A Comparative Study of How the Mothers are presented in The Poisonwood Bible and The Mosquito Coast Essay
A Comparative Study of How the Mothers are presented in The Poisonwood Bible and The Mosquito Coast
In The Poisonwood Bible and The Mosquito Coast, the mothers play very important roles. In my study I will explore the authors’ purposes in presenting the mothers the way they have, and what techniques and imagery they use to portray certain themes about women throughout the novel.
Within both novels, the reader witnesses the mothers changing characters. As Allie and Nathan’s continuously tiring and increasingly maddening outlook progresses, the mothers begin to change. Orleanna no longer cowers in Nathan’s relentless demands and authority, stating that ‘her first job was to take care of her own and if he was any kind of father he would do the same.’ This contrasts greatly with the Orleanna we meet at the beginning who describes herself as Nathan’s ‘instrument, his animal’.
Contrasting to this, Mother is presented so that the reader is not really aware of her the entire way through; Theroux does not bring her character into the foreground of the novel until near the end. She is described by her function as a Mother and wife. However, her role is stronger than that of Orleanna’s; she can speak out to Allie in a passive, gentle way telling Allie, ‘Don’t pretend to be better than you are.’ This shows how Mother does seem to have a more outspoken independent side outside of her family, and which Theroux reveals as the novel progresses. The fact that Mother is given no other name than Mother, also signifies her status within the family. This shows how she has no personality, no independence and is only there for motherly purposes
In terms of narrating style, Theroux uses Charlie as an unreliable narrator. Through his eyes we meet Mother; Charlie describes Mother as ‘an angel’, painting a positive picture of Mother. When Charlie talks about Mother, the reader is presented with a person, the complete opposite of Allie, he is a ‘wild man’ and Mother ‘an angel’ This foreshadows the end of the novel as well as revealing Charlie’s perception of his parents. He compares them when discussing Mother’s lessons on the beach; they were like ‘play’. Charlie then continues to say ‘she was not like Father, Father lectured us, but she never made speeches’. This shows the differences in Allie’s and Mother’s parenting roles, Charlie seems to appreciate Mother more, even though he seeks Allie’s approval and this shows in his narration.
In comparison to The Mosquito Coast, Kingsolver’s choice of narrative style differs greatly. The reader gets a broader perspective from each character, hearing each woman’s opinion of Orleanna. This choice of narration, leaves less room for bias, Ruth-May states how in their family ‘mama comes last.’ Whereas, Leah talks about looking after Orleanna, ‘how once in a great while we just have to protect her’, this makes Orleanna seem helpless and does not show Orleanna in a particularly positive light, suggesting that Orleanna is weak, and the girls seem more independent than the children in The Mosquito Coast. However, this does reveal that Kingsolver is sensitive to how differently children and mothers’ can relate to each other depending on age, personality and perception.
However, unlike The Mosquito Coast, in The Poisonwood Bible, the reader has direct narrative from Orleanna. Kingsolver presents Orleanna’s character as one that retrospectively has a clear view of herself and her children. She describes herself as Nathan’s ‘instrument, his animal. Nothing more.’ This reveals Kingsolver’s ideas about women in that era, how they were only there to fulfil their husband’s wishes. It also emphasises Orleanna’s vision of herself, connoting herself as a passive and obedient object in her family. Furthermore, Orleanna’s character, describes herself as a ‘pale rat of a cowering mistress’, Kingsolver’s depiction of Orleanna gives the reader a pathetic perception of her, this generates sympathy for her character.
In The Mosquito Coast, Theroux presents Mother as a character only with the function of being a mother and a wife. Similar to Orleanna, Mother’s first priority is her family and her husband. Her character is controlled by Allie and she willingly goes along with his dreams and ambitions as it ‘makes him happy’. Mother’s compliant attitude to Allie is seen throughout the beginning of the novel when Charlie is ‘Climbing the shrouds-on my [Allie’s] orders…Mother looked helplessly at Father and with real agony’, showing how even though she disapproves and is seemingly hurt by Allie’s test of Charlie’s courage and character, she still says nothing; emphasising Mother’s submissive nature. In contrast, toward the end of the novel, Mother declares, ‘I don’t take no as an answer’, Theroux’s choice of assertive language here, shows Mother’s progression as an independent character.
However in The Poisonwood Bible, Orleanna is conveyed as a quite weak character at the beginning of the novel, whereas Mother is not so much weak, just less noticeable. Orleanna is presented by Kingsolver as quite secretive, guiding her children silently. By the end of the novel Orleanna is described using metaphor, her ‘profile in the window turned to salt crystal, reflecting all light.’ this imagery paints a hopeful picture, suggesting Mother as the children’s saviour. This contrasts greatly with the Orleanna at the beginning of the novel, she seems lost ‘while all the sparkle drained out of her face…her light blue eyes had gone blank, like shallow pans of water’, Kingsolver’s use of imagery here allows the reader to empathise with Orleanna, trying to get the reader to understand Orleanna’s position in the family.
