Stories become timeless, read centuries after their creators have ceased, because those stories tell us about ourselves, about human needs. In previous posts, I described stories that feature characters trying to satisfy physical, psychological, and social needs. The third category suggested by Abraham Maslow and applied to literature includes characters in search of esteem and those on a path toward actualization.
Often plagued by uncertainty and existential questions, such characters struggle toward esteem, toward the very substance and spirit of self. A man’s quest for the truth, for example, and his willingness to stake his own life for something larger than himself are the stories pitting men and women against their circumstances, in pursuit of their natures and their purposes. If these characters succeed in becoming enlightened, they often make the world better for the rest of us. If the characters fail, they crumble before our eyes, returning to dust and ash, pathetic figures holding up a mirror from which readers turn.
In The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Adah illustrates each of Maslow’s hierarchical levels.
When we first meet Adah, we learn she is a twin sister to Leah, born whole, without disability or challenge, an energetic girl living in the shadow of her father, Nathan Price. Adah, on the other hand, struggled in the womb and continues to struggle with her physical needs. The left side of her body fights to be left behind; she thinks, reads, and writes backward and forward; and she rarely expresses her complex, critical thoughts. Foremost among those thoughts is the belief that her deformities are permanent and diminish her worth on this earth.
As a result of those physical challenges, Adah knows psychological uncertainty intimately. When Army ants march into and through her village, the Price family flees. Adah, slow and unsteady, needs help, but her mother, Orleanna, picks up the baby, Ruth May Price, leaving Adah to keep up or be trampled. Adah interprets her mother’s choice as a judgment, but she also discovers that she wants to survive, thinking “…even the crooked girl believed her own life was precious” (Kingsolver)
|Lioness. Al Griffin Photography|
Having been chosen, Adah has evolved to a place of physical, psychological, and social security. She has also embraced her own worth. What remains is for her to grow into an actualized person. A doctor guides her in overcoming her diminished left side, and a college professor makes her his lover, confirming her worth to one outside her family. Adah excels, as readers knew she would, becoming a scientist researching viruses, especially those debilitating Africans.
Adah also becomes her mother’s nurturer. Orleanna breaks from the guilt she feels for having been unable to save all her daughters, from having let depression overwhelm her instincts to survive and thrive. She cultivates a garden and raises money for Africa in an effort to atone for Ruth May’s loss. Adah sees and understands even if she cannot ever make that clear or known:
"Betrayal bent me [Adah] in one direction while guilt bent her [Orleanna] the other way. We constructed our lives around a misunderstanding, and if ever I tried to pull it out and fix it now I would fall down flat. Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It’s everyone’s come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization.”
Adah has reached a place of enlightenment about herself, her mother, and her usefulness in this life. She labors to make the world a better place by studying and developing cures against viral infections. She cares about herself and for others. She even finds god--although her god is science itself, not the judgmental God of her father’s church.
Read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, considering characters in the context of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.