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From 1979 to 1986, the University of Minnesota studied 136 pairs of twins to determine whether our personalities are innate or nurtured. The results were staggering: the scientists concluded that just about 70 percent of our character and psychological disposition comes from birth. But even more than that, these traits are deeply rooted within the actions we take leaving behind the question of what truly commands our fate — is it the genetics that are passed down or the unimpeded free will that we possess? In The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, Nathan Price is portrayed in an unfavorable light built upon the foundation set by his characteristics.
Despite the fact that his daughters condemn these very traits, they innately share many of these with him. Yet, ironically, while these elements govern Nathan’s demise, they simultaneously lead the daughters to thrive in various ways.
After leaving battle due to an injury, Nathan Price was separated from his regiment thereby avoiding the infamous Bataan Death March in which his entire company was savagely killed.
This transformative event ushered an obsession with his guilt, making it his life’s mission to convert more people to Christianity than had died on the march. Nathan’s quest to convert is tremendously linked to his egocentric, selfish, desires. While in Kilanga, he operates with an unswerving goal complimented with a single-minded approach leading to the hefty presence of a self-centered character. In the novel, it seems as if there is an infinite amount of examples that display this trait. However, this is most notably demonstrated when Nathan refuses to evacuate the Congo after a political turmoil; even with such a manifest danger to the entire family, Nathan still forbids Orleanna and his daughters from leaving.
He made himself such a priority over his family to the point that when Rachel, “…tries to climb right into the airplane with her things…he flung her back. She [then] threw her stuff on the ground and said fine, [threatening that] she was going to drown herself in the river” (179).
Nathan is so repulsively self-absorbed that he, literally, places his personal desires higher than the lives of his wife and daughters. Due to the belief that he, specifically, is being watched by God, he quite patently acquires a theomania based obsession — one that will stick with him to his grave. Ironically. while Rachel insults and condemns Nathan for his selfish behavior, it must be acknowledged that she, herself, is just as egocentric as he is, if not more. She consistently argues on her behalf and stands up for herself, declaring that Nathan is more focused on himself than on the rest of the family. Simultaneously, the same can be said for her, but in a different sense. Like Nathan, she is unable to subscribe to any of the needs or desires that don’t directly pertain to her personal well-being. For Rachel, it’s not the state of her soul that unsettles her, but rather the state of her physical appearance and physical comfort. She commonly places miniscule nuances in her life far above more serious and consequential circumstances. On her birthday, Rachel complains by saying, “Ruth May’s fever shot up to a hundred and five, Adah got stung on the foot by a scorpion spider…all on the same day [as] my birthday! And all of them just to detract attention away from me” (275).
Although ‘selfishness’ has a negative connotation, it’s a powerful tool for survival that propelled Rachel’s flourishment while concurrently leading to Nathan’s demise. In direct correspondence with his obsessive personal desire to rid his guilt, he forcibly tries to baptize children in the river, resulting in the death and maiming of many. He is chased out of Kilanga and burned in a watchtower, preaching to the very end. Thus, Nathan’s egotistical constitution, almost, quintessentially causes his demise. As the reader turns the page, they see Rachel thriving in, for the most part, her ideal environment. Rachel’s self-infatuation not only leads her to escape the Congo with Eeben Axelroot, but eventually live the rest of her life quite contently. After her third husband Remy died, he left her his hotel which she argues his the most valuable contribution he made in her life because, “With Remy resting in peace [Rachel] was free to express [her] talents…And [she thinks]: Finally, Rachel, this is your own little world” (461-462). Egotism and self-absorption are heavily pertinent to both Nathan and Rachel and although this trait results in Nathan’s downfall, it ironically protects Rachel and gives her the life she had dreamed of.
Devotion and passion can arguably be considered nurtured characteristics, borne from what we see in our parents as we come of age rather than the genetics we are innately born with. In the novel, Nathan’s commits to spreading his beliefs, customs, and traditions to what he considers to be uncivilized people. Taking a step away from his obsession with spreading Christianity, it is important to note that Nathan, as it seems, is unquestionably racist, believing whites are inherently superior to blacks. With that, he seeks to improve and enlighten the Congolese by offering them his Western insight, thus failing to recognize native traditions by persistently insisting on Westernizing them. Nathan’s ignorant treatment of the Congolese epitomizes the American attitude of superiority towards the Congo. This ethnocentric view is immediately depicted at the Prices’ arrival in Kilanga at the welcoming ceremony. Nathan exhorts against their “Nakedness and darkness of the soul! For we shall destroy this place where the loud clamor of the sinners is waxen great before the face of the Lord” (27).
