems, amongst the narrators themselves. Rather, the women tell their stories to the reader. Often their accounts overlap, but just as often, one narrator relates a piece of information unknown to her sisters or her mother. Because they are silenced by Nathan—via his pedantry, the Verse, his belt, or his fists—the act of giving them voice for the reader is a commentary on “the political, social, and family constraints that keep them from speaking” (Demory 186). Kingsolver is undermining the traditional presentation of gender roles, especially considering her address of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Pamela Demory, who is writing for a journal centered on Joseph Conrad, argues that The Poisonwood Bible demonstrates—though with a few painstakingly clear exceptions—that the “ideological values of western-style democracy are thus associated with men, while the human cost for the Congolese of such values is associated with women” (Demory 185). This is born out in Nathan’s assertions that the “Belgians and American business brought civilization to the Congo! American aid will be the Congo’s salvation!” (121) in contrast to Orleanna’s explicit depiction of the Congo as a “barefoot bride of men who took her jewels and promised the Kingdom” (201). Clearly, we are meant to sympathize with the women and therefore Africa. By authorizing the narratives of the Nathan’s wife and daughters, Kingsolver also implicitly gives a voice to her version of Africa. Though Kingsolver has been criticized for this association, she draws attention to a victimized, “feminized,” Congo by linking the country to a group of victimized women. Nevertheless, Kingsolver spends the novel authorizing them all.
Through the course of The Poisonwood Bible, we learn to love some characters, and hate others; we are drawn into the novel not just by the act of reading, but by the narrators themselves; and we are taken with the very personal truths that subvert authority at every turn. Those aspects are the very substance of the novel. The voices of those women embody narrative, moral, spiritual, social, and political authority, collectively revealing to the reader a feminist discourse which critiques the silencing forces of the world at large. In the epigraph to this paper, I cite Anne Marie Austenfield; she states: “the truth doesn’t speak with one voice, but with many” (256). Explicitly, the quote suggests that we can only understand the truth by considering a multitude voices. Implicitly, it questions the validity of a truth that derives from one mind or one mouth or one pen. So after reading the novel, how can we trust a ‘Nathan’ when faced with a sea of Orleannas, Rachels, Leahs, Adahs, and Ruth Mays?
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