The strong commentary on Christianity in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is strongly evident throughout the novel. The narrative itself is divided into books' that mirror those of the Bible, including: Genesis, The Revelation, and Exodus.
Throughout the progression of the novel, the structure of the novel strays from a biblical reflection with the addition of new books' which denote Kingsolver's personal appellations. Kingsolver's characters each represent a different attitude towards Christianity. This suggests that Kingsolver's rewriting of the Christian text and adapting it to her own story is in response to the will and progression of her characters. The father of The Poisonwood Bible represents the weaknesses of religion. Nathan is a strong evangelist who is consumed entirely by his faith.
The garden he plants upon the family's arrival in Kilanga is symbolic of his attempt to convert the locals. As he struggles to grow his non-indigenous crops, he also struggles to plant the concept of Baptism in Kilanga. "He declared that he would make them grow, in the name of God, or he would plant again " (63). It is clear that his methods of gardening were of no use in a tropical forest; ergo, his method of gardening resembles his method of religion.
The land that he attempts to cultivate symbolizes the new land of Kilanga which he has intruded in. His failure in his garden is like his failure to his church. It is evident that his character is in a struggle to compete with Africa's very nature. Ultimately his unchanging attitudes and strict values lead to his own destruction and Kilanga's rejection of the Christian faith.
Orleanna Price is the wife of Nathan and represents the consequences of blind faith. She submits to the will of her husband and struggles to provide for her children in the harsh African environment. "Maybe I'll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocalypse, but still I'll insist I was only a captive witness.
What is the conqueror's wife, if not a conquest herself?" (9). Her thoughts dwell on the guilt of her bringing her children to Africa, the United States' involvement in the Congo and eventually her involvement in the death of her child. She places herself in a particular position with respect to the guilt she is feeling. Orleanna did not commit the crime, but she is closely connected to the perpetrator and perhaps even benefited from his crimes.
"I remained his wife because it was the only thing I was able to do each day" (8). Her submissive nature causes her to follow where her husband leads with no her obligations to herself firmly thrust aside. As Nathan's madness becomes more apparent in the novel, and her children's lives seem ever more fragile, she struggles to revive the ability to act out on her own, to oppose her husband's will. Upon the death of her youngest daughter Ruth May, she acquires the strength to leave Nathan with the rest of her daughters.
She spends the rest of her life obsessing over her responsibility in her daughter's death. Adah is Leah's identical twin sister save for her physical deformity (crippled, the whole left side of her body paralyzed from birth). Her views on life are cynical, preferring to view things backward rather than forward, and she holds herself back, preferring to pretend she was an observer rather than a participant.
"When I finally got up with sharp grains imbedded in my knees, I found, to my surprise, that I no longer believed in God" (171). Adah rejects her father's religion (silently) and instead forms her own opinions on the world through reflections on her surroundings. While she still complies with her father's expectations, she delights in turning religious concepts into palindromes that seem to have opposing meanings.
After returning toAmerica she eventually overcomes her handicap; her cynicism also diminishes somewhat as she matures. Adah even finds a religion that she can believe in, science. At the novel's conclusion, she looks back longingly on her handicap and her tendency to see the world from a wholly different angle. Leah is perhaps the most changed character of the novel. She represents religion's struggle to adapt in changing times through her own maturing.
At the beginning of the novel, she is very much a mirror of her father, determined to cultivate Christianity in Africa; although her motives seem to be more of an appeal to her father's affection than her foundation in faith. Her struggle to rebalance herself as a person begins when she realizes the changes that her father has undergone while in Africa.
"My father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God's foot soldiers, while our mother's is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit"(68). She has seen her father as someone she doesn't know anymore. Upon the family's exodus due to the civil war, Leah chooses to stay behind and live in Africa.
In the end of the novel she says, "I am the un-missionary, as Adah would say, beginning each day on my knees, asking to be converted. Forgive me, Africa, according to the multitudes of thy mercies" (525). Leah's worship of her father is traded for her new belief in Africa; her entire perspective on life is changed, but she retains her strong faith in her own resolve.
The four most significant characters in The Poisonwood Bible each represent very different towards the Christian religion as well as the idea in faith. Nathan's strict resolve and rejection of different cultures directly cause the failure of Christianity on their Congo mission. Orleanna's blind devotion to the will of her husband leaves her with the guilt of her daughter's death.
Adah's complete rejection of God and her father cause her to form her own world opinion and cherish her differences. And the adaptation of Leah's faith to her home and family in the Congo completely changes her perspective on her world (starting with her father). Barbara Kingsolver's narrative of the bible brings to light the role it can play in each of our lives according to our beliefs.