Study Guide

The Poisonwood Bible Mortality

By Barbara Kingsolver


If "malaria" isn't an African word for "death," it should be. Ninety-one percent of deaths from malaria are in Africa, accounting for almost 600,000 deaths, 86% of them in children under 5 (source). And then there are all the other ways to die in the jungle: parasites, man- (and woman- and child-) eating animals, poisonous plants, droughts, famine, etc. (We'd take the animal-death. It sounds the fastest, if also the most terrifying.)

But to the Price family of The Poisonwood Bible, death is the exception, not the rule. Living in Kilanga, they have to learn to accept death on a regular basis—but that doesn't make it less meaningful.

Questions About Mortality

  1. How do the women of Kilanga cope with the death of their children? How is their coping method similar to and different than "Western" methods of coping with loss?
  2. Adah says, "The loss of a life: unwelcome. Immoral? I don't know" (6.3.3). So, is the loss of life always immoral? What does The Poisonwood Bible seem to think?
  3. How does Ruth May's death fit in with Congolese customs of death, and the concept of muntu? If Ruth May had died of malaria, or died in the United States, how would things have been different?

Chew on This

Because of all the death she sees in the Congo, Adah comes to view death as an inevitable part of life, even when it comes to white American children. That attitude helps her become a doctor. 

Nathan believes that the women of the Congo do not feel sorrow when their children die. This is ironic, because Nathan is never shown expressing any grief or sadness over the death of his own daughter, Ruth May.