The Poisonwood Bible is a narration by members of a family taken to Congo by their overzealous father, who also happens to be a Baptist minister. Nathan Price and his family travel to Congo and settle in a village named Kilanga in the hope that they will be able to convince the locals to join Christianity. However, the experience does not turn out the way they expected, as the family encounters numerous challenges, from a rejection of their brand of religion by the locals, to the death of Ruth. The Price’s are an embodiment of the main theme of the book: cultural ethnocentrism. The Poisonwood Bible depicts the folly of ethnocentrism, through the fate faced by the Prices, and the changes the family is forced to undergo to fit in.
The Prices come to Congo with a mindset similar to that of other settlers like the Underdowns, that the Western culture is far superior to that of the natives. In particular, Nathan Price portrays ethnocentrism in his quest to convert the villagers to his brand of religion by advocating that they accept baptism and convert from their traditional beliefs. Right from the beginning, the Prices partly accept to come to Congo in the belief that because their culture is superior to that of the locals, they are likely to be treated like royalty. Nathan Price is so set in his imperialistic beliefs that he is unwilling to bend his beliefs in order to accomplish his mission, a factor that not only leads to his abandoning his family, but also insane behavior in the end.
Through the ethnocentrism that typifies Nathan Price’s message to the villagers of Kilanga, he not only alienates his family, but also alienates his own family, including his daughter Leah, who initially shares his faith. Rather than attempt to pass his message diplomatically and adopt a flexible approach that takes into account some of the native practices and beliefs, Nathan pushes for the exclusive adoption of his religion, instead viewing the beliefs of the natives as savage. His ethnocentric beliefs are not only evident in the way he ignorantly attempts to establish a garden to demonstrate to the locals how to farm, but also in how he contemptuously treats Anatole when he tries to explain to him that the locals would find it very hard to buy into his beliefs. He treats Mama Tataba similarly, not taking time to understand why locals would find it hard to agree to be baptized in the river. The main reason why Nathan Price fails, is that he is so blinded by ethnocentrism that he fails to understand the natives
On a wider scale, Kingsolver creates a situation in which it seems as if the Prices and the native Congolese are a microcosm of the United States and how it relates to other foreign countries. The manner, with which the United States willingly overthrows a sitting president in order to impose its own puppet leader, can be equated to how Nathan Price attempts to overthrow the locals’ beliefs, not even taking his time to understand why it is that they have the beliefs in question.
Therefore, Kingsolver uses the fictitious story to highlight the prevailing themes of ethnocentrism and imperialism, and the potential damage that could come about as a result. She attempts to discourage ethnocentrism, with the fate of the Prices, particularly Nathan as an example.
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible.