Is Price Right?
The "Poisonwood Bible" written by Barbara Kingsolver depicts the story of an evangelical Baptist minister, Nathan Price, and his family's struggles moving from the state of Georgia to the Belgian Congo to teach the word of God. The members of the Price family go to Africa on what is intended to be a twelve-month mission trip. Nathan attempts to evangelize the natives over a year and a half period through many hardships. He arrives in the Congo, like a dictator, and tries to change the Congolese's way of living to conform to the American way. He is not bringing love and acceptance in religion, but an Americanized version of the gospel. Ironically, Nathan's inaccurate, self-serving manipulation of scripture causes him to lose his family, his ministry, and ultimately his life. Kingsolver uses Nathan's character to criticize the typical superiority of Evangelical Baptist missionaries' views of religion when dealing with third world countries.
Nathan's belief of supremacy is apparent from the moment the Price family arrives in the Congo. The Congolese people go to great lengths to prepare a large feast to welcome the Price family. "You are welcome to our feast. Today we have killed a goat to celebrate your coming" (Kingsolver 26). The native people are excited to embrace the new family. Nathan Price however, takes the opportunity to preach his usual fire and brimstone sermon. His condemning words only serve to alienate himself and his family from the very people he believes he has been sent to save. At the feast Nathan preaches, "The emissaries of the Lord smote the sinners, who had come heedless to the sight of God, heedless in their nakedness" (Kingsolver 27). Nathan, convinced that his values are correct condemns the bare-breasted women for their cultural mores. He feels superior to them in every way. A rocky relationship ensues, and the Congolese people regard him with the greatest of suspicion.
Typical of most missionaries, Nathan takes his own ideas about how to thrive in the Congo. He refuses to see any value in the natives' way of life. "From the beginning they misunderstand the land. Convinced that the soil which bears the lush jungle will respond to American agricultural methods, they attempt to plant a garden with familiar plants and tend it in their accustomed ways" (DeMarr 122 ). Despite what may be best suited for the land and the people, Nathan tried to force his Americanized planting techniques. He was unable to force the land to succumb to his desires. "It was to be our first African miracle: an infinite chain of benevolence rising from these small, crackling seed packets, stretching out from our garden into a circle of other gardens flowing outward across the Congo like ripples from a rock dropped in a pond" (Kingsolver 36). When Mama Tataba, a local native woman, gives Nathan planting advice he assumes that his ways are right. He lacks the humility to seek help from the natives in any form, and therefore is unsuccessful in planting a garden or completing his mission.
Kingsolver uses Nathan and his sense of superiority to show the clashes and misunderstandings often perpetuated by outsiders coming to the natives' aid. Nathan insists on using native words, but he often mispronounces them in his sermons. For example he uses the term "Bangala," which has three different meanings, most precious, most insufferable, and also poisonwood. "That one word brought down Father's sermons every time as he ended them all with the shout Tata Jesus is Bangala" (Kingsolver 505). His pronunciation means that Jesus is Poisonwood. He feels that he is better than the Congolese, when in fact, they have no respect for him and despise him for his feelings of higher ranking.
The absolute staunch observation of religious ritual in the story is shown also in Nathan's dogmatic adherence to the doctrine of baptism. Instead of finding a way to teach the word of God, that is culturally acceptable to the villagers, he insists they be baptized in the river that they regard as dangerous. "To Reverend Price, the nearby river is important for providing the water in which he will baptize all the converts which he expects to make. Nathan insists that they be "dunked" in the river, a place of danger, and they cannot understand his compulsion to dip them in the river, the home of crocodiles and death. Their total alienness from each other makes the goal of Christianizing the village a lost cause" (DeMarr 123). His obsession with ritual is also evident at the bizarre funeral of his youngest child, where his main concern was that she was not baptized before her death. In his compulsion he goes about placing his hands on small children during a rain storm at the funeral and "baptizes" them. Even at the death of his own child his religious convictions override a normal parental response.
The absolute patriarchal structure of Nathan's view of the Christian religion is seen in his interactions with his family. He is a possessive and abusive husband and father. He is a cold-hearted man who refuses to hold his own daughter's hand in the frightening inauguration day crowd in Leopoldville. "Father wouldn't have held my hand for the world--he isn't like that" (Kingsolver 181). His wife Orleanna summarizes his possessiveness as a father who owns a daughter "like a plot of land. To work her; plow her under, rain down a dreadful poison upon her" (Kingsolver 191). Nathan also feels that men are above women and believes this gives him the right to control every aspect of his daughters' lives.
