My name is Allison Jensen, I am currently completing my undergrad degree in the English Honours program at the University of Calgary; I’m going to be doing a Master’s in Contemporary Literary Studies at Lancaster University in the Fall and can hardly contain my nerdy excitement. Paul has asked me quite a few times to write a book review for this blog but considering I don’t have any time to be doing things that aren’t on my “Must Finish Or Else You Won’t Graduate And Then You Won’t Go To Grad School Like You’ve Always Dreamed” list, it has not happened. Since I can’t post my 40 page thesis about my independent research topic to the blog (partly because, well, it’s not exactly finished and also because it’s really nerdy and most people don’t care about literature to the extent that I do), I came up with a solution that required no extra work on my part and still gave Paul something to put on the blog. The following is the conference talk I delivered on March 22nd about my thesis, titled “‘But Whom Say Ye That I Am?’: The (Re)Construction of Female Identity in The Poisonwood Bible”
(Note: All subsequent quotes are from the novel mentioned. I don’t have page numbers because the talk was delivered orally and I really don’t want to go back and look up specific pages but I promise you, it’s from the book.)
“In the powerful humidity the powdered [cake] mix got transfigured like Lot’s poor wife who looked back at Gomorrah and got turned to a pillar of salt. On the morning of Rachel’s birthday I found Mother out in the kitchen house with her head in her hands, crying. She picked up the box and banged it hard against the iron stove, just once, to show me. It clanged like a hammer on a bell. Her way of telling a parable is different from my father’s.
‘If I’d of had the foggiest idea,’ she said very steadily, holding her pale, weeping eyes on me, ‘just the foggiest idea. We brought all the wrong things.’
[…] But Angel Dream [cake mix] was the wrong thing, the wrong thing by a mile. I’d carried it over in my own waistband, so it seemed like some part of the responsibility was mine.”
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible chronicles the journey of the Price family, consisting of the parents Nathan and Orleanna, and their 4 daughters Rachel, the twins Leah and Adah, and Ruth May; they leave their American home in Georgia to serve a Baptist mission in the Congo in the 1960s, during the transition from colonial rule to independence. Narrated by the mother and four daughters, this novel provides a first-hand account of what happened to them in the Congo and how it changed and challenged everything they thought they knew about the world and about themselves. The sense of identity of the women in the novel before moving to the Congo revolved around the religious views and patriarchal ideologies that were imposed upon them, both of which were heavily influenced by their father’s and husband’s expectations. Their experience in the Congo challenged many of the patriarchal assumptions they carried with them, leaving them uncomfortably vulnerable and requiring them to rebuild themselves in order to survive; this experience exposed their insecurities and lack of internal understanding of who they were as Christians and as women.
In this thesis, I argue that the Price women’s lived experiences in the Congo exposed their previously held beliefs to be inaccurate and insufficient, forcing them to re-evaluate their perceptions of right and wrong. This will be proven first through a theoretical discussion of the terms discourse and counter discourse, as seen in the episodes in the novel of the demonstration garden and the Jesus election, where I argue that the Congo served as a destabilizing force to the Price women’s previously held notions of Christianity and cultural propriety. Secondly, the character of Brother Fowles provides an alternate expression of gospel doctrine and principles and gives a Congolese contextualization of those theologies; he serves as a foil to ideas that were previously thought to be universally true, signifying the equally valid possibility of different interpretations of the same principles. Thirdly, using bell hooks’ notion of consciousness raising, I argue that the Price women are changed by their experiences in the Congo, specifically through personal storytelling and forgiveness.