He is devoted to immersing his American culture into Kilanga, but wouldn’t it be more natural if the roles were reversed? Rather than trying to learn about Congolese culture, Nathan expends his time broadcasting his. In the initial stages of the novel, Leah wholeheartedly followed Nathan’s footsteps, essentially, worshipping him and seeking his approval. However, after a conversation with Anatole over the essence of God’s influence that’s not always present in all dominions and Nathan’s repulsive reaction to Ruth May’s death, she realizes that her father isn’t as majestic as she thought leading to her “[feeling] the breath of God grow cold on [her] skin” (309-310). Much like Rachel, she begins criticizing his obsessiveness and behavior. Yet, she still holds onto this very element of Nathan: the element of persistent devotion and passion. Rather than being devoted to her father and his mission, she becomes devoted to Anatole, African independence, and social justice.
After Anatole effectively pulls Leah away from her grasp of Christianity, she becomes ‘a ghost,’ but Anatole prevents her from evaporating into the air. From this, Leah declares that Anatole’s name ‘took the place of prayer’ (310). In a sense, Anatole replaces Nathan — Christianity — becoming her newfound devotion. But in a deeper sense, Anatole represents the Congo and thus, overtime her newfound devotion becomes, in fact, the Congo. She opens herself up to the discomfort and acknowledges the perpetual and inevitable existence of injustice in the world. But still, after Leah loses her faith, she decides to devote her life to trying to bring justice and independence to the Congo, stating that she’d rather “…fight alongside the Simbas if they’d let [her]” (421). While Nathan’s futile fidelity of extending his beliefs and customs, leads to his demise, Leah’s commitment to the Congo brings her personal satisfaction and fulfillment; and even with the hardships that she faces through this endeavor, she remains dedicated to her beliefs.
According to the University of Minnesota Twin Study, one of the most dominant elements that is passed down innately is intellectual intelligence. Although the power and capacity of the mind are intrinsically given off to a child, it doesn’t necessarily equate to being used in the same fashion — especially in regards to Nathan and Adah. Nathan, classifying himself as a prophet, has a far more superior religious knowledge compared to the rest of his family declaring, in a way to educate them, that any wrong or rebellious actions by his daughters will be met with “The dreaded Verse…castigated with the Holy Bible…then slowly, as [they] squirm on his hook, he writes on a piece of paper, for example: Jeremiah 48:18” (59). It is quite indisputable that Nathan’s mastery of the Bible demonstrates his immense religious acumen, which often leads him to feel compelled to teach his religiously inferior family; but at a greater magnitude, he feels compelled to share his knowledge with the Congolese.
Although he has vast intelligence of the Christianity, he inadequately exhibits his beliefs to the Kilangans due to his inability to recognize that faith can not be forced — rather, it must be individually morphed. He forces his beliefs down their throats, failing to recognize that his methods are neither welcoming nor persuasive. Nathan is impotent to recognize that faith cannot simply be gained by the passing of knowledge and fails to accept “…what seemed clear enough even to a child: when he showered the idea of baptism — batiza — on people here, it shrunk them away like water on a witch” (73). This inability to effectively elucidate his religious understanding is prevalent in not only Nathan, but also in Adah.
Interestingly though, she is the only daughter to even acknowledge that half of her DNA comes from Nathan, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions. He was my father. I own half his genes, and all of his history” (533). Adah, however, uses her intellect to construct a more significant influence. This incapacity to voice herself topped with the intellectual capacity that she possesses, eventually leads Adah to discover her calling in life: science. Although Adah is also unable to express herself due to the silence that she occupies, she is able to use her mind in a far more influential way, “My work is to discover the life histories of viruses, and I seem to be very good at it…I have made important discoveries about the AIDS and Ebola viruses” (530).
In ‘The Book of Genesis,’ Leah, Jacob’s wife, was placed on the front line of a war with her children, while her sister Rachel was placed safely near the rear of the army. This anecdote accurately portrays the traits of both characters. Leah, having an immense desire to create change, is in the front line, taking action; while Rachel, remains in the rear, protecting and cushioning herself thus representing the egotism within her. In the University of Minnesota Twin Study, the experimental variable was the environments in which the children were reared; the variable that lead to the other 30-35 percent of the character and psychological disposition. However, as Rachel, Leah, and Adah all criticize Nathan and the actions he takes, they all intrinsically share many of the same traits that they condemn in him. Yet, although his genetic constitution sets the foundation for his demise, it also sets up the prosperity of the daughters — using the shared traits as a method of survival, an agent of change, and the effectiveness of knowledge.
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