Themes of Sexism and Oppression in The Poisonwood Bible

Past events in a character’s life largely shape the person’s present and future actions by shifting their attitudes, or values that lead to those actions. In The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver describes such evidence through Orleanna Price’s journey. In The Poisonwood Bible, the character of Orleanna shows that a woman’s experience dealing with sexism and oppression can widely impact an individual's actions, attitudes, and values later in life.

As a wife in the middle of the 20th century, Orlenna struggles with society’s expectations for how women should behave. Orlenna has to endure Nathan Price, who represents one set of sexist social expectations for women. “One has only a life of one’s own.” Nathan is a preacher, and a husband who demonstrates the destructive nature of religion when put into a powerful obsessive ,controlling man, which ultimately sabotages his wife’s rights. He obsessively prioritizes his religious mission over showing love and nurture for Orleanna. Every individual has a right to live a life on their own basis but society expects a woman to devote her life around her husband and his needs. In this situation, Orleanna is only there for his kids, and society judges her for who she is and how she dresses. Additionally, Nathan treats Orlenna more as his child than a wife and life partner. “Father looked at Mama hard for talking back to him.” Orleanna is a mother and a grown woman, who is oppressed and has no voice in their marriage. Nathan doesn’t see her as an equal figure in their marriage. “ For women like me...where we live our lives.” He continuously establishes himself as the head of the marriage and the family. He doesn’t accept her advice in any of his decisions. Nathan did most of the planning and had the last word on managing their lives. In society it is known that male is dominant in the relationship; if a woman tries going against her husband she is seen as a disobedient wife. In Orleanna’s case, women to her way of thinking were not given a part in the decision making, but were expected to complete more than their share of the labor that resulted from whatever decision was made. Lastly, Nathan becomes aggressive when Orlenna tries to dispute on leaving Congo in hopes to go back home. “Orleanna, shut up!” The verbal and mental abuse escalates as Orleanna expresses her feelings to go back home. In the present and past, such cases were evident in which women are being abused for essentially talking against their husbands, but as time progressed individual’s started to stand up but still some societies believe in abusing the girl when being disobedient. Not only does Orlenna face Nathan’s supposed superiority, but she also faces the sexism of the culture in the Congo. In that time and place, the vast majority of women had no education, and it was not unusual for men to have multiple wives. “Congolese men didn't treat their own wives and daughters... did just about all the work.” Being a female in society automatically deprived them of basic rights; they were seen more as property and the societal expectation of them was to just follow the command of the male figure in the household, otherwise it would be considered unusual and disrespectful.

Orlenna’s experience with oppression and sexism by Nathan and society, brings to life her strength and determination to walk away from Kilanga and keep going, leaving behind her tyrannical husband, Nathan, as an impact by the sexism. Orleannas’s struggle to escape Nathan’s dominance demonstrates the topics of the novel: oppression and sexism. After all the torture Orleanna faced her main reason to stay with Nathan was for her children. But as the results of his past, actions Orleanna’s present actions, attitudes, and values were affected. “They stand still, and their stake moves underneath them.” The fact that Nathan refuses to follow his family because he cannot abandon his mission drives causes Orleanna to move forward with no forgiveness in her heart and no desire to return to Nathan again. Nathan’s oppression led Orleanna to hate and leave him. Throughout the book Orleanna was seen being oppressed by Nathan and her enduring it, but after all his actions her values towards her husband changed due to his sexist way of thinking, and him not prioritizing his wife. Orleanna struggled for years to maintain courage and patience with her marriage when she knew leaving sooner would have benefited both her and her daughters. “We drink tea and she shows me her flowers...oranges.” When Orleanna was with Nathan, she never gardened at all. Gardening was Nathan’s area , and he always taught his daughters to plant foods, to impress God. Orleanna was always busy trying to complete assigned tasks by her husband, so she wasn’t able to spend time doing something she was passionate about like gardening. In society even today women are obligated to leave their dreams for her husband, and do his work. Lastly, Orleanna’s attitude towards Nathan shifted due to the sexism faced by him. “I think mother has presumed him dead for a long time already.” Earlier in the book Orleanna always claimed that she was going to always follow Nathan, for the sake of their marriage, but after she left Kilanga she gave up her desires, and shifted her attitude towards him. After hearing the news of Nathan’s death, Orleanna didn’t seem to be affected, as if she had moved on long ago, and she wasn’t ever related to him. Nathan’s indifference with Orleanna proves that she was impacted by his actions, which in present affected her attitude towards him. Nathan’s conquest over Orleanna causes him to lose her and his family.

Orlenna’s experience as the wife of Nathan guided the rest of her life choices such as her attitude, values, and actions. Her history with Nathan led her to make decisions that ultimately gave her relief from the guilt and grief. She was free of all oppression and sexism that she faced due to her marriage with Nathan. 

16 August 2021
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