Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
With the brisk pace of its plot, its plucky teenaged heroine, and its
tidy, satisfying conclusion, Heir to the Glimmering World may be read as an
update of the nineteenth-century novel. How does Ozick allow this old-fashioned
literary style to resonate in a twentieth-century story? What ironies are
present in Ozick's novel that would be absent from a Victorian novel? Heir to
the Glimmering World ends in 1937; how does your knowledge of the world events
of the next decade affect your perception of the ending?
How do Rosie's actions differ from the actions of, for instance, a
character from her beloved Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, and how might she
behave differently if the story were to take place today?
Herr Mitwisser cites an Arab proverb: "The wise man speaks of ideas, the
middling man of actions, the fool of persons." In her novel, Ozick "speaks" of
all three. How does she make Heir to the Glimmering World work on different
levels as pure entertainment driven by plot and character and also as a novel
of ideas? What elements of the novel did you find most engaging?
While the novel hinges on some tragic turns of event, it is also bracingly
funny. How would you describe the overall tone of the book?
The title Heir to the Glimmering World invokes the primary theme of
inheritance. How is each character shaped by the legacy of the past he or she
has inherited? How do their respective fortunes or misfortunes affect Rose,
James, and the Mitwisser children? Who, in your opinion, is the ultimate, truest
Heir to the Glimmering World?
When Rose begins to work for the Mitwissers, she seems bewildered at being
employed by such sophisticated intellectuals: a religious scholar and an
experimental physicist. In the course of her employment with the Mitwissers, she
comes to view them as the complex and imperfect people that they are. Why and
how does her attitude toward them change? What events or observations deepen her
understanding of them?
Heir to the Glimmering World is filled with characters who are abandoned
and dispossessed, characters who are running away or are made to run away. How
are Ozick's characters refugees, in the literal and figurative sense?
As a result of the changes in Hitler's Germany, Elsa Mitwisser has lost
her appointment at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, her career, her home, and
possibly her sanity. In response, she effectively removes herself from the
world, yet she remains acutely aware of the activities of her family. Is her
lunacy an act? What would she gain or lose from such an act?
Ozick writes of James A'Bair's childhood, "He was not a normal boy . . .
he was his father's drawing, his father's discourse, his father's exegesis of a
boy . . . his father had interpreted him for the world." James has unhappily
tried his whole life to cast off an identity created by his father. Similarly,
Rose is running away from her past and Ninel tries to invent a new identity for
herself. Are Ozick's characters ultimately successful in their pursuits? How are
we burdened by others' perceptions of us? How do we all in some ways invent our
On the surface, James A'Bair appears to sweep whimsically through life;
he drifts effortlessly into the lives of the Mitwissers, for instance. Yet he is
a character with a deeply troubled soul. How does Ozick reveal the two sides of
James A'Bair? Do his troubles undermine his likability? Do you find yourself
sympathizing with him? Why does Elsa offer only vehement disapproval of him? Do
you think his fate is inevitable? Why or why not?
One key theme of the book is the power of interpretation: the validity of
it, the necessity of it, and also the inaccuracy of it. How do both Rudi's and
James's lives revolve around the idea of interpretation? Do you believe the Karaites' rejection of all interpretation is defensible? How does this theme
resonate in other ways in the novel?
Professor Rudolf Mitwisser's professional studies center on religion, yet
he does not seem a particularly faithful man. Religion hardly factors into his
family life. Do you find this odd? What does this say about Herr Mitwisser?
In his theater days, James offers money to bribe an indifferent child to
learn to read. What does this action say about his complicated attitudes toward
books and literature, toward his fortune, and toward children?
Ozick prefaces Heir to the Glimmering World with an epigraph from Wallace
Stevens: "The absence of imagination had/Itself to be imagined." How does this
thought relate to the novel?
Many details in the novel offer significant comment on the worth and
power of books, from Rosie's fondness for nineteenth-century novels like Emma,
Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, and Hard Times, to Elsa's reaction to Jane Austen, to
Rudi's joy at receiving a rare text, for example. What importance does
literature have in the novel and in the world at large?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Mariner 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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