Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
At the heart of the novel is the quest of Vida to find truth
through fiction. The epigraph for The English Teacher, "Life is
beginning. I now break into my hoard of life," is from Virginia Woolf.
How would you describe Vida as an English teacher? What are her strengths?
What are her dramatic limitations? What distinguishes an English teacher
from other teachers? Does living in the world of books hamper Vida, or does
it expand her experience? Do the students of an imaginative English teacherand
readers of good bookssuspend disbelief in order to grow or live on
Why does Vida hate teaching Tess of the D'Urbervilles? Why is
she afraid of Peter reading it? (See pages 3338.) What is perverse about
her students' taking the book to their hearts, adding it to Mrs. Avery's
legendary status? How does the teaching of the novel continue to correlate
with events in the book? See the last page, for instance.
Peter is largely resistant to his mother's obsession with literature.
He feels held at arm's length by her retreats into poetry and fiction. Is
that a fair assessment on his part? Describe one time when he, too,
understands something better, more immediately, by recalling a poem.
"Memory does its work underground. Beneath consciousness, a past
moment finds its kin all at once. Like a fish returned to its school, it
frolics in remembered waters, and stirs up others. . . . Yet even awful,
unlivable memories want to be relived; the fragments yearn to be whole once
more" (p. 103). For Vida the "unlivable memory" is always
near the surface as well as beneath consciousness. Does the passage evoke
other characters, too? Have you known people who, like Vida, are disabled by
earlier traumas? (For instance, there has been great attention recently to
people's retrieved memories of childhood abuse. Do you give any credence
to those who say, "Let it gojust get on with your life"?) How
is Peter an inciting force for Vida's dealing fully with her rape?
" 'Vida's a hoot, isn't she?' Peter heard Tom's brother
say to him at the door. 'She is,' Tom said, confused, like he'd bought
an appliance with too many features" (p. 94). How does Tom try and fail
and then ultimately succeed in understanding and winning the complex,
educated, and wounded Vida? What are the qualities that serve him in the
end? Can you think of particular moments that show his generosity and
strength? Think of his burying Walt, sharing his workshop with Peter,
confronting Vida about her drinking. Others? What about the yellow dress?
"She figured that all marriages, if they lasted, ended up here in
the land of quiet regret" (p. 152). We remember that this is Vida's
first try at marriage. What have been her observations about the institution
so far? About her school colleagues? About her own parents? It is their
strains that drive her to find a new reality in books. Vida is tantalized by
the Hardy poem in which a young man is lured by his ideal of love, "not
by the poor girl he has been projecting his illusions onto" (p. 105).
Vida feels Tom is always asking, "Why aren't you who I thought you
were?" (p. 104). Is Tom unrealistic in his hopes for Vida? Are there
other characters who idealize someone in the book? Does King suggest that
bedrock reality (disillusionment?) is a requirement for a strong marriage?
Or is it a starting point for a mature relationship of any kind?
What is Peter's preoccupation with Mary Belou, the phantom mother in
his new house? (Peter also wonders if his own mysterious father is dead and
waiting for himwhen that figure is not raking leaves!) What is it that
Peter needs from the now mythologized Mary? (See page 101.) Is there some
resolution for him later?
Recall some scenes of both lively humor and poignancy. For example, think
of Peter's getting trapped in the nuptial bedroom (p.28), wild to escape
this lunatic moment. And Vida, true to form, in her schoolroom faced down by
Tom, "grew bored by his performance. She had the impulse to get up and
grade a few papers until he had finished" (p. 148). Can you think of
other funny moments, all the sharper because they ring true to human nature?
What is it about the hostages that both compels and reflects the
characters in the novel? It is one of the few issues that gets the family
involved in something beyond themselves. How have the characters themselves
been held hostage? For instance, when they are fleeing across the country,
Peter reflects, "It wasn't just her silence for the past four days
but her silence all of his life" (p. 209). How does it take many levels
of diplomacy, perseverance, and perhaps luck to release the hostages that
are the people in this book?
Discuss the varied angles of vision in the novel. How do we learn about
Vida, for instance, other than through her own thoughts and actions? We know
that characters perceive external reality through their own lenses and
needs. Give some examples. How do we know whom to trust? One surprise is the
diner waitress who observes and reflects on a young boy and an old woman.
How does this section add to our knowledge of Peter and Vida's odyssey?
Elsewhere, which are the most interesting shifts in points of view?
How is Walt a touchstone for the family? Older than Peter, where did he
come from? And how is he important to the pivotal events of chapter seven?
Would you say that perhaps the central drama, the conflict that needs to
be resolved, is the one between Vida and Peter? Is it this relationship that
finally allows others to fall into place?
King is unorthodox in many ways, not intimidated by convention in her
novel. Does Vida reflect this originality, particularly King's gimlet eye?
When? What other characters show odd and fresh human reactions? For
instance, when Tom is questioning Peter about Vida, the boy "wished
they didn't have to talk about her. He wished he just lived with the
Belous without her getting in the way" (p. 127). When else does King
reveal dead-on observations or memories of what it's like to be a
teenager, in school, at home, or at parties?
Mary Karr, writer of memoirs and poetry, has defined a dysfunctional
family as "any family with more than one person in it." Is that
definition apt for King's book? How do parents and children fail one
another in The English Teacher? What do they have to risk to grow
closer? What are the added challenges of the stepfamily? Is this ultimately
the way it is with families: intricate webs, interwoven, fragile, tenacious,
voracious, and beautiful?
How does style reveal substance in chapter twelve (pp. 21315)? Does
Vida's internal dialogue, recollecting Joyce, put us inside her breakdown?
And what about her aimlessness, paranoia, and nighttime panic attacks? How
does she begin to work her way out?
What does California represent in the book, as opposed to Texas or New
England? How is it important to Gena? Stuart? Peter? Vida? Fran? Tom? When
do you begin to suspect that freedom is a central theme? (Is it logical that
Vida's fear of killing her son is tied up with her own need to be free? Of
How well do we know Stuart and Fran? Is it mostly through Peter's
eyes? Do the brother and sister change in the book? Remember the scene where
Peter revolves the picture cube in the living room, trying to find out who
Stuart is. From early days Peter longed for siblings, to be part of a
family. He hoped his mother's marriage "meant, ultimately, a real
union, a true synthesis, without any loose ends" (p. 27). Is this goal
achieved in the end? For everyone?
"It was all about courage. To live even a day on this earth
required courage. All those things they read in schoolThe Odyssey,
Beowulf, Huckleberry Finnwere all about courage but the
teacher never said, You may not have to kill a Cyclops or a dragon but you
will need just as much courage to get through the day" (p. 236). What
are times when courage is particularly required of people in this book? Is
it a quality that can be learned? Do characters help each other find it?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Tess of the d'Ubervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd by
Thomas Hardy; To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia
Woolf; The Evening of the Holiday and The Transit of Venus by
Shirley Hazzard; all books by Alice Munro; Pride and Prejudice and Sense
and Sensibility by Jane Austen; Light in August and Absalom,
Absalom! by William Faulkner; The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel
Hawthorne; A Room with a View and Howards End by E. M. Forster; The
Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald; Independent People by Halldor
Laxness; The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead; The Centaur
by John Updike; Beloved by Toni Morrison; Dusk and Other Stories
by James Salter; Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee; Atonement by Ian
McEwan; Bel Canto by Ann Patchett; At Weddings and Wakes and Child
of My Heart by Alice McDermott; Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; Amy
and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout; The Solace of Leaving Early by
Haven Kimmel; The Pleasing Hour by Lily King.
Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Grove Press.
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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