Breakdown and Reconstruction of Characters' Faith in the Poisonwood Bible
In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver uses Biblical references in part to delineate the differences in her characters' relationship to religious faith as they deal with their father's participation in the Western assault on the Congolese. These differences in levels of faith that her characters experience are Kingsolver's primary method of characterization in the novel. Although all of the characters acquire much of their individuality through Kingsolver's depiction of their differing degrees of faith in God, the Bible and Nathan Price, the voices of Leah and Orleanna Price are particularly marked by their use of Biblical allusions. In the first book "Genesis," Leah believes aggressively in her preacher father's overbearing attempt to bring Christianity to the Congolese. As the narrative progresses, however, her quotes become increasingly ironic, and when she loses her connection to her father, the quotes disappear almost completely.
Orleanna Price's voice at the start is more passively accepting of her husband's religious authority, but grows increasingly and actively angry. Like her daughter, Orleanna's use of Biblical allusions demonstrates her sense of her role within the Price family and in the Congo.
The epigraph of the first book, taken from Genesis ironically foreshadows the spiritual breakdown of the characters that marks the rest of the narrative events. It says, "And God said unto them/Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion." The attitude expressed in these words sets up the moral superiority and racial preconceptions that most of the Price daughters feel toward both nature and the Congolese as they arrive in the Congo. At the end of the first book, Mama Tataba leaves and Nathan Price sets the African parrot, Methuselah, free. These two events mark the turning point at which Orleanna Price first wonders "Are we lost right now without knowing it?" Although all of the female characters ultimately experience the reference to Genesis as ironic, Leah experiences the strongest change in religious position of the four daughters.
In 1959, Leah's relationship to her zealous father is that of the unquestioning believer: innocence marked by complete devotion. She says of her father that he stood as "tall as Goliath and pure of heart as David" when Mama Tataba correctly informs him that he isn't properly cultivating the land. (Kingsolver, pg. 40) The reader can infer that the father's words that he has been tending soil "ever since...[he] could walk behind... [his] father" are misplaced and condescending. But Leah admiringly comments, "When he says anything at all... It tends to come out like this -- in terms that can be interpreted as sacred." She also notes that she has never seen someone speak contemptuously to her father as Mama Tataba does.
By comparing him to heroic characters from The Old Testament and admiring his linguistic abilities, Leah conveys both her devotion toward him and her faith in the Bible. Her casual allusion to David and Goliath implies that she believes Biblical stories are relevant to her experience of her father.
In "The Revelation," Leah experiences her first "stirring of anger" against her father, but is still basically faithful to her image of her father and the Bible. She earnestly remarks that "The Lord is our Shepherd and the very least we sheep can do is keep up with the flock." (p.145).
By likening herself to one of the sheep, she describes herself as a noncritical believer and literal follower of her father's teachings. She also suggests the similarity she experiences between her father and Jesus. More broadly, her remark shows that she continues to analogize aspects of her life to Biblical sayings and events.
Although Leah's attitude toward her mother is somewhat condescending in "Genesis," Leah's first real diminishment of faith occurs when her mother first flouts Nathan's authority. Leah's faith drops steadily from that moment onward. Although her mother aptly compared her relationship to her father as that of a waitress hoping for a tip and accurately describes Leah's avoidance of herself, Leah gradually shows mercy towards her mother and loses sympathy for her father and his evangelism. In conversation with Reverend Santa, she realizes that she can choose to interpret the Bible non-literally, and implied in that is the loss of the earnestness that initially characterized her. She continues to pray and quote from the Bible (such as during the infestation of ants) but there is less self-righteousness to her choice of quotes. She prays for mercy. (pg. 300) Instead of seeing her father's attempted dominion of the earth as infallible, she is made viscerally aware of her father's limited perspective.
Late in the narrative, Leah's Biblical references show that she is still haunted by her earlier deep faith, but is overall ambivalent toward religion. She says,
Have mercy upon me, O God, according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies,' I catch myself praying, before I've fully awakened to a world where I have no father, and can count on no tender mercies." (pg. 456)
So, she can't keep herself from praying, but reveals it as a matter of unconscious or ingrained behavior, rather than a conscious act of faith. Her lack of a father is both literal and spiritual. Still later she uses her old terminology to refer to her son, Taniel, as a miracle. The loss of dependence on the Bible for faith, though, has hardened her and shows growth from the wholeheartedness she possessed; she has acquired the doubtfulness that Orleanna originally possessed.
From the start, Orleanna is much less certain of Nathan and the moral rightness of their presence in the Congo; the Biblical references she makes reflect her passive resentment. When she feels fearful about the consequences of Nathan's actions she reads Psalms, but not for edification or growth; she reads them to "numb" her mind. (pg. 95) In other words, she uses the Bible to reduce her capacity to reason. But this does not give her the faith that Leah initially possesses through innocence. Describing sleepless nights, Orleanna says, would turn to the Bible for comfort, only to find myself regaled again. 'Unto the woman God said: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.' Oh, mercy. If it catches you in the wrong frame of mind, the King James Bible can make you want to drink poison in no uncertain terms." (pg. 192).
Orleanna's use of the word "regaled" suggests a playfulness or nonseriousness toward the Bible. Her quotation, however, is devastatingly typical of the Biblical attitude toward women. It's content suggests the sadness pervading Orleanna's relationship toward her children. By following the lofty verbatim quote with more plain language, Orleanna's character is revealed as down to earth, but fraught with irony and deeply resentful of the role she plays in her family.
Unlike Leah's, Orleanna's attitude toward her husband at the start of the narrative is more passively than actively expressed. Her Biblical references are not flattering or grand. She even compares herself to Lot's wife, ever doubtful.
She justifies her passivity with the statement that a wife can't throw stones at her husband because the stone would fly through him and "strike the child made in his image." (pg.191) She disengages herself from her own hostility by speaking abstractly about "a wife" and then in second person in the same passage, rather than continuing in her usual first-person style.
Ruth May's death by snake forces Orleanna into action and she begins to make nonironic allusion to the Bible, instead of passive-aggressive referencing. In the Bible, the snake in the Garden represented knowledge, which functioned to reduce innocence. Symbolically, Ruth May's death by the green mamba,…