Nathan harms his family with the way he uses scripture as punishment instead of being an empathetic listener. His daughter Rachel describes one of his tirades as "Here comes Moses tromping down off of Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life" (Kingsolver 26). Nathan frequently has his children copy large portions of scripture that he twists in a condemning way to shame and control them. "Because he spouts scripture like missile launches and prefers sarcasm and pompous oration to dialogue, he stunts his children's growth in faith by forcing them to think of bible verses as punishment and Christianity as punitive and conforming" (Snodgrass 157). His methods are at first successful but later cause rebellion in all the members of the family. Tragically, he is incapable of having a healthy relationship with anyone.
In spite of warnings from Mr. and Mrs. Underdown from the Mission League advising the Price family to leave due to changing political climate in the Congo, Nathan adamantly refuses. The Underdowns warn that financial support will be withdrawn. "I'm afraid the Mission League thinks of your stipend as an act of kindness on their part. I would not be surprised to see the end of it now" (Kingsolver 162). In spite of the facts presented, Nathan would rather endanger his family than admit that he made a mistake in taking the mission assignment. "Only God knows when our relief may arrive. But God does know. And in His benevolent service we will stay" (Kingsolver 169). Nathan chooses to make his family stay in the Congo to fulfill what he believes to be his mission rather than fulfill his first responsibility which is to protect his family.
For many months Orleanna Price goes through the motions of living in a fog of depression. She comments about her state of mind: "To resist occupation, whether you're a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy. Conquest and liberation and democracy and divorce are words that mean squat, basically when you have hungry children and clothes to get out on the line and it looks like rain" (Kingsolver 383). "She is a sensitive and loving mother and an abused wife who stays with her husband because she believes it is the right thing to do and also because she does not know what else to do" (DeMarr 126). She stays with her husband because years of religious abuse convince her that it is her duty.
It requires the death of the youngest Price child, Ruth May, to cause Orleanna to realize that she must leave Nathan. In total desperation she knows that she must remove her remaining children and herself from Nathan's influence. Together mother and daughters walk away from the village. "We only took what we could carry on our backs. Mother never once turned around to look over her shoulder" (Kingsolver 389). Orleanna later reflects, "Nathan was something that happened to us, as devastating in its way as the burning roof that fell on the family Mwanza: with our fate scarred by hell and brimstone we still had to track our course. And it happened finally by the grace of hell and brimstone that I had to keep moving. I moved and he stood still" (Kingsolver 384). The four women escape with their lives intact, but scars that will be with them forever.
Nathan Price sabotaged his own ministry to the people because of his unbending pride and desire to be right all the time. His actions and words caused the villagers to mistrust him. His impression was so minimal that the decision to focus the sermons on Christianity was put up for vote by the Congolese. "The village leader destroys Nathan's mission by calling for a vote on whether they should adopt Nathan's God" (DeMarr 121). When the villagers vote to oust Nathan by an overwhelming majority, he leaves Kilango and lives in the jungle as a recluse. "Alone Nathan goes deeper into the jungle, by then his sanity in doubt" (DeMarr 128). He continues to behave increasingly inappropriately.
Nathan places the ministry above his family which causes him to lose his wife and children. "The most obvious loss to the family is the death of Ruth May, the youngest daughter, and her death is connected to the failure of Nathan's ministry-his overt defeat by Africa, and the breakup of the family" (DeMarr 123). After Orleanna and the three girls leave the village, they learn of Nathan's death. "Because he annoyed local people with demands to baptize their children in the Kasai River, he fled their anger, climbed a coffee plantation watch tower and was burned to death" (Snodgrass 158). Nathan lives for his religion and dies alone.
Nathan ends up with nothing of value in his life because of selfishness and self-righteousness. He believes that God has chosen him to bring “the Word to a new frontier in the African wilderness where he will create a purified community” (Strehle 2). Nathan's arrogance and inflexible passion toward his religion cause him to ultimately lose everything he once held dear because he follows his obsession and not the love of God.
DeMarr, Mary Jean. Barbara Kingsolver: A Critical Companion. Westport: Greenwood Press,1999
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Print.
Ognibene, Elaine R. “The Missionary Position: Barbara Kingsolver's the Poisonwood Bible.”College Literature 30. 3 (2003): 19. Print.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Barbara Kingsolver A Literary Companion. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2004
Strehle, Susan. “Chosen People: American Exceptionalism in Kingsolver's the Poisonwood Bible”. Critique 49. 4 (2008): 413. Print.