For this presentation, I want to share some highlights of each section, giving you an overview of the arguments in my thesis, using specific examples from the novel. I’m going to start with examining some instances in the Congo that provided a counter discourse to the views of the Prices, causing the breakdown of the ideologies they brought with them, particularly looking at the event of the Jesus election. The village chief, Tata Ndu, decides that the village should hold an election to determine whether they will accept “Jesus Christ in the office of personal God, Kilanga village.” Nathan, the self-righteous, over-zealous patriarch of the Price family, objects to this suggestion on the grounds that Jesus is not subject to democratic processes. “[Y]ou’re presuming you can take or leave the benevolence of Jesus Christ!” he vehemently proclaims. By this time in the novel, it has become apparent to the Prices that things are done differently in the Congo. However, things like clothing, eating, communal relations, days of the week, and environmental differences seem relatively unimportant when juxtaposed next to religious practices that are so starkly different from what the Prices believe to be appropriate. Nathan cannot fathom a democratic process that does not directly reflect American policies and procedure and certainly cannot begin to entertain the idea of voting for a Saviour, yet when Tata Ndu shares his reasoning, there is little to protest. He expertly replies: “Tata Price, white men have brought us many programs to improve our thinking[.] […] The program of Jesus and the program of elections. You say these things are good. You cannot say now they are not good.” And with that gem of chiefly wisdom, the election is held and Jesus loses 11-56. Not only could you vote for Jesus here but he can also lose: two things the Prices never thought possible yet happened despite their disbelief. They brought with them a set of ideals of how the world was supposed to work, what was allowed and not allowed to happen, and the Congo didn’t seem to play by their rules. This begged the question: what if their rules don’t actually apply to other people?
Not only were the social and cultural ideologies of the Prices challenged but their theologies were also called into question. This is particularly evident during a discussion with a Catholic missionary, Brother Fowles, who was serving in the village previous to the Prices’ arrival. Brother Fowles serves as a foil to the religious ideas of the Price family, more accurately those of Nathan, that were thought to be universally and eternally true; he signifies the equally valid possibility of different interpretations of the same principles. Brother Fowles posits the fairly radical notion that the Congolese people already have a spirituality and religion that works for them in their everyday lives and that missionaries should add to it and help expand what they already have instead of trying to impose their own institutions of worship; his views of worship have blended with those of the Congolese, becoming more holistic and integrated with nature, which is technically considered paganism which is just as bad as Catholicism if you ask Nathan. Orleanna, the mother, understands this connection to the natural world and used to, in a sense, worship in similar ways herself before she met Nathan and became a reflection of him and his ideals. Much of what Brother Fowles brings up revolves around alternate readings of scripture, which of course is absolutely unacceptable to Nathan because, in his own words, he has “never been troubled by any such difficulties with interpreting God’s word” and certainly has no time for the musings of an Irish Catholic papist. The words of Brother Fowles seem to hit Leah more profoundly than the others; it is as though it had never occurred to her that there could be another way of reading the same text that does not reflect her father’s preconceived notions of right and wrong. Brother Fowles says to her:
“ “Many parts of the Bible make good sense here, if only you change a few words.” He laughed. “And a lot of whole chapters, sure, you just have to throw away.”
“Well, it’s every bit God’s word, isn’t it?” Leah said. […]
“Darling, did you think God wrote it all down in the English of King James himself?”
“No I guess not.” […]
Leah sat narrow-eyed in her chair, for once stumped for the correct answer.”
To think that there were fallible people involved in the making of the Bible that may have impacted the final product is something that had previously never crossed Leah’s mind; she did not grow up in an environment that allowed for independent thought and this radical notion of biblical imperfection is certainly not Nathan-sanctioned. If the Bible is not the be all and the end all of religion, then what other interpretations she thought were inarguably true might turn out to be completely subjective?
It quickly becomes clear over the course of the novel that life is different in the Congo and the mindsets they brought with them were insufficient for the tasks of survival in this new place. To use bell hooks’ term, the Congo served as a consciousness raising experience for the Price women, each coming to new realizations in their own way according to their own circumstances. I want to look specifically at the mother Orleanna and at one of the twins, Leah, and discuss the different ways their consciousnesses were raised and what they subsequently did to change their situations. Orleanna appears to be a docile, subservient, good Christian housewife but as she tells her own story, she reveals she was not always that kind of woman. She gives an account of her life growing up and talks about her affinity for nature and the connection she always felt to the earth; she is clear to illustrate just how young, fragile, and impressionable she was when she met Nathan, how she never wanted her life to end up in the middle of the Congo in an abusive marriage with her children going hungry and having to live with a man who would never see her or her children as full human beings, worthy of any kind of agency or individual identity. She poignantly describes her situation: “[…] I cowered beside my cage, and though my soul hankered for the mountain, I found […] I had no wings.”
