Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Here is my response to essay prompt #1, concerning exile.

Exile – though it is always painful to be separated from family and fatherland – can often be a meaningful and life-changing experience. In Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, the Price family leaves the United States for two years in order to do missionary work in Africa. However, for Leah, the real exile doesn't begin until she is separated from her family when she chooses to stay in the Congo with her future husband, Anatole. The next thirty-five years she spends in Africa are filled with hardship, but also filled with meaning. Leah's exile supports a recurring theme of the novel that whenever people come to Africa meaning to change it, they find themselves changed instead.

Although Leah is away from home during her family's two-year stay in the Congo, her exile doesn't start until afterwards. During the missionary trip, she is surrounded by her family, and even enjoys some American luxuries that they have brought with them. The presence of American people and things keeps her from feeling too homesick. While the family is still in Kilanga, she has the comfort of knowing that she'll be able to go home as soon as the next missionaries come. However, when the family splits up and she is left alone with Anatole, she is unsure of when or if she will ever return to America. This uncertainty is what turns her stay in Africa into an exile.

During her exile, Leah loses the ease of living in the United States, which takes a toll on her body and mind. Leah and her new family suffer from malnutrition and disease because there is never enough food to eat and there isn't as much access to sanitation or medicine as there is in the US. Also, in the Congo, Leah is an outsider; people look down on her because she is white and American. Both of these things make her new life difficult, and her exile is painful.

However, she also gains meaning in her life that would not have been possible if she had been living in the United States. Her husband Anatole works tirelessly in teaching literacy and in challenging Mobutu's oppressive government. Leah knows that by supporting Anatole, she is part of a noble cause that wouldn't have any equivalent in the US. She also finds a new religion in her belief in what Brother Fowles calls "Creation," which becomes more meaningful to her than her father's brand of Christianity. If she had returned to the United States, it is very unlikely that she would have been able to realize her love for the spirituality of nature.

Leah's exile shows a central theme in The Poisonwood Bible: it is impossible to change Africa, because Africa always finds a way to change its visitors. Leah's father meant to convert as many souls to Christianity as possible, and rid them of their false superstitions; instead, he hardly convinces anyone to accept Tata Jesus, and becomes consumed with superstitions himself. At the beginning of the story, Leah follows and supports her father in his mission, but by the end of the novel her transformation is even more complete. Leah adopts the clothing, language, and customs of the country in which she is exiled, to the point of not wanting to return to the United States even if she could. Every member of the Price family is changed by the stay in Africa, but Leah's transformation is the most dramatic.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Leah's self-imposed exile in the Congo, beginning with the separation from her family, is difficult; however, it is meaningful enough to be worth it. Her exile also showcases one one of the novel's important themes: no one will ever be the same after a visit to Africa, no matter how much they want to remain unchanged.

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