THE POISONWOOD BIBLE 'Cultural arrogance is presented as the great sin of the West and traditional forms of Christianity as one of this sin's primary vehicles.' How do you respond to Kingsolver's portrayal of Christianity?
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'Cultural arrogance is presented as the great sin of the West and traditional forms of Christianity as one of this sin's primary vehicles.' How do you respond to Kingsolver's portrayal of Christianity? Kingsolver's concern with Christianity is evident in the very title of The Poisonwood Bible. She uses 'books' to divide the novel into sections, which, with names like Genesis and The Revelation, reflect the books of the Bible. As the novel progresses, the structure deviates from that of its biblical namesakes: there is a shift in order - Exodus is placed centrally - and new books with titles such as The Eyes in the Trees are introduced (Kingsolver's own appellations). These names present the reader with the idea that Kingsolver is rewriting the central Christian text, adapting it for her own story. Thus religion is heralded as a significant presence in the book, not just thematically, but structurally. Throughout The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver uses her characters to represent forms of attitudes to Christianity. The primary expositor is Nathan, who sustains forceful, evangelical beliefs throughout. He has no voice of his own, but all accounts affirm to the reader that he is consumed by his faith. Leah, the daughter who harbours the most respect for her father, initially refers to him only in the context of religion - 'his tone implied that...[Mother's] concern with Better Crocker confederated her with the coin-jingling sinners who vexed Jesus till he pitched a fit and threw them out of church.' She is describing the cleansing of the temple in John 2:13-22, but the fact that she can reference it freely, and even put it into her own words, demonstrates that she has been heavily influenced by the Bible. Kingsolver is perhaps trying to show that religion can be used to control the way people think, and she portrays Christianity as highly potent. Leah continues to incorporate Biblical language into everyday speech, 'For it was God who gave man alone the capacity of foresight'.
Initially, Nathan's family are depicted as passive, rarely bemoaning the iron grip their father has upon their lives. Rachel is not even allowed to wear nail polish, 'Father feels make-up and nail polish are warning signs of prostitution'. By having Nathan associate make-up, which in 1950s America was a relatively normal part of teenager-hood, with prostitution, Kingsolver demonstrates that strict Christianity can lead to irrational paranoia. It is rare that any of his family criticise their father directly - Leah does not comment on the blatant injustice of her father carrying nothing to Africa except 'the word of God...[which] fortunately weighed nothing at all'. Here Kingsolver might be being discreetly ironic about Christianity - the 'word of God' clearly does have a huge impact on his family's lives, so perhaps the reason it weighs nothing is because it is, after everything, useless. However, I find that the acquiescence of Nathan's family to his tyranny only increases the menace Christianity presents. Not only does Kingsolver show (without her characters having to tell us) the way Christianity can repress people, but we also realise that it can render them blind - Leah, for a significant part of the book, admires her father more than anyone: 'He was gifted with such keen judgment and purity of heart'. This is so far from the truth I think Kingsolver must be using irony to expose the extent of Leah's deception. So again, Kingsolver is not criticising Christianity, but Nathan's interpretation of it. If her book is a polemic against rigid adherence to traditional Christian doctrines, it is measured carefully - Nathan receives varying degrees of support from his family. Orleanna clearly believes in a God, but has been worn down by her husband's religious tyranny and the suffocating demands of her life - 'I could fall into bed for a few short hours and dream of being eaten alive in small pieces.'
When Ruth May gets taunted about Congo natives - 'the cannibal natives would boil us up and eat us in a pot', her teacher does nothing to allay the racial stereotyping, 'she didn't say one word or the other...so I don't know.' This kind of environment is also intolerant. Adah's story of being punished for raising religious doubts - 'Miss Betty sent me to the corner...to pray...while kneeling on grains of uncooked rice' elucidates a fundamental flaw in Christianity. Belief should not be a will choice, so condemning souls for lacking is grossly unjust - especially, as Adah has pointed out, because beliefs are shaped by 'the accident of...birth'. The teacher's prohibition of independent thought also embodies a kind of arrogance: Christianity is the only answer and anything else is blasphemy. In conclusion, I believe Kingsolver is damning about certain forms of Christianity. My response to the superficial stance of the Congolese is amusement, to the gentle Animism of Brother Fowles, admiration, and to Rachel's 'Christianity', disdain. But Christianity, in its most general form, is only a set of beliefs and traditions, used to a thousand different ends. It cannot be held responsible for the way Nathan treats his daughters, or for the religious clash between Western values and Congolese beliefs. Nathan, with his oppressive dogmatism, encounters obstacles because he refuses to accept anything but his own beliefs, thereby displaying his utter cultural arrogance '...the few here that choose Christi-an-ity over ignorance and darkness!' Kingsolver makes him a slave to an ancient, uncompromising text, depicting his struggle to force it upon people who have no interest in it. Nathan's personal religion was poisoned when his company died 'on the death march'. It was not Christianity that made him into (as Leah puts it) a 'simple, ugly man', it was a series of tragic events, falling upon an impressionable man at an unfortunate time. Through his downfall, Kingsolver effectively puts across the danger of being rigid and uncompromising about traditional Christianity. ?? ?? ?? ?? Julia Wilson Y13 English Literature Coursework 2004
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