Study Guide

The Poisonwood Bible Setting

By Barbara Kingsolver


The Congo, circa 1960

Damsel in Distress

The Congo isn't just a setting in The Poisonwood Bible: it's practically a character. (We almost gave it its own "Character Analysis," but hey—we're not crazy.)

At first, the Congo is just a world of Other: carnivorous animals, deadly parasites, hundreds and hundreds of insects, and not a drop of shampoo to be found. It's an icky foreign place to the Price girls, who grew up in relative safety and cleanliness in the sparkling, sterile U.S. of A. However, the Congo becomes a part of them as they become a part of the Congo, and they start to understand the political machinations happening behind the scenes.

This tormented nation is often personified, usually as a bride or a princess: "Poor Congo, barefoot bride of men who took her jewels and promised the Kingdom" (3.Prologue.34), Orleanna says, and then later, as Leah says:

Like a princess in a story, Congo was born too rich for her own good, and attracted attention [...] from men who desire to rob her blind. The United States has now become the husband of Zaire's economy. [...] Exploitive and condescending, in the name of steering her clear of the moral decline inevitable to her nature. (5.8.59)

Hm. The Congo is (1) feminine, (2) oppressed, and (3) suspect of being immoral. She sounds a lot like one of the Price daughters—the fifth Price daughter that, like Ruth May, Orleanna just can't save.

History Mystery

But the Congo in The Poisonwood Bible isn't a symbol or a literary figure. It's also a real, historical place, and Kingsolver has her narrators drop little hints (usually only half-understood) to the actual events of the day. Want to find out more about the Congo's history and independence? The BBC has you covered: