Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
How would you describe the voice of the novel's narrator? What does the
manner in which Nicholas Van Tassel tells the story suggest to you about his
character? How reliable a narrator is he?
We learn about Etna only through Nicholas. Do you think we see her
clearly? What role do the "letters" play? What about Nicholas's
comments and asides on these letters? Do they shed more light on Nicholas or
Some readers have seen Nicholas as a monster; others have been moved by
his humanity. How do you feel about him? Do you think he knows himself?
Do you agree with Nicholas's own assessment that "we design our own
fate, to suit our circumstances" (page 45)?
Do you agree with his idea about "the necessity of having
extraordinary love returned in order to have achieved true greatness"
When Nicholas begins to court Etna, he makes the distinction between the
qualities of a woman and the qualities of a wife. What does he imply with
his musings? How does he define Etna?
After Nicholas and Etna's wedding, the narrator jumps ahead fourteen
years. Why do you think he chooses to do this? What is the benefit of
sweeping past those first years of the marriage?
Nicholas has a tense relationship with one of his students, Edward Ferald.
Why does Nicholas feel such animosity toward Edward? How does this color
Nicholas's future at Thrupp?
Etna accepts Nicholas's proposal but promises that she can never love him.
Why does Etna agree to marry Nicholas? What does she hope to achieve with
this marriage? And after finding herself trapped in a restrictive role as
Nicholas's wife, why does she remain in the marriage for so long?
After her uncle's death, Etna informs Nicholas, "It is a treasure. To
be able to love someone in that way. So thoroughly. So freely" (page
159). Discuss the significance of this statement.
Discuss Nicholas's relationship with his children.
Etna is an enigmatic figure. Analyze her means of escape within her
After Nicholas discovers Etna's house, she insists that she must have her
own space in order to claim her independence. Does Etna achieve her goal in
the end? How much power does she have in her relationship with her husband?
In his wife's absence, Nicholas wonders whether he was set free as well
(page 304). Can Nicholas fully escape his obsession? What are his feelings
for Etna thirty years later? Despite his lengthy journal, does Nicholas ever
truly understand Etna?
What do the parenthetical asides woven throughout the narrative reveal
about Nicholas's character? Do you think these devices are effective?
Why do you think Nicholas chooses to tell the story when he is in his
sixties? How might the story be different if told without the benefit of
The story's frame is a train ride that Nicholas takes en route to his
sister's funeral. How does Nicholas's account of the events that transpired
on this journey resonate with the story of Nicholas and Etna's relationship?
How does Nicholas change, if at all, in the course of this novel? What has
he learned from his time with Etna?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Back Bay Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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