A complex novel involving family dynamics, gender roles, religion, Western imperialism, and political turmoil in Africa, The Poisonwood Bible can be read or taught a number of different ways. Kingsolver wrote this ambitious work by using the Price family as a lens into the Congo and the changes that were taking place in the 1960s. This style allows you to analyze The Poisonwood Bible on both the smaller familial level and the broader political level. Similarly, Kingsolver tells the story from five different character perspectives, which can lead to interesting class discussion on the attitudes certain characters represent and how accurate their views may be.

In teaching this novel, it is useful to provide a historical background of the Congo, especially its colonial history, transition to independence, the assassination of the democratically-elected leader Patrice Lumumba, and the creation of Zaire. These historical and political events make up the backbone of the novel, even though the main characters are often ignorant of the details. The book also contains many biblical references, which should be explained and discussed with students. This rich novel is sure to foster class interest and discussion.

Content Warning

This book contains some mentions of sex and violence.

Summary

In 1959, Nathan Price, a zealous Baptist minister from Georgia, brings his family to conduct missionary work in Africa, specifically the Belgian Congo. Kingsolver tells the story through the eyes of the women surrounding Nathan: his wife and four daughters, all of whom have very different perspectives and narrative voices. During their time in Africa, the family adapts to life in Africa, endures personal hardships, and witnesses the political turmoil as the Belgian Congo transitions to a postcolonial country during the 1960s. The novel follows the mother and her daughters as they mature and learn to rely on themselves.

Objectives for Teaching
The Poisonwood Bible

  • Explain the historical context of the Congo at the time the novel is set.
  • Identify and understand Kingsolver's use of foreshadowing.
  • Map the character development of Nathan as the antagonist.
  • Explain a change in one character or in each of the characters.
  • Compare and contrast the cultural values of the Price family to the cultural values of their Congolese neighbors.
  • Discuss how biblical allusions contribute to the meaning of the novel.
  • Consider how this novel can be read as a political allegory. Who or what might the characters represent?

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allegory
  • Allusion
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Palindrome
  • Simile
  • Style
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

  • Gender Roles — The book examines traditional gender roles, especially the expected womanly duties and how characters conform to or defy these gender roles.
  • Colonialism — The novel explores the effects of colonialism in Belgian Congo and the difficulties the Congolese face when trying to establish a postcolonial democracy.
  • Religion —  Missionary work and the Bible play a significant part in the novel, which illustrates how religion can be interpreted in various ways and contributes to how people perceive the world.

Related Works

Theme of Gender Roles

 

Theme of Colonialism

 

Theme of Religion

Key Facts

  • Length: 546 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 960
  • Publication Date: 1998
  • Recommended Grade Band: 10 – 11

Awards

  • 1999 finalist for Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
  • 1999 Oprah Book Club selection
  • 2000 Boeke Prize

Your students will love:

  • Learning about the culture and history of the Congo
  • The unique characters and narrative voices

Students may have problems with:

  • The changing narrators
  • Understanding the historical and biblical allusions
  • Lack of access to Nathan Price's perspective

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