The Revelatory Narrative Circle in Barbara Kingsolver's the Poisonwood Bible

By Austenfeld, Anne Marie | Journal of Narrative Theory, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Revelatory Narrative Circle in Barbara Kingsolver's the Poisonwood Bible


Austenfeld, Anne Marie, Journal of Narrative Theory


Imagine a novel related not by one, not by two, but by five narrators, all female, one dead. In novels written near the turn from the 20th to the 21st century readers and scholars encounter a richness of new fictional tools, among them narratives like the one described above-Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (1998)-that depart both from traditional social views and from familiar literary forms. Ansgar Nunning describes what he calls "revisionist historical novels," which have significantly extended the boundaries of the historical novel to include, among other elements, "the history of mentalities, women's history, oral history, history from below, and the history of everyday life" (362), often using narrative tools such as "several character-focalizers whose limited perspectives project highly subjective views of history" (363) to challenge conventions of the realist novel. Kristin Jacobsen's definition of "neodomestic fiction" describes a genre that "recycles the domestic novel in historically conscious ways that posit alternatives to the conventional white, middle-class home" (106). Narrative theory provides a valuable resource in achieving a useful critical reading of revisionist and neodomestic fiction. Bakhtin suggests the value of a "diversity of individual voices" in telling a story (262), and Foss and Griffin's concept of "invitational rhetoric" describes the effectiveness of a model in which each successive speaker offers a viewpoint, but also listens openly to those of all other speakers (5). Whereas a single, externally observing, extradiegetic narrator, sometimes in conjunction with a single homodiegetic, or character-narrator formerly sufficed to offer what was considered a balanced perspective, contemporary authors have found a complex story may require multiple homodiegetic narrators, practicing invitational rhetoric, in order to achieve the desired effect of balanced narration.

The subject of this essay, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, is a prime example of an established author employing new tools in the treatment of a complex socio-historical moment: the transformation of an American missionary family's modes of existence and self-perception, foregrounded against the corresponding political transition of the Congo from colony to self-governing entity. The narrative tool used is what I will call a revelatory narrative circle of five character-narrators, who speak by turns in an orderly way, each filtering events, themes, and dialogue throughout the novel. The five female, American narrative voices offer a feminist alternative, first, to historical writing, which tends to be malecentered, focusing on political and military events and key public figures, second, to male-written and narrated European fiction about Africa, typified by Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and third, to the technically conventional use of a third person narrator found even in thematically African works such as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.1 By examining Kingsolver's work in light of narrative theory, we find that it is precisely the personal, revelatory tone of the five narrative voices that marks The Poisonwood Bible as an important milestone in contemporary narrative practice.

Mary Jean DeMarr suggests that Kingsolver's experiences as a young child living in the Congo with her parents spurred her to write this novel and informed both its thematic concerns and its shape (117-118). The result is a family-centered structure which marks The Poisonwood Bible as an innovative treatment of the topic of post-colonialism. Kingsolver adds a personal depth that is lacking in the accounts of the birth of the Republic of Congo usually taught in history class, and she delivers what history books rarely do: examples of how a variety of individual human beings act and are acted upon every day in the context of rapid and difficult social, political, and economic changes. Because Kingsolver has participated in her own family's sharing of stories about how Congolese people and American aid workers lived and interacted during the 1960s, she is able to use narrative to compose a picture of everyday life in the fictional village of Kilanga, a picture of which the political situation is only one part. …

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