Study Guide

The Poisonwood Bible Independence

By Barbara Kingsolver


It's Gonna Happen Soon, But Not Today

Independence conjures up images of fluttering flags, fireworks, and exuberant celebration. It might be reason for a party 200 years after the fact, but it doesn't always come with hot dogs and cold beers.

The independence of the Congo is the backdrop against which the whole forty- or fifty-year plot of The Poisonwood Bible is set. (Of course, some people might say the Congo still hasn't achieved true independence.)

Adah recognizes that independence is an ongoing effort: "If chained is where you have been, your arms will always bear marks of the shackles" (5.12.41). Breaking free from chains is a vivid symbol of independence (and Wilson Phillips songs). But the Congo's long, tumultuous history comes with a price: it will always bear the marks of pain, no matter what history books want you to think.

Don't Go Too Far, Stay Who You Are

Each member of the Price family has a different version of their own independence. When Adah loses her slant, she's afraid she'll lose herself, just like the Congo starts to lose some of its national heritage when it becomes "independent" from Belgium (but manipulated by the United States government). Like the Congo, Orleanna frees herself from her captor when she ditches Nathan in the jungle, but she never forgets what she went through.

Nathan, on the other hand, is the oppressor—the one who thinks what he's doing is all right and good and will lead to independence. He even makes up his own calendar and Independence Day: "Father had nothing to lose by announcing his own calendar and placing upon it Easter on the Fourth of July" (1.5.4). It's ironic that he's trying to enforce his will upon a bunch of people on Independence Day, right? But that's just how independence goes in the Congo.

And then there's Rachel, who has the gall to refer to herself as the Fourth of July when comparing herself to Leah and Adah: "I am different too, not night or day either one but something else altogether, like the Fourth of July" (5.11.54). If that's truth, then Rachel is the worst part of the Fourth of July, the me-first attitude that might look like patriotism but is really just jingoism.

Sometimes fireworks fizzle.

Everybody Knows, You Only Live a Day (But It's Brilliant, Anyway)

Perhaps the most accurate symbol of independence, at least where the Congo is concerned, is mouthy Methuselah the parrot. Nathan hates him—but then again, Nathan hates anything that thinks for itself. When Nathan flings Methuselah from his cage at the end of Book 1, the parrot, "opened his wings and fluttered like freedom itself" (1.11.48).

Nice image, but there's a problem. Adah puts it into words best when she says, "Now he has a world. What can he possibly do with it?" (2.4.11).

Methuselah wasn't ready for independence. He couldn't feed himself, and still depended on food from the Price family. And what about the Congo? The Congo wasn't ready to be self-sustaining, so the U.S. offered a guiding-slash-oppressive hand. In the end, Methuselah is devoured by an animal in the jungle, much in the way that the U.S. steps in to take over the Congo and strip it of its jewels.

The lesson: if you're not ready for it, freedom can kill.