Themes and Talking Points from Literature Circles
Poisonwood Bible (to 186)
March 10

Parallelisms: Microcosm/Macrocosm

Nathan’s losing control of his family mirrors the Belgians losing control of the Congo

Methuselah is granted his freedom and destroyed shortly thereafter by predators; the Congo is granted independence and... (what is being foreshadowed?)

Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden of Eden parallels the experience of the Price family in several different ways.


Complexity and sophistication of modern western life
Simplicity and naturalness of life in the Congo

Both of these things bring benefits and are to be valued, but they are clearly in conflict with one another. How do we find a balance between them in our lives? These characters model for us various coping strategies. A lot of what happens in this book winds up being a negative experience both for the natives and for the missionaries. And yet everyone learns something here, and everyone lives an interesting life in doing so. Which character do you identify with most closely, and why?

Points of View

Nathan’s voice is strong, but he’s blinded by his own certainty to what’s going on around him and how people are reacting to him.

The novel is by a woman, about the experince of women in a period of history which, like almost all of recorded human history, has been written as if the only actions that mattered were the actions of men. It can be, and has been, argued that women have for most of human history been marginalized; that is, that their actions have been deemed less important and less worthy of historical notice than the actions of men. In this book Kingsolver makes a conscious effort to attend to and report on the experience of the other half of the human race. We are encouraged, in variety of ways like those listed above, to think of this story analogically and allegorically: events that happen within the village of Kilanga, and in particular the dynamics of the relationships between men and women in this story, mirror patterns of behavior readily apparent in the Congo, and also in the world at large, the world we currently live in.


Nathan means well, but handles things badly: his narrowness is contrasted with the openmindedness of others, including the villagers themselves and his daughter, Ruth May, who adapts and makes friends easily.

This book follows the lives of these characters as they grow and change. The first page of the book describes the daughters as being “four girls compressed in bodies as tight as bowstrings, each one tensed to fire off a woman’s heart on a different path to glory or damnation.” Who changes most? Who changes least? Who changes most wisely? Who is glorified? Who is damned? And what might we learn from their experiences?

Themes and Talking Points from Literature Circles
The Poisonwood Bible (to 311)
March 18


Orleanna explicitly connects herself to the Congo and to Methuselah (192, 198, 200, 201)


Nathan: uptight, dogmatic, rigid, idealistic
Brother Fowles: laid back, curious, flexible, pragmatic

Points of View

Ntu, muntu, kintu, hantu, kuntu: the Congolese cosmology (209)
Nelson is embedded in this world view, translates it for Leah
Muntu in particular is a word which will link to themes throughout the book
Nommo: the power of the word

Kilangan belief that twins must be killed; (cf TFA) half of Nathan’s congregation are relatives of twins (212)


Nathan finds it hard to change: we find out what’s behind his inflexibility (197)
Other characters are each changing
Adah: has taken to using same satirical tone about “Our Mother” (261) that she used earlier with “Our Father.”
Leah: shifting allegiance from Father to Anatole; Anatole explains political situation to Leah (229 ff., 280 ff.) Nelson teaches her to use a bow and arrow
Rachel: driven to choice between Ndu and Axelroot
Orleanna: being driven toward taking steps toward her own independence
Ruth May gets nkisi, learns from Nelson how to find a safe place


Night of the nsongongya (299)
Crisis reveals character: choices made under pressure; Adah is left behind
Symbolism? Theory 1: They’re small and insignificant individually, but powerful in numbers - they might foreshadow political revolution
Earlier episode when Leah was feeding ant to ant lion (224); noticed by Ruth May (303)
Set up by Dickinson poem (295, 298): presentiment - darkness is about to pass.

Themes and Talking Points from Literature Circles
The Poisonwood Bible (to 375)
April 2


Escape and death of Lumumba (322)
Election for Jesus Christ in the office of personal god (330), Nathans objections - ironies - Congolese taking Western ideas and using them in ways that Nathan hasn’t anticipated
The Hunt and the infighting which follows
Leah’s participation in the hunt
The vote by which the Kilangans endorse her participation
Kuvundundu’s anger and promise of revenge (338)
The Death of Ruth May
Q: Why is she the one that dies?
A1: She’s the youngest, less of a factor, a baby
A2: She’s innocent, a sacrificial lamb
A3: She’s most vulnerable
A4: She’s best prepared

Characters and Points of View

Ruth May has been setting herself up for this all along. Previous passages in which she talks about finding a safe place for her spirit, being a snake, the eyes in the trees, “the highest one of all.” (239, 273, 304)

Effect of Ruth May’s death on each of the characters
Rachel - “Until that moment I’d always believed I could still go home and pretned th congonever happened..” (367)
Nathan - first reaction is denial (“She wasn’t baptized yet”) and then overcompensation - walking around baptizing everyone in sight
Orleanna - everything we’ve read from her so far turns out to have been related to her feelings about this incident. Her immediate reaction is to take the other kids and get out of there.
Leah - realization that others have lost children too (370), need to pray (372)
Adah -
Everyone feels a burden of guilt and complicity that affects them for the rest of their lives and has an impact on what they do from now on.


Intertext - Bible story - Bel and the Serpent
Lumumba’s death occurs on the same day as Ruth May’s
The hunt for the impala and the fighting that follows; the hunt for Lumumba
The hunted animals may symbolize the Price family