In both texts, each family coming from the western world, are thrust into a poverty stricken community, each community with different values and outlooks on western culture. Both mothers’ react differently to the new culture and traditions, highlighting the authors’ ideas of the differences and acceptance of culture other than our own.
In The Mosquito Coast, the community the Fox’s are introduced to are at first wary of the new comers, as is Mother of them. However, as they learn to live together, Mother embraces their way of life. Charlie’s narrative describes mother learning ‘the local way of doing something’, revealing how accepting Mother is of the ‘Zambus’ customs, she does ‘not take charge’ supporting Theroux’s presentation of Mother as a subservient character in the novel. This exposes Theroux’s acceptance of other cultures, and the expectations of women.
On the other hand, in The Poisonwood Bible, Orleanna seems to cling on to what she has left of western society, finding it hard to mould herself to the traditions of the people of Kilanga. Orleanna is lost in her life in Kilanga, asking herself ‘How in the world did a person get to be where I was?’ Kingsolver’s use of rhetoric here, presents Orleanna as a resentful and self-pitying character, and it could be said to reveal Kingsolver’s ideas of how the western culture takes for granted the ‘electric range’ and ‘precious Clorox bleach’, that we have grown so accustomed to.
Another aspect of both novels, which greatly affects the mothers’, is their relationships with the male dominant character, the Fathers’. Both fathers’ are similar in their determination to reach and accomplish their dreams, or calling. In The Mosquito Coast, Theroux presents Allie in a negative way; the reader is introduced to Allie’s ideas and theories through Charlie’s narration. The first time we hear Allie talk, he is talking to himself, ‘I don’t know’, He said, replying to himself.’ this creates the idea that Allie has self-importance and does not listen to anyone else; and this reflects in his relationship with Mother. Allie refers to Mother, as ‘Mother’, suggesting a lack of respect for women.
Mother knows that they are going to the Honduras, however when Allie reveals he is taking them to Mosquitia ‘Mother just stared at him, it was news to her.’ Theroux shows Mother’s character here, as she does not complain, in fact she goes on to help Allie made uncomfortable by Reverend Spellgood, this reveals her submissive nature to Allie and gives the reader insight in to Allie and Mother’s relationship. Mother may seem subservient to Allie, although she does have some power in the relationship, most direct speech is to Allie in gentle warning or commenting on Allie’s actions passively.
She advises him to not ‘do anything I wouldn’t do’ and to not make himself ‘out to be better than you are’, this highlights that Mother knows how to communicate with Allie and even know they do not seem intimate, they know each other intimately. This is clear when Mother comments ‘I love him when he’s happy’.
However, most of Mother’s comments Allie brushes aside, which may show why Mother doesn’t say much, as when she does Allie takes no heed. It seems that Theroux put Mother in the novel as a device to counterbalance Allie’s character, they are opposites, Allie a ‘wild man’, mother ‘an angel’, and as Theroux reveals Allie’s character very forcefully from the beginning, Mother’s true character and strength, is revealed slowly throughout. This could be because of Theroux’s choice narrative strategy, we learn as Charlie learns, so as Charlie finds out more about his mother, the reader does also. By having Mother in the novel, Theroux has given the reader a more sympathetic, contrasting character to Allie, and this causes the reader to dislike Allie more.
In contrast, Orleanna’s relationship with Nathan seems entirely unhappy. Orleanna is left entirely alone as Nathan ‘wrapped himself up in the salvation of Kilanga’ whereas in The Mosquito Coast, Mother and Allie seem more of a team. Nathan’s behaviour towards Orleanna creates a negative response to his character.
Orleanna is presented as bitter towards Nathan, saying ‘a wife may revile a man with every silent curse’, this use of hateful language, conveys to the reader the state of Nathan and Orleanna’s relationship. Theroux uses a retrospective narrative to give the reader insight to how Nathan and Orleanna became so unhappy. Orleanna describes Nathan as a ‘tyrant before men…and a child before God…a petulant one’ this show of Nathan’s character emphasises and explains Orleanna’s submission to his beatings and weakness in his presence and ends up ‘swallowed by Nathan’s mission, body and soul.’ reinforcing the view that women of that era were to do their husbands’ ‘magnificent will’.
The theme of death is apparent in both texts, in The Poisonwood Bible, when Ruth May is bitten by the snake, the way in which Orleanna reaction is very surprising, ‘she behaved as though someone else had already told her,’ Orleanna’s calmness could be misinterpreted for not caring, but as we heard from Orleanna’s narrative, she cannot get away ‘from the disaster she knows is coming’ this prolepsis to the end of the novel, seems to be reflected in Orleanna’s reaction, Kingsolver uses this to demonstrate how powerless Orleanna is, she knows disaster is coming, and yet she is helpless and so ‘inhumanely alone’ here Kingsolver uses the character of Orleanna to reflect the women of the 1960’s, who felt trapped in their roles as good wives and mothers.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 10 July 2017
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