The chapter begins with a letter that Farmer received from a woman he wanted to marry. In the letter, a woman named Ophelia Dahl tells Farmer that she can’t possibly provide Farmer with the life he wants, despite the fact that she loves him dearly. She explains that the qualities she admires most in him—his devotion to the poor, his compassion for others—are also the qualities that make her dislike him. She feels that she can’t “keep up” with his interest in medicine and charity.
It’s almost refreshing to read Dahl’s letter, because it says some of the things that we’ve been thinking. Farmer is an incredibly impressive figure—but he’s so impressive that it would be maddening to spend any serious amount of time with him. Next to Farmer, everyone else seems selfish, shortsighted, and inferior.
Kidder explains that Farmer met Ophelia Dahl in 1983, when they were both working at Eye Care Haiti. Ophelia, a well-to-do English woman, wanted to help the starving in Haiti, but found it difficult to adjust to her new life in a new country. After she met Farmer on a rainy day (which she claims she’ll never forget) she realized she’d finally found someone she could open up to. As Farmer spent more time with Ophelia, he learned that she was the daughter of a famous British actress, Patricia Neal, and the even more famous British author Roald Dahl. Ophelia poured out her insecurities about her family and her fame, and Farmer listened, calmly and patiently.
Dahl and Farmer come from very different worlds. Farmer’s parents are working-class people, while Dahl’s are world-famous (who hasn’t read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?), and yet the two seem to bond immediately. Farmer doesn’t scorn Dahl’s wealth and fame or hold it against her—instead he finds her sincere, thoughtful, intelligent, and kind. It’s also telling that she has given up what could surely be an easy and celebrity-filled life in order to help the sick and the voiceless.
As Ophelia spent more time with Farmer, she came to see that he was charming, sensitive, and more than a little nerdy. Clearly, he was fascinated with his anthropological work in Haiti. She remembers a day when they witnessed a traffic accident in Port-au-Prince together. A woman died in the car crash, and as a result children stole the dozens of mangoes in her car. Ophelia remembers the look of “silent shock” on Farmer’s face.
Ophelia quickly realizes that Farmer is no ordinary man: not only is he thoughtful and intelligent (to the point where he’s a bit of a nerd), but he’s also passionately devoted to helping other people. Farmer’s shock at the car crash seems to stem not just from the sudden death of the woman, but also from the fact that the surrounding children must be so hungry that they don’t have a second thought about immediately stealing food from the victim.
Within a few months, Farmer and Ophelia became lovers. Farmer wrote her a poem called “The Mango Lady,” about the woman in the car crash. As their relationship blossomed, Ophelia learned more about anthropology and Haitian history from Farmer. Farmer used his conversations with Ophelia to build up a theory of poverty. He came to believe that the world was being torn apart by the rich and powerful—in Haiti, for instance, decades of irresponsible American foreign policy had left the country in the hands of vile dictators like Baby Doc.
In this section we see the development of Farmer’s worldview. We’ve gotten hints of this before, but here Farmer clearly decides that the first-world countries of the world (like the U.S.) are largely responsible for the miseries of the third-world countries, such as Haiti. Plainly Farmer feels guilty about being an American, and he treats his work in Haiti as an opportunity to rectify some of the problems his own country has caused in the past.
In late spring, Ophelia headed back to her home in England, having finished her work in Haiti for the time being. She began preparing to begin her premed education. She and Farmer sent one another love letters, and recommended each other books. A few months after returning to England, Ophelia and her father had lunch with Graham Greene, the author of the novel The Comedians, which is about life in Haiti. Ophelia wondered what Greene would have made of Paul Farmer.
Here Kidder conveys the sheer strangeness of Paul Farmer by contrasting his career with that of Graham Greene, a world-famous author who traveled to many third-world countries (including Vietnam and Cuba). Whereas Greene travels the world looking for literary inspiration, Farmer travels it in search of illnesses that need to be cured.