Mountains Beyond Mountains

The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world

By Tracy Kidder

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Character Analysis

The book, Mountains Beyond Mountains is a biography about Dr. Paul Farmer. Farmer is an extremely intelligent man who spent a large portion of his life as a volunteer and doctor. Farmer is described to be "…delicate looking. He had short, black hair and a high waist and long and thin arms, and his nose came almost to a point…. He looked skinny and pale, and for all of that he struck me as bold, indeed downright cocky." Farmer made it his life goal to do something about the terrible conditions and sicknesses in Haiti. Farmer also co-founded Parters in Health which is an organization that provides health care for the less fortunate.

Farmer didn't have the typical childhood. He didn't grow up with much money, or have the ideal housing situation. In fact, for the majority of his childhood, he didn't live in a house at all. The Farmer family lived in a bus that they called The Blue Bird Inn, which, "oddly enough, had once been used as a mobile TB clinic". (48) After that, his family lived on a boat, the Lady Gin, "an old Liberty Launch , a fifty- foot- long empty hull with a hole in it". (51) Farmer's living situations, and financial struggles as a child allowed his character to be formed into the man he became.

Farmer was a very well liked person. He was admired greatly by his peers and patients alike. "Farmer was very popular in school, especially among the girls. The reason was simple, his mother said. "He listened to them."" (55) When he went to college, nothing had changed. "Old college friends describe a boy who made friers easily, legions of them, at least as many female as male". (59) Farmer's patients in Haiti adored him and were very grateful for the things he had done for them. A young man enters his office and says, "Doktè Paul? I came here and was sick. Now I'm much better. So I would like a picture taken." (26)

Paul Farmer was also a brilliant student and person in general. "He was president of his senior class and went to Duke on a full scholarship." (55) He did very well in college and "after his first semester, Farmer started getting A's." (59) When Farmer left Duke, he graduated summa cum laude, and continued on to Harvard medical school when he was only twenty four years old. All throughout medical school, he would travel back and fourth to Haiti doing volunteer work and helping patients.

Dr. Farmer was an extremely selfless person and did whatever it took to help others. Even though Farmer was rich by no means, he knew that he was much more fortunate than others. He would never put himself first, even if that meant signing his check over to an AIDS patient that was about to be evicted from his home. (95)

Paul Farmer had to be very determined and driven to accomplish the huge goals he had set for himself. The major conflicts shown in this novel are Farmer trying to achieve his goals. With this, he became very hard on himself when something didn't happen how he had planned. As a child, Paul's father, "the Warden" pushed his children to be the best versions of themselves that they could be. Paul was not very athletic, but "craved his father's approval" so he tried to excel, so his father would be proud of him. "In high school, he went out for tennis and track, and would push himself so hard in the races that he'd throw up at the finish lines." (56) Later in life, Paul categorized all unnecessary deaths, as "stupid deaths" and did his best to lower the extremely high number of them. Paul Farmer's sense of determination helped him countless times throughout his life.


Setting: The setting helps to advance the plot in this novel because Farmer's childhood and surroundings as an adult greatly influence his character and shape him into the person he becomes. When Farmer was a child, he lived on a bus that was "used as a mobile TB clinic", (48) which is important because farmer worked with many TB patients in Haiti throughout his lifetime. Another example of his childhood affecting his life is when he lived on the boat, Lady Gin, his father told the family "We're going to pick citrus." The other workers were speaking a language that was strange to Paul as a child and he "asked his father what it was. "Creole. They're Haitians," the Warden explained." (51) This part of Farmer's childhood stands out because he ends up spending a lot of his time in Haiti as a doctor. Working and spending time in Haiti made Paul Farmer into a very selfless and humble person. Seeing extreme amounts of death and poverty in Haiti caused him to donate massive amounts of time and money to the people who needed those things more than he did. "In 1993, the MacArthur Foundation had given him one of its so- called genius grants-in his case some $220,000. He'd donated the entire sum to Partners in Health." (23)

Theme: The theme in this book is very important and goes hand and hand with a major character trait of Farmer's. The theme of this novel is determination and believing in yourself. Paul Farmer went through many struggles throughout his life and always managed to have a positive attitude and come out on top. He was always very proactive in setting goals and achieving them, instead of just saying he was going to do things and putting them off. For example, when he was young, he pushed his body to the limit while playing sports to impress his father. Little did he know though, his father was already extremely proud of him. "He wanted to show his father he was an athlete, and his father would be so proud of him now." (56) When "he didn't get straight A's his first semester at college," (55) he worked incredibly hard to achieve his good grades and eventually it came naturally to him. Later on in his life, when overcoming larger challenges, he would do anything in his power to help someone or make something happen. When he couldn't buy the tools and equipment that he needed in Haiti, he managed to "find" one anyway. "The first microscope in Cange was a real one, which he stole form Harvard Medical School." (90) Farmer was so passionate about his cause that he did something that could get him in trouble because he believed in himself. Ophelia Dahl, a co-worker and a woman that Farmer almost married, said about him, "He was so sure about some things.The frustrating thing is that he was usually right." (97) This showed that Farmer always knew what he wanted to do in his life and what was coming next for him.


Mountains Beyond Mountains was not my favorite book to read. Biographies in general are never my first choice. I would read a biography however, if I had heard of, was intrigued by, and could relate to the subject of the book. Although Paul Farmer did have a very successful life, and achieved amazing things, I am not particularly interested in learning about illnesses or doctors at this time. I do think Paul Farmer was a remarkably intelligent person, who used his talents in completely selfless ways. Some of the things that Farmer accomplished, were absolutely incredible. After reading about Farmer, I now have an enormous amount of respect for him. This book, though, was lengthy and drawn out and included some information about Farmer that was unnecessary and uninteresting. Because I was not amused by the topic, and could not relate to Paul Farmer in any way, this book was not enjoyable for me to read.
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