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The Concept of Freedom in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

Writing by Emily Tennant. Photograph by Annelies Geneyn.

It is difficult to ignore the popularity of exploring the concept of freedom in modern literature. Freedom from surveillance in dystopia, gender freedom in romance, freedom from a pre-determined destiny in fantasy. Indeed, it is difficult to explore any of these concepts of freedom individually; they are each woven into one another’s tapestries. Barbara Kingsolver successfully explores these concepts of freedom in the context of each other in a novel as emotional and politically engaging as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Poisonwood Bible follows the story of an American missionary family as they attempt to instil Christianity in Kilanga, a village in the Belgian Congo. Despite the father, Nathan Price, driving much of the novel’s plot, the story focuses on the perspective of Nathan’s wife, Orelanna, and their daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. I would argue that each of these women represents a different concept of freedom, highlighted by their individual experiences in the Congo at the time of its decolonisation. The process of independence from Belgian rule and the tumultuous aftermath is central to the storyline, and Kingsolver’s dramatic yet accurate retelling effectively educates and involves her readers in both the historic and modern struggles of the Congo.

The concept of freedom is most obviously explored in Kingsolver’s examination of the process of decolonisation in Congo in the 1950s and 1960s. First addressed is the issue of religious freedom, as the Price family travel to the Congo with the intention of converting the village of Kilanga to Christianity. This theme is most clearly expressed through the character of Nathan, whose fanatic nature results in his and his family’s downfall. Deeply entwined with religious freedom is political and cultural freedom. At the time, the Congo was under the rule of Belgian King Leopold II. His reign over the Congo was brutal, and resulted in the torture, exploitation, and death of thousands of Congolese people. The novel explores the process of decolonisation and independence, touching on the election of Patrice Lumumba, the following coup d’état, and the heavy involvement of the UN and the Soviet Union. Here, Kingsolver addresses the Marxist notion that formal freedom does not always equate to freedom in actuality, as much of the Congo’s problems are left unsolved after its official independence. Leah’s story explores the aftermath of the decolonisation process as she spends the rest of her life in the Congo, protesting, educating, and sheltering those affected by the conflict and disruption.

Kingsolver uses the four female characters of the novel to bring the concept of freedom into a more personal context. Despite the exhilarating feeling of adventure experienced by Orleanna and her daughters at the beginning of their trip, it becomes clear in the second half of the novel that each of them only really finds freedom (or their version of it) after having left Nathan and his missionary work. Indeed, it is clear that he is a constricting rather than a freeing influence on his family. I would argue that each of the women’s experience of ‘freedom’ is partially achieved by overcoming the trauma of an emotionally absent and abusive father. They also find freedom in replacing their father’s rampant religiosity with something that better suits them (wealth for Rachel, science for Adah, and activism for Leah).

Rachel finds her freedom in wealth and financial independence – something she had never before experienced. Although her character is presented as emotionally unintelligent and immature, it is made clear that she has achieved her aim in life. By contrast, the freedoms achieved by twins Leah and Adah appear far more spiritually fulfilling. Adah returns to the US to study epidemiology, finding freedom in her newfound ability to thrive with her disability, rather than struggle with it. Her field of study also reflects her ongoing love for her younger sister Ruth May, who died in Kilanga at a young age.

I feel that Leah’s version of freedom is the most satisfying. Of all the Price family, Leah’s character appears the most settled in Kilanga. Her immediate appreciation for the local language of Lingala ignites her journey towards freedom. After marrying Anatole (a young teacher from the village), she devotes her life and family to the fight for Congolese independence and providing support and shelter for those who have been displaced by the conflict. Her story comes full circle, as she fully rejects her father’s problematic faith, and actively works to mitigate the bigger issues that his character represents (for example, the religious colonisation of the Congo by US missionaries).

Although Ruth May dies at a young age and is never given the opportunity to find her freedom, her memory is certainly kept alive by her mother, Orleanna. We learn that, after moving back to America, her life is steeped in guilt and despair. The last chapter of the book is narrated by Ruth May, in which she forgives her mother for the events of the past, and Orleanna is finally granted freedom from the guilt and grief of her daughter’s premature death.

The Poisonwood Bible is an impactful read. Kingsolver’s immaculate storytelling skills are only amplified by her ability to combine an emotional and nostalgic piece of literature with an informed political thriller. This novel touches on many important themes – religion, grief, politics, gender and family structures – all of which, I believe, can be traced back to the concept of freedom. This notionis as visible in her exploration of characters as it is her examination of contemporary politics and geography.

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