Western Colonization and its effects of the African Continent

The Use of Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in the Poisonwood Bible as a tool to examine the idea of Western Colonization and its effects of the African Continent


In her novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of Nathan Price, a stern American evangelical Baptist who decides to go on a mission in Africa, along with his wife and four daughters. The story is set in 1959, in the then Belgian Congo. The book is a compelling exploration of conscience, imperialist arrogance, religion, as well as the various paths of redemption. Kingsolver has endeavored to make use of themes, symbols, and motifs as a tool to explore the issue of western colonization and its attendant impact on the Africa continent.

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In her novel, Kingsolver introduces the theme of the cultural arrogance of western colonization in the African continent.   Her book is a radical condemnation of not just Western colonialism, but also post-colonialism. It exposes reed and cultural arrogance as exhibited by the westerners, specifically, Nathan Price. Kingsolver depicts Nathan Price as the personification of Western arrogance, as evidenced by his missionary enthusiasm to upend the traditional civilization of the Congo and instead, substitute them with the western religious beliefs (Kingsolver 19). He also preaches about the superior farming technology and methods of the American society, in addition to the high quality of life accorded by the American civilization.

Nathan Price claims that the Lord delivered him from the Bataan Death March. This convinces him that God intends him to become a significant and great mission, seeing that “his confidence in the Lord is exceptional” (Kingsolver 276).  He is convinced that he is the chosen one to bring God’s word to a new frontier, in this case, the wilderness that is Africa. Kingsolver depicts Nathan as an inflexible, passionately committed and arrogant individual. In other words, the author paints him as an American exceptionalist.  Because he is persuaded that Americans are the chosen people, he tends to pay no attention to the Local customs in Congo. In addition, he also resists information and help from villagers.  It is not just Nathan Price who comes across as an arrogant westerner; almost all of the non-African characters in the book have this fault. Examples include the initial certainty of Leah in the pending mission of her father (Kingsolver 21). There is also the issue of patronizing racism by the different characters in the book. This gives them the confidence that their culture is superior to that of the African, and so the need to replace the culture. The United States government also exercises cultural arrogance in a very dangerous manner when they endevours to replace the country’s president with another puppet ruler.

Another prominent theme in the book is that of individuality and handling the burden of guilt.  Kingsolver’s book is a political allegory. Even as the story speaks volume of the burden of guilty harbored by five women characters, such as in the death of a sister or daughter, in addition to the women’s public guilt as regards their role in the tragedies that have befallen Africa, the book is really about the guilt shared by American citizens as a result of what their country has done in Congo, and how the United States citizens are supposed to respond to those actions.

Having to endure this burden of guilt is a complicated issue that does not have a single right answer. For this reason, Kingsolver has decided to tell the story by through five different narrators. Each of the five narrators may be seen as a symbol of the five different answers to the question of having to deal with the burden of guilt. The variety of answers covers the complete paralysis of Orleanna, as well as the casual refusal by Rachel to accept the burden. At the center of these extremes, we have Leah Adah whose response is quite scientific, as he tries to make sense and comprehend the world from a fundamental point of view ( Kingsolver 373).

The theme of the unfeasibility of complete and explicit justice is also evident in the book.

The women in Price’s life approach life from various perspectives and in the process they also represent different ideas of justice. The women also bring the notion of the inability to attain complete justice.  Because Adah approaches the idea of justice from a global context, she abandons her belief in a world center around humans. She informs us that it is impossible to achieve absolute justice (Kingsolver 72).  We are convinced that young African babies dying of such disease as malnutrition is unjust and as a way of correcting this injustice, we send doctors to treat them. On the other hand, Adah contends that doing a good deed may as well result in another form of injustice.  For example, overpopulation causes deforestation and food shortage.  It becomes hard to later the balance of the world (Kingsolver 375).  On her part, Leah manages to uphold her human-centric focus, and she is quick to point at the lack of justice in the world.

The author has also made use of motifs in the book in a bid to examine the idea of western civilization, and how this has affected the African continent. For instance, Kingsolver uses the motif of vision as an attempt to accentuate the ideas of understanding and cultural arrogance. Nathan is not able to see beyond his tapered world view. This motif of vision is time and again evoked with images of poor sight and blindness.  He fought in the Second World War, where he returned with a damaged left eye. This has left him with poor vision. Metaphorically, the wound is a sign of the severe spiritual as well as psychological blindness that Nathan suffers from.  Nathan’s good eye gets damaged temporarily when he fails to heed the advice of Mama Tataba, and instead goes on tackling the poisonwood tree.  Leah is finally able to see his father as a delusional and cruel man, at which point she notices that “his blue eyes…had a vacant look” (Kingsolver 439). Adah is the only Prices who never view the Western culture as being superior in comparing with the Congolese culture. By contrast, she also has an agile vision.

