Study Guide

Nathan Price in The Poisonwood Bible

By Barbara Kingsolver

Nathan Price

Medal of (Dis)Honor

Nathan Price wasn't born breathing fire and brimstone, but we'd forgive you if you thought otherwise. Raised in the fictional but delightfully named Killdeer, MS (although there is a Killdeer, North Dakota), Nathan Price soon found himself right smack in World War II.

Nathan left battle after being wounded—right before the rest of his company died in the Bataan Death March. Talk about guilt: he never got over feeling like he should have died with them. His daughters originally thought he was a hero for receiving a Purple Heart, but they later see it like he did: a medal of someone who just got wounded, the medal of a failure. Could it be that Nathan was just as hard on himself, privately, as he is on his daughters?

What if God Was One of Us?

So that's a little backstory. Judge not lest ye be judged, right? Well, Nathan Price judges everyone, so we don't feel too bad about ripping into his character. Here goes!

  1. He's stubborn beyond all belief. He refuses to listen to his family (or reason) ever, and this first causes the death of all his crops, when he doesn't listen to Mama Tataba, and later causes Ruth May's death when he refuses to leave the Congo. No wonder: Leah tells us that "[her] father needs permission only from the Saviour" (1.5.3). This guy isn't about to ask his family for permission—especially a family full of women.
  2. Nathan's a Grade-A misogynist. A for a-hole, in this case. Again, Leah's got his number: "[Father] often says he views himself as the captain of a sinking mess of female minds" (1.5.4). One thing about Nathan, though, when that ship of female minds sets sail for other waters, Captain Nathan goes down with the ship.
  3. Basically, Ruth May sums it up for us: Nathan "doesn't approve of talking back" (1.7.24). What she really means is he doesn't approve of anyone having a different opinion than he does. If you don't agree with him, well, conversation closed. (We have the feeling he'd say the same to the Saviour.) In the end, as Rachel says, "Father would sooner watch us all perish one by one than listen to anybody but himself" (2.7.68).

And that's exactly what happens.

Preacher Man

There's no denying that Nathan is good at what he does. He believes in what he preaches, all the way down to the tone of his voice, "his rising singsong preaching voice that goes [...] higher and lower, back and forth, like a saw ripping into a tree trunk" (1.3.27). However, the saw analogy is a little too apt. Instead of building things up with his faith, Nathan tears them down.

He wields the Bible like a weapon—so much so that we wonder if the phrase "throw the book at them" has to do with Nathan bludgeoning people with his beliefs. It's easy to take Nathan Price as an indictment of Christianity, but that's not exactly what's happening here. Nathan Price represents the destructive side of the religion, the side that comes out when people impose their beliefs on others and think they're absolutely right about everything, even things they know nothing about... like living in the jungles of the Congo.

Leah (again) helps us out. The main difference between Nathan and other Christians (like Orleanna) is this: "[Nathan] wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God's foot soldiers while our mother's is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit" (1.9.25). In other words, Nathan sees faith and religion as a battle, a source of struggle and strife. Orleanna sees it as comfort and peace.

Well, that explains a lot.

At What Price Faith?

For someone we can't shut up about, you'd think Nathan was on every page of the book. In the end, though, he really isn't a main character—and he's also a static one. Nathan's a static character. Adah's being nice when she says, "It is a special kind of person who will drag together a congregation, stand up before them with a proud, clear voice, and say words wrong, week after week" (3.2.35).

Take the perfect example: even when he's told that everyone is scared of baptism because there are crocodiles in the river, he keeps trying to baptize everyone. In the end, when a child really does get eaten by a crocodile, the villagers chase him up a rickety watchtower in a field and burn it.

So, do you think Nathan died thinking he had done any good for the Congo? Or was his whole life a waste?