The four principal characters of The Poisonwood Bible are the four daughters of the Rev. Nathan Price and his wife, Orleanna.
Rachel is the eldest daughter. She is very much attached to the popular culture and comfortable way of life that she knew in the United States before her family came to Africa, and is probably the most unwilling of all the Price girls to attempt to engage Kilanga and the Kilangans on their own terms. She is given to malapropisms that, more often that not, betray her true opinions about any given subject. She is vain and self-centered, and consistently evades taking responsibility for her actions and decisions, blaming either her family or (in later years) the many men in her life for what befalls her. At the same time, she very much views herself as a do-it-yourself, look-out-for-number-one kind of person. She eventually inherits and manages The Equatorial, a luxury hotel in Zaire where her opulent, insular lifestyle ironically mirrors that of the dictator Mobutu.
Leah and Adah are the twins. Both girls are thoughtful and sensitive, although they display these traits in different ways. Leah begins the novel sharing the faith of her father and desperately trying to earn his affection; by the novel’s close, after she has fallen in love with Anatole (an educator in Kilanga who supports Prime Minister Lumumba and remains a political advocate for an independent Congo/Zaire in later years) and has come to identify with Africa, she rejects faith in the God preached by the western, colonial powers her father represents. Adah begins the novel isolated by hemiplegia and physical deformity; however, although she is silent with other people, she shares her keen and insightful observations of her family and life with the readers, offering a unique, “palindromic” vision of the world that sees meaning in it both backward and forward. Eventually, Adah overcomes her physical condition; she retains, however, a unique “slant” or outlook on the world. Both twins end the novel as women working for a better world, although Leah, ever the passionate idealist, is choosing to do so, teaching nutrition and agriculture to Africans; Adah, a doctor specializing in virology, inadvertently contributes to breakthroughs in research on such viruses as AIDS and Ebola as she studies them for the “balancers” of life she believes them to be. Leah and Anatole have four sons, who mirror the four Price daughters; Adah never marries and is childless.
Ruth May is the youngest Price daughter. She is initially uncomfortable as one of only a handful of white people in Kilanga, taking refuge not only in counting the other white people she sees (her family, the “Underdowns,” and Axelroot) but also in the fantasy world of fairy tales and comic books (she counts the Lone Ranger, Cinderella, and Briar Rose as fellow inhabitants of Kilanga). Eventually, however, Ruth befriends the children of Kilanga, simply by playing with them, connecting with them on the level of common humanity in a way that her father never can. Ruth May dies when Kilanga’s “witch doctor” attempts to kill someone else by loosing a snake in the Price’s back yard at night. She emerges as a kind of martyr figure—a martyr to her father’s stubborn insistence on “bringing the gospel” to Africa. She becomes, as she sensed she would, an omniscient, all-seeing presence, judging the family and the world she left behind.
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