If The Heart of Darkness introduces readers to the brutal injustices of white imperialism in the Congo, Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible elaborates on this imperial discourse with a modern day, transnational interpretation. Kingsolver crafts a novel embedded in the global age, presenting the same, time-old “West to the Rest” mentality, which persists even without a formally established empire. Unlike in past histories of imperial control, the new globalized modes of power assert their influence in regions such as the Congo more discretely, through undercover government operations and alliances. Kingsolver alludes to these processes of modern day imperial power in her novel, yet focuses primarily on one family’s transnational experience in the middle of the 20th Century. Through this fictionalized account of an American missionary family in the Belgian Congo, one sees how western ideological and cultural imposition ultimately falls flat in a region torn apart by a long history of imperial devastation.
The book tells the story of the Price family, who travel to the Belgian Congo as Christian missionaries in 1959, in hopes of converting the local people in the village where they are posted. Instead of a smooth conversion process, however, the Prices are faced with continued resistance and cultural barriers that prove insurmountable. Nathan Price, the strict, severely determined preacher, constructs a church in the village, where he conducts weekly mass despite the meager turn out. His wife and four young daughters all adjust to the harsh jungle life as best they can, longing for the reassuring comforts of their past home in Georgia, yet forced to tough it out for the sake of Nathan’s steadfast mission. What the Prices do not realize, however, is the doomed fate of their attempts, which do not prove effective in this remote pocket of the jungle.
The Prices’ difficulties lie not so much in the effectiveness of their message, but in the barriers of their understanding. From their initial arrival in the Congo, the clashes between cultural backgrounds is clearly evident. The Price daughters are shocked by the local foods, clothing, and seemingly course lifestyles of the villagers, unable to reconcile them with their accustomed way of living. Nathan appears the most resistant to the new culture, refusing to adjust his views or behavior to his new surroundings. He brings only preconceived ideas to the Congo, not becoming any wiser to the ways of the people in this vastly different place. Disregarding the long established agricultural systems used in the jungle, he attempts to introduce his own westernized way of farming, which may be suited to the dry Georgian landscape, but not for the unpredictable jungle climate. Refusing to learn the language or understand the people beyond his cursory impressions, Nathan exhibits an imperialist mentality of cultural misapprehension. His weekly sermons profess to the “uncivilized” people the glories of God, yet Nathan requires a translator to deliver his message. His few attempts to pick up the native language result only in miscommunication, demonstrating his insensitivity to cultural nuances. In proclaiming “Jesus is bengala” in his sermons, he employs this native word to convey that Jesus is “precious and dear,” yet ignores the subtle intonation, which may express the alternate meaning of a deadly poisonwood tree found in the jungle.
In describing this family’s stubborn attempts to interfere in the lives of the native people, Kingsolver illustrates the common perceptions of many western powers that move into foreign regions with imperial agendas and a disregard for the local cultures. On a more basic level, the Price family exhibits a mindset shared by many in the western world, which may often disregard the intricacies of regional cultures in favor of a more western-centric view. Like the “travelers” in the Sheltering Sky, the Prices step foot in a foreign land initially unwilling to adjust to the local surroundings or seek any type of enlightenment other than their own pre-established point of view.