In her book, Kingsolver repeatedly tries to dispel the notion that Africa is the dark

continent. To do so, she experiments with the themes of light and darkness in an attempt to try and change our mindset on where exactly those forces resides.  While delivering his maiden sermon in Kilanga, Nathan constantly makes use of the biblical phrase, “nakedness and darkness of the soul” (Kingsolver 525) in reference to the nakedness state of the natives. However, the phrase “heart of darkness” has been used evocatively in reference to Nathan. Nathan is a symbol of African oppressions by Westerners and in this respect the Western world is seen as the source of darkness, and not Africa (Strehle 415).  The author uses the phase “walk forward into the light” on two occasions in the book and on both occasions, the phrase has different meanings. The author uses the phrase the first time when Nathan’s daughter dies. As he walks around the dead body of his daughter, Nathan uses the rain water to baptize local children who have come to mourn with his family. This forces Leah to affirm her father is “imploring the living progeny of Kilanga to walk forward into the light” (Kingsolver 535).  She is referring to the light of Christianity that his family has thus far practiced, and which he now wishes to impose on the locals. As the book ends, Ruth May uses the same words in reference to her mother. In this case, the light does not signify Christianity, but it refers to a world that is free of the darkness that has darkened the hearts of such men as Nathan Price.  As such, the light is used in reference to forgiveness of such men.

Kingsolver has also explored western civilization and its effect on the African continent using symbols.  One such symbol is Methuselah the parrot. The parrot symbolizes the Republic of Congo, a country that is doomed. Methuselah has remained in a cage for the better part of his life and as such, he has to rely on his masters to feed him (Ognibene 19). He has become so dependent on humans that even when Nathan releases him, he still hangs around the house. This is symbolic of how Congo had become dependent on its colonizers even after attaining independence. Nathan has a demonstration garden which is also symbolic. To start with, it is a replacement of the beliefs and attitudes harbored by the Prices as they come to Africa. This is yet another revelation of the blind arrogance that characterizes Nathan, along with the belief in the backwardness of the Congolese to the extent that they are incapable of fending for themselves.  The garden is also symbolic form a biblical context (Ognibene 20).  For example, the Garden of Eden has a crucial role in Christian tradition. At this point, one can draw parallels between Adam and Eve and their sinning at the Garden of Eden, when they decided to eat from the tree of knowledge, and the sins committed by Nathan by ignoring the local culture as he endeavors to have a deeper and larger understanding of the world around him.

Western Colonization symbolism in Poisonwood Bible

Finally, the Poisonwood tree is also used symbolically. The first encounter that Nathan has with the Poisonwood tree is when he goes on a planting tree at this demonstration garden.  He is warned by Mama Tataba that he should not touch the dangerous plant. However, he chooses to disdainfully ignore her and eventually, his hands and arms get painfully swollen for not heeding the warning (Strehle 417).   The author mainly uses the Poisonwood tree in the story to act as a linguistic accident. For example the word “Bangala” means “dearly beloved” in the native dialect when spoken slowly; however, the same word can mean “Poisonwood Tree” when spoken quickly.  This is symbolic of Nathan’s willful ignorance to get to know about the local culture or even learn anything from it, as a result of his cultural arrogance.


The Poisonwood Bible is laden with symbols, motifs, and themes that the author has successfully used to signify western colonization and its effect on African society.  Kingsolver has skillfully used them in order to show how missionaries who came to spread the good news to Africans were also intended on replacing the local culture with their own western culture which they regarded as superior. They were least concerned with the local culture, which they regarded as being inferior, and this is a sign of cultural arrogance. This arranged is further advanced by the motif of vision that prevents Nathan from seeing beyond his tapered world view.  The Poisonwood tree is symbolic of the sheer arrogance of the Western civilization as represented by Nathan, and their inability to see any good out of the local culture.

Works Cited

Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: Harper, 1998. Print.

Ognibene, Elaine. The Missionary Position: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

College Literature, 30.3 (2003): 19-36.

Strehle, Susan. Chosen People: American Exceptionalism in Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood

Bible.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 49.4 (2008): 413-428.

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