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The Poisonwood Bible–The Things We Learned November 17, 2006

Posted by bairdnicole in Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

Why do you suppose that Reverend Nathan Price is not given a voice of his own? Do we learn from his wife and daughters enough information to formulate an adequate explanation for his beliefs and behavior? Does such an explanation matter?



1. bairdnicole - November 18, 2006

Okay, I’m not really answering the quesion, but I just read the part where Nathan smashed the china platter and am soooo mad at him!! I know that the way the author is writing the book is generally painting men and religion in a bad light. And although I realize that the author is biased and am reading with a suspicious and critical light, I still realize her talent in that I am really mad at Nathan Price right now!!!

2. heather - November 18, 2006

He does make you angry, doesn’t he? It is interesting that she doesn’t give Nathan his own voice, especially when she does so for the other primary characters. It gives him less dimension than the other characters. You read about the derrogatory things he says about women (and his own family), and his “ram it down their throats” evangelism, and it just makes you cringe! Over and over I find myself cringing! I’m probably unconsciously wincing every time he’s in a scene! I think she wants us to feel that way. I don’t think she wants us to “see the other side” like we have with the women in the story (Adah for example — if it weren’t for her “voice”, we’d think of her as just the quiet, deformed one — but there is so much more going on with her than meets the eye!) I think Kingsolver wants the only picture we get of Nathan Price to be the same, one dimensional picture the people of the village see when they look at him — the foreigner who wants to feed their babies to the crocodiles, shame them into wearing shirts, and show them the “right” way to plant a garden. It’s certainly easier to dislike him when the negative is all you see!

3. heather - November 19, 2006

SPOILER ALERT: Okay, if you haven’t FINISHED this section yet, don’t read the rest of my comment! Given what we find out about Nathan towards the end of this section (what happened to him during the war), I can really see how Kingsolver uses the lack of a voice for Nathan as a plot device, moving us along, influencing our emotions until BAM! She gives us an explanation for his personality and drive. Not that I’m excusing his behavior at all, but I definitely found myself saying “No wonder he’s so bent on saving souls” and “No wonder he has no joy in his family.”

4. Bethany - November 20, 2006

I am loving this book. However, I think she doesn’t give the voice of Nathan Price on purpose…she wants us to view him through all the other family opinions. She wants his faults to be magnified in a sense to pull on our emotions and to make our response to him much stronger…hey it has worked for me…I can’t stand him. HEE HEE. CRINGE, Heather is the PERFECT word for him. I do think he represents what is bad about the West in a way.

5. Bethany - November 20, 2006

Here are some interview questions that Barbara has posted on her website regarding this subject in particular.

The evangelist Nathan Price never speaks for himself in this tale, we only see him through the eyes of his wife and daughters. Why did you not give Nathan a voice?
Answer: Because of what the story is about. Some people to seem to think this is a male/female issue, but that never even crossed my mind. Nathan obviously doesn’t represent maleness! He represents an historical attitude. This book is a political allegory, in which the small incidents of characters’ lives shed light on larger events in our world. The Prices carry into Africa a whole collection of beliefs about religion, technology, health, politics, and agriculture, just as industrialized nations have often carried these beliefs into the developing world in an extremely arrogant way, very certain of being right (even to the point of destroying local ideas, religion and leadership), even when it turns out-as it does in this novel-that those attitudes are useless, offensive or inapplicable. I knew most of my readers would feel unsympathetic to that arrogance. We didn’t make the awful decisions our government imposed on Africa. We didn’t call for the assassination of Lumumba; we hardly even knew about it. We just inherited these decisions, and now have to reconcile them with our sense of who we are. We’re the captive witnesses, just like the wife and daughters of Nathan Price. Male or female, we are not like him. That is what I wanted to write about. We got pulled into this mess but we don’t identify with that arrogant voice. It’s not his story. It’s ours.

Are you sympathetic at all to Nathan Price?
Answer: Sympathy isn’t the question. He has caused desperate harm–who can sympathize with that? But he’s obviously charismatic, and complex. He’s the center of this universe, hard to walk away from. He’s a force to be reckoned with.

Do you consider this novel to be antagonistic toward Christianity, or missionaries?
Answer: Some people seem to think that, but I certainly don’t, and I took some care to try and make that clear. In fact, my favorite character is Brother Fowles, whose role in the novel is to redeem both Christianity and the notion of mission. I happen to think religion is a wonderful thing — I’m only opposed to arrogant proselytizing. Nathan Price is, indeed, an arrogant proselytizer, but he’s not the only agent of Christianity here. His wife and daughters take different paths toward more open-minded kinds of spirituality, and I called in Brother Fowles specifically to represent Christian mission in a kinder voice. Christianity, like every other major religion, has a million different voices.”

