The Ignorant Voice of Rachel Price in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible
by Tasha Haight
The oldest of Orleanna's four children, Rachel Rebeccah Price, should be the most aware of the happenings occurring around her, yet she appears to only be interested in one thing - herself. In Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver uses clichés and malapropisms to create Rachel's nescient voice thereby illustrating the stereotypical American citizen's ignorance concerning Congolese politics.
Rachel is the personification of American society, so it seems only fitting for Kingsolver to include several clichés in each of Rachel's vignettes. Common clichés are actually how this real-life Barbie complains about her highly unfortunate situation she is stuck in. When Rachel exclaims "I always wanted to be the belle of the ball, but, jeepers, is this ever the wrong ball", she is using her unpleasant attitude and well-known statements to juxtapose her experience in the Congo with a high scale ball (Kingsolver 269). This plays into how she is brighter than she appears to be and how she chooses which parts of her knowledge she wants to show off, much like how many Americans actually retain more information in their brain than they choose to express.
To elaborate on Rachel's naïveté and overall ignorance, Rachel commonly exclaims statements that are popular with American teenagers. She uses some clichés, such as "the twelfth of never", to exaggerate the extent of her misfortunes (Kingsolver 256). When bringing up "the twelfth of never", she is talking about how long it will be until the Fowleses return to Kilanga to help her family get through this tough time. This cliché connects Rachel to the other teenage Americans, the ones who are still enjoying their American carelessness while Rachel must endure the harsh jungle life, by containing some typical American phrases mixed with the immense exaggeration commonly executed by the average teenage American female. She also uses "slang". Some of the slang terms she commands, such as "Man oh man" and "jeez", which tend to be some of Rachel's favorite sayings, clearly define Rachel as being a typical blonde-hair, blue-eyed, American teenage girl.
Throughout this political allegory, Rachel will oftentimes choose to ignore the important interactions going on right up the river from her and in her own village, just as the typical American will sometimes choose to ignore important happenings in the Congo. While she knows about the issues of the Congolese government, Rachel turns a blind eye and instead of becoming more educated about these problems. She is more focused on what she can gain for herself, in a way similar to that of most Americans, who tend to only concern themselves with information pertaining to them. When her faux fiancé, Eeben Axelroot, tries to relay confidential information from the American government to his Princess, Rachel simply dismisses it by saying, "Oh, it's all a game I'm sure" (Kingsolver 370). She is personally being told what is about to happen to Patrice Lumumba and the current government of the Congo, yet she feels as if it is nothing she would need to concern herself with because she is not directly involved in these political changes. Rachel also fails to completely understand the situation unfolding in front of her. It is not uncommon for most Americans to be in the same mindset that Rachel is, and this is something Kingsolver likes to illustrate within Rachel's character.
Although not as smart as Leah and Adah, Rachel is certainly not dumb - Adah even notes how "she wears those pale white eyes around her neck so she can look in every direction and ward off the attack" - but she tends to pass over anything she may have trouble comprehending, instead of looking into it a bit further to see what she could uncover and learn about the subject (Kingsolver 491). Americans are put in a stereotype as being "lazy", and mental laziness is definitely something that is factored into that generalization. Knowing something major is going on and not wanting to find out more about it would very much fall into that "lazy" category that Americans are placed under, and Rachel's unwillingness to find out more about the secret missions Axelroot is telling her about portrays this American laziness towards gaining insight on a particular subject, such as the American undertaking of the Congolese government.
In order to maintain this facade, Rachel does appear to be a little "mixed up" about some of the words she tries to use. Her malapropisms play into her uneducated ignorance in the microcosm of her family relations and issues, but also in the macrocosm of the American citizen's overall uneducated ignorance towards the relations of America's government and President Eisenhower and how his actions are affecting the Congo. Her malapropisms aren't just limited to a certain type of word, either. Even everyday words that seem like one would know when to use, such as participation, she says incorrectly, claiming "every person in the village is to be there, required precipitation" (Kingsolver 336). Being raised in a very strong Baptist family, and even being made fun of back home for it, as is made clear when Rachel tells readers "oh boy, if those fast cheerleaders who teased me for being a preacher's kid could see me now . . .", one would think Rachel could not possibly make a religious malapropism, yet she does (Kingsolver 270). When describing the Underdowns, she says "They are Episcopotamians", when in reality she means to say they are Episcopalian (Kingsolver 159). For being considered highly religious, because of her father, she doesn't appear to know about religions other than her own, adding to her overall ignorance. The wide range of malapropisms Rachel uses represents her misunderstanding of words as much as her misunderstandings of the events happening around her, and on the larger scale they symbolize the misunderstandings many Americans have of the imposing role of foreign government to the Congolese's government. Although what she is trying to say can still be understood by readers, much like the general glimpses into Congolese politics may still be understood by Americans, the true meaning is lacking. Unlike the reader's ability to recognize the malapropisms and notice that some diction used is not what Rachel intended to say, sometimes average Americans cannot recognize when newscasts slip up and give them a misunderstanding of information, further leading to America's ignorance on these political issues.
When first beginning her journey, Rachel is a mere fifteen year-old, yet she is already a major icon for America. Her white skin, long blonde hair, and blue eyes certainly stand out to the local Congolese as much as their nudity stands out to her. It is not until later, however, that one realizes that Rachel is more than simply a symbol for the typical American; her attitudes toward the scandalous government connections between the American and Congolese government reflect the general attitudes of those in America towards those same governmental issues as much as her praised mirror reflected the face of whomever looked into it.
Kingslover, Barbara. The Posionwood Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Print.