“The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver, uses the character of Nathan Price to address the effects of western supremacy and one’s personal superiority, specifically fueled by religion. The Price family travels to the Congo on a mission trip, is only a year before the country secedes from Belgium, leaving them in great need of assistance. Nathan was determined to give them this help by will or by force, all while dragging his family along with him. The way each child handles this is dependent on their personality and viewpoints. Kingsolver uses Nathan’s three daughters and their personal perspectives to address the dangers of disregarding others’ viewpoints with the idea of one’s own superiority.
The morality of imposing one’s personal values onto others without regards for opposing viewpoints creates a toxic circumstance that can lead to closed minds forming dangerous misconceptions. Kingsolver addresses this by using the narrative structure of switching between perspectives to make the toxicity of superiority evident throughout the text. However, she specifically leaves out Nathan’s perspective so that readers can see how his behavior affects different types of people. Nathan Price is almost immediately introduced as a radical Christian, close minded individual who believes he owes his entire existence to the pleasing of God. The delusion that his God sees a strict divide between right and wrong is very dangerous for someone like Nathan – a man who is determined to spread the word of God for his own personal gain. When the Price family ventures to the Congo, they are not welcomed as Nathan’s western superiority is very evident in the way he treats the Congolese but the way that he reacts to them during a time of need. The fact that they are not quick to accept him and the word of God only intensifies his personal feelings of superiority and makes him even more defiant than before. However, the way that this intensity is accepted is different with each character. Leah, a teenage girl that holds her image of her father close to her heart, thinks highly of her father – even stating that “[Nathan’s] devotion to the church, was the anchoring force” in her life” (Kingsolver 64). She even goes as far as to state that “his wisdom is great” (42). This hero-like view that she has of her father makes the church and her faith something of great importance in her life, only fueling Nathan and his idea of himself as someone of notable value. This egocentric characteristic leads Nathan to overlook not only the “centuries of customs and survival” but the reality that “daily struggles focus on survival, not redemption” (Ognibene).
Despite all of this, Leah still has a positive view of her father, and her childlike perspective leads her to truly believe all that he does is for the betterment of the Congolese. She believes the world is beautiful through her naïve eyes and longs to “exult in God’s creation” – a viewpoint that is very different from the perspective of the Congolese as their society is in chaos (Kingsolver 149). The world is not beautiful to the Congolese, and they believe God has given them nothing – something that Leah’s sister Rachel also seems to agree with. As Leah grows older, she begins to resent her father, and the guilt within her heart is nearly crippling. She mentions the “stirring of anger against [her] father for making [her] a white preacher’s daughter” because it set her so far apart from the Congolese (115). It is difficult for her to process the fact that it is “frightening when things that you love appear suddenly changed from what you have always known,” (236). Her whole life she had seen her father as a hero, “walking in his footsteps her whole life” and now her whole perspective changed, leaving her to “fall in line behind [her] mother” (393). As she grew, Leah began to see her father’s inability to accept other cultures and embrace the differences in those that were different than him.
While Leah had a tendency to see the good in the people around her, including her father, Rachel’s viewpoint of the Congolese is very negative as she tends to only see the beauty in herself. She is very in character with the stereotypical teenage girl in that she is very concerned with herself and her appearance. She finds no interest in things that do not benefit her in some way or another. Upon arriving in the Congo, she complains of being “sore at Father…for having [them] be there in the first place” (49). Rachel also speaks negatively of those who do not share her western idea of fashion and privilege, referring to the Underdowns as “plain janes” with their “economical home haircuts and khaki trousers,” (Kingsolver 159). Even though the Underdowns have English-speaking in common with the Price’s, Rachel still refuses to accept them as her equals – a trait that is very similar to the way that her father behaves when in contact with those unlike him. This leaves no surprise when she speaks poorly of the Congolese and their customs, even complaining about their tradition dress. She states that there was no need for them to be “so African about it,” making it clear that she rejects the thought trying to accept or validate cultures that differ from her own (45).
Not only is Rachel unaccepting but she is rather insensitive to the cruelties that take place around her. Ruth-May’s death was something that took a toll on every member of the family, no matter how they dealt with it. However, Rachel’s personal superiority does not fail to shine through even during this tragedy as she declares that she is “still alive and not dead like Ruth May” leaving her to believe that she “must have done something right” insinuating that Ruth May had done something to cause her own death (405). This insensitivity and self-entitlement are a derivative of her father’s behavior and lack of exposure of other cultures for his children. Rachel even declares that her own father would “sooner watch [them] all perish one by one than listen to anybody but himself” (169). Nathan is so involved with his faith and his mission to spread the word of God that the family is able to pick up his traits, good or bad, and create their own personal agendas. Rachel’s mission is to be in a place of superiority compared to those around her. She sees things the way she wants to as long as it benefits her, and this trait does not leave her even as she gets older. On her way to leave the Congo, she states that she “cannot remember giving a second thought to when I would ever see [her family] again, if ever” because at the end of the day, if it does not involve or benefit her in some way, it does not matter.
The view Adah has on life is very different than the viewpoint of her other sisters. Being disabled physically does not at all hinder her mental ability to process and understand the world around her – in fact, she could be referred to as the most insightful of the entire novel, though she rarely speaks for a majority of the book. This may, however, be on purpose as she refers to herself as not being able to “speak as well as [she] can think” (Kingsolver 34). Having a disability that made her seemingly ‘less superior’ than her family left her heart open for the people of the Congo, viewing them as people similar to her with bodies that were more vessels rather than another way to prove her self-worth. She even states that she has a “strong sympathy for Dr. Jekyll’s dark desires and Hyde’s crooked body” (55). She believes the Congolese “have their own handicap”, making her perspective very different than that of her family (11). Her belief that a handicap is not a curse makes it even more miraculous when she ages and discovers that she was not diseased at all, and her limp was simply “a misunderstanding between [her] body and [her] brain” (312). All these realizations are in complete contrast to her father and his behaviors, something that was admittedly unexpected as she spent a majority of the novel simply watching those around her. Adah describes herself as “a voice screaming in the desert,” as no matter what she does or says, it tends to be undermined by her father’s inability to sympathize with others and her sisters’ talkative and opinionated personalities. However, as the novel continues on, Orleanna practically goes mute leaving Adah to use speaking as “a matter of self-defense” (407). Between her mother not speaking and Adah’s own inevitable personality change, it is clear that Nathan’s behavior is negatively effecting the people around him with or without his own awareness.
Kingsolver’s, “The Poisonwood Bible,” expresses the dangers of imposing viewpoints on others without regards for others’ personal values through the character of Nathan Price and the effect he has on the people around him. By dividing between the perspectives of characters, the book shows that the marks that Nathan leaves on those that he tries to touch are just as negative as it is strong. Kingsolver uses the narrative structure of multiple first person perspectives to address the idea that the morality of imposing one’s personal values onto others without regards for opposing viewpoints is a toxic circumstance which can lead to closed minds forming dangerous misconceptions.
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