The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible Summary and Analysis of Chapters 20-25

In the new year, the Underdowns, one of the families responsible for the administration of the mission league makes a surprise visit to see the Prices. They bring a newspaper article for everyone to read, and though the children are dismissed from the room, Rachel sneaks back into the room to grab the paper when the adults are done with it. The article is about how Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, had plans to invade the Congo and install a communist government there. Though this news is troubling, the Underdowns have worse news to tell them. They tell the Prices that Belgium has decided to relinquish their rule of the Congo and turn it over to a government of the people in June. Orleanna Price becomes outraged at this news and that the mission league didn't do anything to stop them from coming. Frank Underdown reminds her, and Reverend Price, that their mission wasn't sponsored by the mission league and that the $50 a month stipend they receive is more charity than wages. Reverend Price soon becomes angry with the Underdowns when they suggest that he should make plans to leave the country. He tells them that there is no way that the Congolese will be able to hold elections and run a government since almost none of them have any formal education or knowledge of such things. He defiantly declares that they will stay until July when the new missionary family joins them. When the Underdowns tell him that that family is not coming, Reverend Price declares they will stay until God sends them home. This, understandably, is troubling to Rachel.

Adah recalls when, as a child, she questioned her Sunday school teacher about why some children would be damned to hell just for being born in the wrong place like Africa, while other children were guaranteed salvation for being born in Christian places. Adah recalls that she was punished and then decided not to believe in God anymore. She had a keen sense for those that were born at the wrong time and in a wrong way. For Adah, it is no surprise that the Congolese are rising up against the white people that have dominated their country for so long. Indeed, Adah can see the white race's stupidity in her own family. They live in a big house, they try to feed the Congolese children to the crocodiles for Tata Jesus, and they ignorantly disregard every sacred rule of the village such as where to bathe, or wash clothes, or get drinking water. The kakakaka, Nelson tells them, is their fault because they have ignored the sacred rules.

Reverend Price takes a trip to Stanleyville with Eeben Axelroot to get more quinine pills for the family. A letter had arrived from the Underdowns, instead of their usual supplies, that only said they should prepare to leave by June 28th. Revered Price, however, seems determined to stay despite the protests of his wife and children. After his trip to Stanleyville, he tells the family that Patrice Lumumba has won the county's election and is preparing to transition the country from the Belgian Congo to the Republic of Congo. He speaks of African unity, but Reverend Price is skeptical. Rachel is mostly upset that she is not able to go home to date boys and drink Cokes. Ruth May recounts, how, a few months later another plane came. The plane was supposed to take the family to Leopoldville where they would meet the Underdowns and leave the country, but only Leah and Reverend Price get on the plane with the intention of coming back. Mrs. Price flees to her bedroom where she lies in bed and won't get up all day.

In Leopoldville, the Underdowns take Leah and the Reverend to watch the transition ceremony from Belgian rule to the presidency of Patrice Lumumba. The Underdowns are upset with the Prices, but pretend that nothing is wrong. At the ceremony, after several speeches by Belgian officials, Lumumba stands up to speak. He chastises the Belgians for their rule and promises a new day of freedom for all of the Congo. The crowd roars and cheers. At the Underdowns house, Mrs. Underdown prepares to leave. Their house is quite luxurious compared to the shacks in surrounding neighborhoods. They feed Leah and the Reverend a lavish meal with meats and cheeses and things they haven't had in months. Leah eats so much she can't even eat the French cookie they serve for dessert.

Back in Kilanga, on the same day that Lumumba is inaugurated, Methuselah the parrot is killed by a cat. The parrot that had been taught all of the English words and been caged so long that he could no longer fly, loses his life in a foreshadowing of the hard times to come for those that had attempted to force their culture on the people of Africa.


The political situation of the Congo comes under the spotlight in these chapters, which begin to position the plight of the Prices in a much larger context. Indeed, much change is on the horizon for the Congolese and the Underdowns relate the disturbing news to the Prices during a surprise visit. They reveal that the Belgian government is pulling out and leaving the country to be ruled by the Congolese people. This frightens Mrs. Price tremendously - first, because she fears for her children's safety, and secondly because she sees that the thin threads of order are secured by the Belgian troops that periodically march through the village. She worries what will happen when groups of Congolese with no education or training in government assume responsibility for what little government services there are. She also worries about who will control the growing army.

The Price's political struggle with the Congo highlights the tension of imperialism inherent in the work of missionaries. Kingsolver is increasingly critical of missionaries whose main work hinges upon the generosity of a Western-installed and maintained government. Kingsolver wants the reader to consider two important questions when examining the role of missionaries. First, she wants to question the legitimacy of a mission to a foreign land if that mission is simply a tool to bring Western values and culture while disregarding the culture and values of the host country. Secondly, she wants to question a kind of mission work that only takes into account the spiritual existence of the missionized and not the physical. When these questions are brought to bear on the work that the Prices are doing, it increasingly shows the selfishness of Nathan Price's work and the naivete of Orleanna Price.

The character of Adah increasingly takes on signs of agnosticism, even atheism. The story she relates - of being chastised in church and then not believing in God - is a classic argument that many agnostic and atheist scholars made against religion in the twentieth century. Notably, Nietzsche argued that "God is dead" in the established Protestantism of the West, and Bertrand Russell announced that it was no longer intellectually feasible to be a Christian. Adah's argument against God follows their arguments against God: Protestant Christianity, as it is experienced in Europe and America, has no room for other cultures and people. Therefore, a religion that is supposed to be based on love has lost the one trait that made it unique. Thus, for Adah, like Nietzsche, God is dead.

Though the Underdowns tell the Prices that they should leave, Reverend Price refuses. Only bad fortune, however, will result from this decision. In a poignant moment, Adah makes a connection between the microcosm of her family and the macrocosm of the entire white occupation of the Congo. She relates how her own family has brought nothing but trouble to the village because of their ignorance of customs and rules - things that were designed to keep order and elicit safety for the people of the village. Likewise, it is the rule of the white people, with their ignorance of rules and customs and their greed for the natural resources of the land, that ruins the people that inhabit that land. Though Reverend Price thinks it will never happen, he is there on the day when Patrice Lumumba is inaugurated President of the Republic of Congo, ushering in a new government and new rule. Still, the Reverend refuses to leave.

The death of Methuselah the parrot on the same day that Lumumba takes office is symbolic of Africa's inability to escape the "claws" of Western power. Methuselah had been taught to talk and act like a human, just as Africa was being taught to talk and act just like a Western nation. But, when Methuselah was thrown into the wild by Revered Price, the bird did not live long, just as Kingsolver foreshadows the fall of the Congo at the hands of American interests. Kingsolver, moreover, also reintroduces the notion of hope, but in a negative light - namely to reveal how hope is slowly dying for Africa. Relating Methuselah to hope, Adah quotes the Emily Dickinson line - "hope is a thing with feathers." But, just like Dickinson's own life, often devoid of hope, Methuselah - a literal creature with feathers - is killed, suggesting a dim future for the Prices and for the Congo.