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In her feminist novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver portrays the Price family’s journey through Congo as they seek salvation while they ironically embark on a mission to purify the heathens of Africa. Living in a corrupt and oppressive world filled with capitalism, violence, and torments only intensified by her father Nathan’s ignorance, the only way to achieve independence for Leah is purification through rain that can wash away all the wrongs. Through her usage of rain metaphors, Kingsolver portrays the gradual development of Leah from an obedient follower of her father – therefore an ardent believer of God – to a dedicated and independent mother figure.
Moving to Congo where all previous knowledge proves to be useless, Leah is left desolate both from her father and the native African community, constrained by the unstoppable rain. Once the rainy season starts, the “rain… falls like a plague,” breaking up the Price family from the rest of the Congo community and further stopping all activities (15).
Along with the rain comes the deadly infectious disease, “kakaka,” which uncontrollable nature mimics the uncontrollability of the heavy downpour. Leah and the rest of the Price girls are kept inside the house even when it is not raining of the fear of the disease (38). Therefore, the rain separates the family from the natives like “ghostly walls,” only intensifying the cultural rupture and Leah’s fear towards Congo (38). The African language also threatens Leah as the people speak in a way that “burgles and rains… like water through a pipe” (27).
Unable to understand the culture and connect with the people, Leah becomes more frustrated over time and consequently isolates herself from the community, turning to her father for affection instead.
Kingsolver adds to her portrayal of Leah’s fear of rain through Nathan, who ignorantly insists his American method of planting when creating the demonstration garden, despite the warnings of Mama Tataba. Nathan neglects the native knowledge and proceeds to tend to his miniature jungle, soon to be washed away by the “horrible, destructive rain [syebo]… [which] just exactly does not to what it says backward” (19). Fearing her father’s ignorance, Leah strives to attain Nathan’s love by being obedient and doing “penance for to … achieve … [his] wholehearted approval” (11). However, Leah’s insatiated desire for affection – therefore her blind worshipping of the Christian God – deepens as she remains ignorant of the lives and miseries of Africa. As the rainy season only seems to continue, the Congo submerged in the rain becomes a “fearsome place to have to sink or swim,” forcing Leah to adapt to the new culture (63). The rain thus symbolizes all of Leah’s fears – African culture, her father’s anger, death, and the future – which restrains her from finding independence.
As Leah gradually realizes that Nathan’s righteousness only does more harm than good to the Congo community, including to the Price women, she loses her earlier purpose in life and starts to question the essence of her being through the process of “wetting” by the rain. Finally recognizing the privileges she was granted being born in the United States, Adah’s “faith in [Nathan] and love for the Lord” is replaced with “a sickening world of doubts and possibilities” (63). Consequently, as foreshadowed from her name in Congolese, Leah starts to doubt her existence, as her identity means “nothing much” without Nathan’s guides (13). Leah instead seeks enlightenment from Africa and its people including Anatole, Mama Tataba, and Nelson. As she grows accustomed to the African culture and becomes more independent, Leah no longer fears the rain, but appreciates it as “the most natural thing in the world” (139).
Away from Nathan’s arrogant view of Congo and capitalistic stereotypes which previously governed her, Leah learns the life in Africa: want, need, and appreciation of the nature. Meanwhile, the Price women decide to leave Leopoldville for their safety, leaving Nathan behind. However, once the journey for independence embarks, a huge storm comes by, hindering the women and covering everything in “gushing stream of … blood-red… artery-like” mud (102). The rain wets Leah “right through the skin” and toils her, “turning to ice as it lashes [her] arms” (101). Yet Leah is able to define her existence through such pain and becomes more and more thirsty even while submerged in the water, as the realization of her identity awakens her yearning for freedom.
After Ruth May’s death, rain becomes a source of nourishment, helping Leah flourish in Congo. Without Nathan who, with his ignorance and anger, “drenched [her] in culpability, ” Leah is finally able to thrive on her own in the environment of Congo (139). Determined to stay behind her mother and sisters, Leah relinquishes both Nathan and the American way of living, resisting the capitalist nature of the outside world and marries Anatole. The garden the couple creates to shelter the refugees flourishes – unlike Nathan’s -, because everything “is made fresh daily and doesn’t suffer in translation” (133). Leah realizes that everything from nature is God’s “reward … for the patience” and, consequently, is no longer afraid of both the droughts and the floods (139). Finding herself stuck in the middle of two worlds – Africa the nation of poor and America the nation of abundance – Leah not only finds balance between the cultures but also between her “burdens [and] grace” (139). Through the trials Congo offers her, Leah grows from an obedient girl who blindly worships her Father into a determined, dedicated mother and woman who fights against the miseries of Africa.
In such a world where no childhood is guaranteed and bare survival and death governs life, the Price women suffer from the “vast congregation of hunger, infectious disease, and desperation, masquerading as opportunity” (119). The rain, only a single part of African nature, restrains the family from connecting with the community and threatens their life. Nonetheless, the Price women survive the flood, washing away their sins with the rain. Our hero, Leah, solely achieves independence from the constraints of the outside world – money, politics, and religion – and blooms into a strong, mature mother, establishing the course for humankind.
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