Abusive and fanatical, Nathan Price is a Baptist minister who lives unswervingly by his own rigid and simplistic moral code. As a soldier during World War II, Nathan escaped the Battaan Death March, and the almost certain death it brought with it, by sheer chance. Because he escaped the fate of the rest of his battalion he views himself as a coward, despised by God. He vows never to be a coward again, by which he means he will never again leave a dangerous situation behind. He devotes his life to saving as many souls as he can, through his missionary work.
As becomes increasingly clear as the novel progresses, Nathan is not brave but cowardly, and not a man selflessly devoted to a cause but a man devoted to nothing and no one but himself. It is his cowardice that drives him to adopt his rigid and simplistic moral code in the first place. He is unable to face the messy and unjust reality of life. He convinces himself that there is a deity who cleanly and sharply rewards all good and punishes all bad. Not only is he craven and self-deluding, Nathan is also an egomaniac of the highest order. His attempt to save unenlightened souls has nothing to do with the well being of those particular souls. Instead this activity, like all others that he undertakes, has as its only goal the well being of his own soul. He is so obsessed with securing his own personal ticket to salvation that he knowingly imperils the lives of his wife and daughters. He is unable to look outside of his own need even for their sakes.
Actually, it seems that Nathan not only lacks the appropriate level of concern and compassion for his family, but that he positively resents them. Nathan is, first of all, a rabid male chauvinist who dismisses the very possibility of female intelligence. However, his complex relationship to his family does not derive from anything so simple as mere sexism. Convinced that God is constantly watching and judging him, and that God disapproves of all activity not devoted to spreading His name, Nathan is enraged by his own sexual urges. Instead of turning his rage on himself, however, he conveniently turns his rage on his beautiful wife for tempting him, and on his daughters for being the physical manifestations of his lapses in will power. His abusive behavior toward them, including his endangerment of their lives, can be seen as a form of revenge on those who would make him something other than he wants to be.
Though her mother died when Orleanna was still a young girl and she grew up impoverished in Depression-ear Mississippi, Orleanna Price was happy as a child. Wild, beautiful, and passionately in love with the natural world, her carefree days came to an abrupt end when at seventeen she married Nathan Price. As his sense of guilt and doom infected her, and she gave birth to three children in the space of two years, she lost her spiritedness and became a passive vessel for carrying out her husband's will.
As Nathan's madness becomes more apparent, and her children's lives seem ever more tenuous, Orleanna struggles to revive the ability to act out on her own, to oppose her husband's will. However, it is not until Ruth May dies that she is finally able to muster the strength to flee from Nathan with her remaining daughters in tow. For the rest of her life she is overwhelmed by guilt, obsessing over her complicity in her daughter's death.
Like her father, Rachel is an unadulterated egomaniac. Unlike her father, however, her concern is not for the state of her soul but for the state of her body. Her appearance and her comfort are the only two forces capable of motivating her, not only at fifteen when she is a materialistic adolescent but even at fifty when she is a conniving, racist, and no-less-materialistic woman. While in the Congo she makes no attempt to learn the culture around her, and, in fact, makes a concerted effort to ensure that the place does not impinge on her outlook, or her memories, at all. When Ruth May dies, Rachel's first thought is that this event will make it impossible for her to forget that she was ever in the Congo. Though she is the most eager to leave Africa, and the only Price woman to consider America her true homeland, Rachel never actually leaves Africa. As the wife of an ambassador and then as the owner of a luxury hotel, however, she continues her policy of willful ignorance, refusing to let the unpleasantness occurring around her even penetrate her mind.
Idealistic and passionate, as a girl Leah worshipped her father and believed wholeheartedly in his worldview. However, unlike her father, who is stupid and selfish, Leah is intelligent and compassionate and so the realities of the Congo wear away at her beliefs. Confronted with mass injustice, racism, and an African culture she admires rather than reviles, she suffers a crisis of faith. Though Leah loses her religion, however, she does not lose her idealism. She simply transfers her devotion from one man and cause to another man and another cause: to her husband Anatole and the struggle for a real African independence. Her sister Adah claims that Leah's "religion is her suffering," but it seems more accurate to say that the religion she adopts in place of Baptism is comprised of her love for her husband and sons, and her unwavering pursuit of social justice.
Though Adah is Leah's identical twin sister, at least as a child she was very much night to Leah's day. Where her sister was a tireless tomboy, Adah was crippled, the whole left side of her body paralyzed from birth. Where Leah was idealistic, Adah was a cynic preferring to view things backward rather than forward; and where Leah threw herself into life, Adah held back, preferring to pretend she was merely a wry observer rather than a participant. She even refused to speak except in emergencies. As Adah ages, however, she loses these characteristics to a certain extent. While struggling to save herself from death one night in the Congo, she realizes that she cares about her life, and so is not a detached observer. A neurologist friend helps her overcome her handicap. Her cynicism diminishes somewhat as she matures. Adah even finds a religion that she can truly believe in, the religion of science. She becomes a brilliant researcher, studying the life of viruses. Yet Adah cannot completely overcome the backward-reading girl she once was. She loves and admires the viruses she studies, and dismisses the idea of human cosmic importance as a pleasant myth. In addition, she looks back longingly on her handicap and her tendency to see the world from a wholly different angle, revealing that a significant portion of that person remains in her.
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