new Mennonite Life logo    March 2001     vol. 56 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Replacing the Hero with the Reader:
Public Story Structure in The Poisonwood Bible

Ami M. Regier

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The form and content of the text of The Poisonwood Bible situates it as a direct inheritor of and participant within key ethical developments within the twentieth-century American novel as a changing genre, whether or not the novel is fully successful between its own covers. The telling of storied knowledge through multiple points of view within a U.S. southern family undergoing generational, gendered, and cross-cultural crisis builds upon the Faulkneresque location of narrative knowledge within points of view shaped by history, familially-inherited vision, and resistance to exterior realities rather than within an objective form of knowledge. That the multiple voices tell the stories of the divergences among the female points of view within the family builds upon a twentieth-century theoretical resistance to an historically essentialist view of a more monolithic, "representative" model of female identity. Additionally, the treatment of individual perceptions of the Southern women's cultural displacement and/or diasporic experiences builds upon James Joyce's high modernist treatment of interior consciousness as having, in itself, an Homeric scope and journey structure equivalent to the epic journeys that form the more literal plot. Within those larger ethical frames, this novel carries on a significant dialogue with the reader over the ethics of encountering a text and its meanings.

The opening lines of the novel address "you," and imperatively engage "you" to imaginatively enter the subject matter. Whereas the word "you" often really refers to a distanced, hypothetical "me" in conversation, in this text "you" are being told to come up with the visible form of the problem of the novel: "Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest." (5).1 Then, in the third line, "you" are asked to become the conscience, witness, and eventual judge of the environmental context and, implicitly, of the problem of the text: the "ruin" which constitutes the story:

"I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. [. . . ] Away down below now, single file on the path, comes a woman with four girls in tow, all of them in shirtwaist dresses. Seen from above this way, they are pale, doomed blossoms, bound to appeal to your sympathies. Be careful. Later on you'll have to decide what sympathy they deserve." (5)

Later, the reader discovers other possible references for "you" which the narrative voice may be addressing at different points, but I would argue that "you" always also quite concretely must be the reader, the literal and not the figurative destination of the book's encounter with its other.

In this sense, the multiple voices in the text and outside the text then build a public rather than a private story: the novel proceeds as a polyphony of voices in dialogue, even when the multiple voices merge into an authoritative narrative that is, admittedly somewhat orchestrated into a sort of Gothic female chic at times. Nevertheless, the narrativization of plural voices is far more invested in the attempt to develop a concept of a corporate, collective assembly than in the older novelistic form of the Bildungsroman, or story of the education of the artist as an individual moving toward maturation. Adam Zachary Newton, in Narrative Ethics, refers to another theorist in order to define an ethics of resistance to building individual selves in narrative. This ethics of resistance to private stories became increasingly important in critical movements in the twentieth century: "Bakhtin conceives of intersubjectivity as linguistic salvation--the liberation of dialogism. The self's inner division is a sign of life, not estrangement, since it records the presence of others, the saving heterogeneity of consciousness."2

The strongest sense of "inner division" within a character occurs within the mother, spelled in trendy but nevertheless useful theoretical terms these days as "m/other." As many readers rightly suggest, the novel emphasizes repeatedly and overtly the parallelism of Orleanna's colonized condition to the historical inheritance of the Congo, but a further kind of splitting also occurs within this novel if seen as a study of the relation of mothers and children.

Children come to us as a dramatic coup of the body's fine inner will, and the process of sorting out 'self' from 'other' is so gradual as to be invisible to a mother's naked soul. In our hearts, we can't expect one of our own limbs to stand up one day and announce its own agenda. It's too much like a Stephen King novel.3

In this passage from an essay accounting for one kind of intense readerly relation to the Poisonwood Bible (now readable as a horror story of missions, mothering, and cross-cultural experiences!), Kingsolver presents the mother as struggling with her own difficulty in not colonizing her own children, not homogenizing them into an extension of the mother's body, declaring its dominion inappropriately.

The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of a mother's maturation through her increasing recognition of the otherness of what she previously perceived as an extension of self; the novel also structurally traces the coming-into-adulthood of individuals precisely through their contact with otherness, or non-selves rather than through self-development in an internal sense. In another passage within her essay, "High Tide in Tucson," Kingsolver expresses great concern that American culture over-privileges an individualist model of self-formation: "But in mortal fact, here in the U.S. we are blazing a bold downhill path from the high ground of 'human collective,' toward the tight little den of 'self'."4 In The Poisonwood Bible, the eventual scattering of family members becomes a scattering of the "den" of self and of the insularity of the nuclear family. The mother nostalgically yearns for original wholeness, but the 'saying' of the novel presents heterogenous voices, not a familial monolithic whole.

Perhaps one of the more problematic aspects of the novel centers on the figure of Nathan Price, whose paternal narrative the female voices clearly and perhaps too triumphantly trump. While Ada's acute capture of the family's slippage between "Our Father" and their particular father becomes a sort of feminist shtick, it also references a novelistic history that is important to note. Joseph Allen Boone suggests that the rise of mid-century feminist novelists follows Virginia Woolf's earlier response to World War I's preoccupation with resistance to Fascist dictators relying upon father/fatherland rhetoric. Boone suggests that "despite its willful isolationism during the 1930s, America was not immune to the shadow cast by the rhetoric of the Fatherland; both the wish to distance itself from the monolithic, 'bad' Father of fascist politics and the desire to find within the democratic model of nationhood a positive image of domestic paternity fueled an intense national preoccupation with fatherhood on intellectual and popular levels alike".5 Boone goes on to suggest that in later novels, what emerges is a process of "rereadings [of the father figure], where a much more tangible, pathological, and even vulnerable father, stripped of his guises and abstractions, . . . and preordained plots may emerge".6 The extreme terms in Kingsolver's novel certainly suggest that this type of rereading of the father is one of the "ruins" recounted in the context of the timeline of the novel, with the further application to religious tropes of fatherhood. This inheritance has continued perhaps most clearly in the works of postcolonial novels which continue to present the misuse of national fathers and fatherland rhetoric as deeply part of colonial heritage, mission-work heritage, and postcolonial dictatorships. Kingsolver's troping of the father through a problematic rhetorical history is not at all isolated in international letters.

However, I do think it is a misreading to suggest that the character Nathan Price pays the price, as tortured by a doctrinaire feminist, or even is the primary guilt-bearer of the historical problems forming the powerful tropes of fatherhood in the novel. Let us return to the question of who "you" is, but let us look at the end of the novel as the structural, parallel pair to the beginning chapter. As mentioned earlier, the opening chapter of the novel instructs the reader about the ethical role that is needed of a good reader: to enter the text's tangle of human relations and to bring the conscience and judgment into the encounter with the story. The last chapter implicates the reader further: the reader now is positioned as the one who, having been an actor in history, seeks forgiveness after having been complicit in wrong movements, whether or not the reader was a knowing participant. The last chapter is entitled "The Eyes in the Trees," which are where "your" eyes are in the opening chapter, looking down upon the women in the text, as indeed the reader's eyes stare down at the page. We find out in the last chapter that the eyes in the trees are also those of the dead child who is now "muntu," a paradoxical combination of the living spirit of a person translated by death into another form of environmental being beyond individuality. So the child, now muntu, speaks back to the mother, addressing her as "you," which is also necessarily a direct address of the reader. Now the reader is asked to occupy the mother's position and see from her standpoint. To do so is not simply the conventional attempt to see from another's point of view; in this case, it is also a hermeneutic responsibility to carry through, by analysis of the text, further than the character could. This novel asks directly for readerly engagement with guilt, complicity in history and directly asks the reader to replace any former yearning for a hero with an active readerly response: to become or to respond, one's self, instead.


1. Page references are from The Poisonwood Bible. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998.

2. Adam Zachary Newton, Narrative Ethics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), 47.

3. Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996), 86.

4. Kingsolver, Tucson, 105.

5. Joseph Allen Boone, Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 292.

6. Boone, 298.