The Poisonwood Bible: Metaphor Analysis
The okapi—a “ruminant species (Okapia johnstoni) in the giraffe family that lives alone in Congo rain forests, eating leaves and fruit” (Britannica Concise Encylcopedia)—serves a symbolic function in the novel’s first chapter. It represents an Africa free of Western interference and domination, an Africa that was never “conquered” by foreigners—military men and missionaries alike.
From early on in the novel, Kilanga (not an actual African village, but one invented by Kingsolver for the novel) is a symbolic as well as literal setting. It represents a more innocent way of life than is known in the West, a life in which people remain closely connected to the land and to each other.
The Rev. Price’s “demonstration garden” represents the difficulties the Price family have adapting to life in Kilanga. Despite Mama Tataba’s no-doubt hard-earned traditional wisdom, that to grow plants in the Congo soil “[y]ou got to be make hills” (p. 40), the Rev. Price insists that he knows better: “I’ve been tending soil ever since I could walk behind my father” (p. 40). And no doubt he has—but he was tending soil in America, in the West; he is in Africa now, literally and metaphorically on different ground. The fact that he and Leah undo Mama Tataba’s shaping of the soil, “without a word” (p. 41), nonetheless speaks volumes about common, Western, imperialistic dismissal of and disregard for native ways.
The poisonwood plant, given its position in the novel’s title, is also a key metaphor. The word itself may be meant to evoke the word “wormwood.” The two plants are not the same; like poisonwood, however, wormwood is a plant (Artemisia absinthium) that can cause an allergic reaction upon contact; in the Bible, however, it is virtually always symbolic, evoking bitterness, sorrow, and affliction, often associated with the wrath of God; e.g., Deut. 29:17-18; Jer. 9:13-16; Rev. 8:10-11). Given Kingsolver’s predilection for biblical allusions, readers should not be surprised that, indeed, these connotations come into play as the novel continues. In his sermons, Nathan continuously refers to Jesus as bangala, a word that means “great” but, when mispronounced—as Nathan invariably does—means “poisonwood.” The novel’s penultimate chapter also finally reveals the full significance of the novel’s title. In it, Adah is now a collector of books, especially Bibles, that contain significant misprints and mistakes. It is a field of collecting that serves her as a metaphor for her father’s attempted ministry in Kilanga. “I am born of a man who believed he coud tell nothing but the truth, while he set down for all time the Poisonwood Bible” (p. 533). She is referring to her father’s stubborn misuse of the word bangala for Jesus in his sermons; more broadly, however, she is referring to the legacy of mistakes that the West bequeathed to Africa, a legacy that, however shameful, is now “part of the story” (p. 533) and with which the entire world must now learn to live.
Methuselah, Brother Fowles’ parrot left behind for the Prices, acquires symbolic value. He is at first a symbol of untamed, unconquerable Africa, much like Orleanna’s opaki; tragically, however, he proves unable to fly and fend for himself when released into the wild, and so he becomes a metaphor for the Congo: granted independence, but doomed to limited flight because of such long imprisonment from western colonial powers.