It is not until one of her children dies that she is able to understand the gravity of the situation she faces; she had to change her survival strategy because clearly those strategies of submission, obedience, and quietness she had previously employed could not and did not save her children. The death of her youngest child proved to be the catalyst in the process of consciousness raising that allowed her to take back her agency and be able to confront who she was and to what extent she was or wasn’t responsible for the things that happened to her and her children. She took her children and left her husband, walking away from what she knew and into the wilderness of the Congo, into a new yet unknowable life that was one she could own. While she may have left the Congo and her husband, what happened there never left her; she would spend her whole life searching for the redemption that she could never quite allow herself to accept. She never does allow herself to let go of the responsibility she feels for the death of her child, for how the Congo affected her children, and for what she did to herself. The words of the spirit of her child close the novel with an admonition to her mother: “Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember. […] Move on. Walk forward into the light.” It is unclear in the novel whether Orleanna ever fully forgives herself but it is clear that despite the high price she had to pay, losing a child, her consciousness was raised to the point where she was finally able to exercise her agency and provide a way out for herself and her remaining children.
Leah’s consciousness raising experience was more gradual; it revolved around her reexamination of what it means to be a Christian and what that should look like for her as an individual instead of as a daughter of a self-righteous, dictatorial pastor. Early in the novel, soon after arriving in Africa, it becomes apparent to Leah that this place required a completely different set of rules. She notes: “I sensed the sun was going down on many things I believed in.” Leah’s religious observance changes from being one of dogmatic rule following to more so a sense of spirituality and certainly more pagan influences, similar to how her mother once was and how her father never could condone. She was once her father’s biggest support and desperately obeyed every rule to seek his approval that was never given. Being in the Congo challenged what she thought were the ways in which the world had to work. Normally, her father had every answer and everything could be explained but here in the Congo, she noticed injustices that seem inexplicable or unwarranted: hunger, destitution, pestilence, floods, death, disability. These things were not so much results of unrighteous behaviour but more so a part of everyday life in the Congo. This new environment doesn’t seem to care about rewarding good behaviour with blessings, it doesn’t seem to matter; starvation, poverty, death, the rain will fall on the just and the unjust, regardless of religious affiliation or worship practices.
This realization doesn’t seem to drive Leah to atheism or to become anti-Christian but it certainly does drastically change how she understands the world around her and it does change her approach to living as a Christian. Years after leaving her father and her faith in the Congo jungle, after marrying a Congolese man, bearing children, living a life that was of her own accord, Leah no longer believes in the God her father imposed upon her, one that was hell-bent on justice and tyranny. She describes her father’s teaching technique: “He stamped me with a belief in justice, then drenched me with culpability.” The weight of being responsible for the injustices around her becomes too much to bear. As she grew older and acquired lived experiences, she was able to achieve what she calls “the simple human relief of knowing you’ve done wrong, and living through it.” She comes to believe in trusting God’s Creation, the world around her, and feeling her sense of communion and redemption through that instead of a mediator like her father or a mistranslated book. Leah’s twin sister, Adah, dubs her the un-missionary; she no longer seeks for conversion or salvation for others but for peace and forgiveness for herself. Her approach no longer includes hellfire and salvation but survival and acceptance; without the need to exact justice, she is able to find room for mercy and forgiveness for herself, which is something that will be wrestled with for her entire life yet in which she can still find solace.
This novel chronicles the journey of the Price women and illustrates the varying degrees of change they all experience due to what happened to them while on their mission in the Congo. Their lived experiences proved their previously held notions of who they were and how the world worked to be inaccurate. The Congo provides a counter discourse to their preconceived ideas of how the world operates, Brother Fowles showed the validity in alternate theological interpretations that differed from their own, and their consciousnesses were raised by their lived experiences through the ongoing processes of storytelling and forgiveness. “To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know.” The Price women find new senses of self because of and despite their trials and tribulations in the wilderness. They walked through the valley of the shadow of death, whether their God was with them or not. They use their own words to tell their own stories and that process is what frees them from the artificial identities enforced upon them.