Study Guide

The Poisonwood Bible Mortality

By Barbara Kingsolver

Mortality

Book 3, Chapter 5
Leah Price

I used to threaten Ruth May's life so carelessly just to make her behave. Now I had to face the possibility that we really could lose her. (3.5.130)

Talk about a culture gap. We doubt the Congolese would threaten a child's life to make her behave, because death comes so easily there. Leah, who grew up where a child's death is the exception, doesn't have a problem with it... until Ruth May is on death's door with malaria.

Book 3, Chapter 12
Ruth May Price

If I die I will disappear and I know where I'll come back. I'll be right up there in the tree, same color, same everything. I will look down on you. But you won't see me. (3.12.8)

This Congolese "superstition" isn't much different than the idea of a Christian heaven. Ruth May believes she'll end up above (in a tree instead of the sky, but same diff), where she'll be able to watch everyone without being seen. Sounds almost the same to us.

Book 3, Chapter 16
Rachel Rebeccah Price

In the eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ [every death matters]. Even the sparrows that fall out of their nest and what not. (3.16.33)

It's surprising to hear this attitude from Rachel, who acts as though she's superior to everyone else. We guess death is the great equalizer, even to her. (Although check out that totally Rachel-esque "what not" at the end there.)

Book 4, Prologue
Orleanna Price

You can curse the dead or pray for them, but don't expect them to do a thing for you. They're far too interested in watching us, to see what in heaven's name we will do next. (4.Prologue.24)

Orleanna implores us to live for the living, not for the dead. They're only watching, and they can't react to our actions. (OR CAN THEY?)

Book 4, Chapter 2
Rachel Rebeccah Price

In our village, believe you me, people die for the slightest provocation so there are not that many old people still hanging around. (4.2.7)

This attitude toward old age could also be seen as a contrast between American and Congolese attitudes. In America old age is a bad thing—just one more step closer to wrinkliness and death. In the Congo, it's an achievement. Woohoo! You survived childhood!

Book 4, Chapter 9
Leah Price

Two dots an inch apart, as small and tidy as punctuation marks at the end of a sentence none of us could read. The sentence would have started somewhere just above her heart. (4.9.8)

The snake bite is Ruth May's death sentence. No one can read it, because no one knows where it ends … although, according to Kingsolver, it appears to end up in a tree.

Book 4, Chapter 10
Adah Ellen Price

I was not present at Ruth May's birth but I have seen it now, because I saw each step of it played out in reverse at the end of her life. The closing parenthesis. [...] Now she will wait the rest of the time. It will be exactly as long as the time that passed before she was born. (4.10.2)

Adah describes death as the opposite of birth, like a personal circle of life. We return to the oblivion we came from. (Oh, and it sounds like Adah's been reading some e. e. cummings.)

Book 5, Chapter 1
Leah Price

Why, Ruth May is no longer with us! It seemed very simple. We were walking along this road, and she wasn't with us. (5.1.5)

Perhaps Leah's in shock, but she gets over Ruth May's death pretty quickly. Or maybe it's because she's been around so much death in her time in the Congo, she knows it's just a part of life.

Book 6, Chapter 3
Adah Ellen Price

The loss of a life: unwelcome. Immoral? I don't know. (6.3.3)

Adah encounters quite a dilemma as a doctor in the United States. In the Congo, death is a sometimes necessary part of life. It prevents overpopulation, and the hunger and conflict that results from it. Plus, Adah doesn't separate human life from "life" in general. All living things matter to her.

Book 7, Chapter 1
Ruth May Price

Being dead is not worse than being alive. It is different, though. You could say the view is larger. (7.1.7)

Once she's dead, Ruth May can see everything: past, present, and future. (We can hardly see our iPhone screen without glasses these days, speaking of old age and death.) She's now part of the life force that the Congolese believe inhabits everything with the potential for life, whether it is presently dead or alive.