6. Bethany - November 20, 2006

Thought this was good to from her interview…shows where she is coming from and intending to portray in terms of Nathan.

One of the greatest challenges a writer faces is creating multi-faceted characters, and that challenge becomes particularly difficult when the character is as one-sided and single-minded as Nathan Price in The Poisonwood Bible. What are your feelings about Nathan? Do you believe you’ve done him and his faith justice?

Answer: Nathan kept me in thrall for thousands of pages, counting the many drafts of this long novel. Am I pleased with how I rendered him? Of course! I never turn in a manuscript until every character, image, and word is exactly what I want it to be. Nathan is single-minded all right, but hardly one-sided. He’s ferocious and cowardly; charismatic and revolting; brilliant and tedious. I’m not sure what you mean by “doing him justice.” I certainly don’t owe him anything. He’s a character, invented by me, for no other purpose than to serve my plot.

As a writer of literary fiction, I count on my readers to have the intelligence and subtlety to understand this relationship between character and theme. Nathan Price doesn’t need to represent the missionary profession, any more than Dr. Jekyll represents all physicians or King Lear represents all old men with daughters. The Poisonwood Bible is a political allegory. Nathan Price is a symbolic figure at its center, suggesting many things about the way the U.S. and Europe have approached Africa with a history of cultural arrogance and misunderstanding at every turn. He is meant to be difficult to understand, hard to love, and ultimately, something we must all own up to on some level.

Did I do justice to his faith? I believe so, yes. The soul of the book is its portrayal of the divergent spiritual views of its characters. This is by far the most religious book I’ve written, and gave me a chance to explore not only African religion, but the spiritual traditions of my own culture. As the very Jesus-like Brother Fowles says, in the novel, “There are Christians, and there are Christians.” Nathan Price and Tata Fowles offer an inkling of the extremely wide range of people who use the same name for many different brands of faith and works. The portrayal is complex, I agree. But as surely as Thoreau was suspicious of any endeavor requiring new clothes, I am skeptical of any kind of religion that fits in a sound bite.

7. Nicole - November 20, 2006

Thanks Bethany for all that! I loved her description of Nathan: “He’s ferocious and cowardly; charismatic and revolting; brilliant and tedious. It’s true!” After learning the source of his drive, I find myself not sympathizing with him, but sorrowful for the doctrine to which he’s centered his life around and how it affects his sould as well as those he leads–his family first, then his congregation. And yet, I see my own sinful heart in his actions as well–so concerned with “doing” he’s not even aware that his pregnant wife with twins is out in the backyard eating dirt!!! And yet, how many people have I offended and not loved because I was so busy working on being” holy.” It’s frustrating to read encounters with his as well as sobering, for that same legalistic arrogance lies within my heart…yikes!

8. Karen - November 20, 2006

This tale is so unbelievably tragic! I can’t stop reading it. I think, “No one could possibly be this stupid to go off into a jungle without any understanding of the people, the geography, the politics of the country, the religion, the subtle nuances of the language spoken in the village.” I find myself disturbed, yet again, by the arrogance of our priviledged society. We (I) seem to run headlong into “problem solving” without even requesting the advice of others more familiar with the territory we are entering. We boldly assume that we know all the answers and all problems are ours to fix. When we begin to fail miserably (Iraq comes to mind) (parenting too) we blame everything else other than our own lack of preparedness and our complete contempt for humility.

It is interesting that this family seems to feel that they “lost’ their faith. It seems to me that they were on sinking sand long before they arrived in the Congo.

I disagree with what the author says about this not being about women vs. men. Simply because of her views regarding women, children and marriage toward the end of the book. The girls come around to a new way of thinking that seems a satisfactory result to the author by the way that she presents it. I love that some of them are so open to other cultures and religions but their disregard for the sanctity of life is sad.

All in all I am provoked by this tale and its beautifully worded catastrophe. I see elements of myself, just as you did, Nicole, in each of the characters. I love the author’s depth of character development…Leah’s tough, boyish, playful spirit. Adah’s dark, forboding brilliance. Rachel’s self-worshipping ignorance and disregard for others. Orleanna…blind, numb, an ostrich w/ her head in the sand. She says, “I would never think to leave Nathan because I was unhappy. I would have to leave becouse he wouldn’t move.”

What happens when we change in a dramatic way and those around us do not? This is life…maybe not in the same terrible way that it happened to the Price family, but we all grow in different ways from eachother. If we are Christians, Jesus promises that He will change us, just not all at the same rate of speed or in the same way. I am moved to respond to the changes (or lack of them) in those closest to me in a more loving, patient and helpful way after reading this.

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