Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are
intended to enhance your group's reading of Sue Miller's While I Was Gone.
We hope they will aid your understanding of the many themes and issues that
underlie Miller's powerfully moving story of a middle-aged woman who, drawn by
the currents of passion, grief, and nostalgia, puts at risk everything she has
always held dear.
1. Joey describes the strange feeling she has in the boat with Daniel before Eli
Mayhew comes back into her life as a premonition. Daniel, however, describes it
as an "admonition" (96). Do you think that Daniel is, in the end,
correct? If so, against what is Joey being admonished?
2. While I Was Gone might be described as the story of a midlife crisis.
Joey is dismayed by "the impossibility of accepting the new versions of
oneself that life kept offering. The impossibility of the old versions
vanishing" (11). Even the new version, she knows, will soon disappear, and
she feels sorrow for "what had been our life in this place and was
already--this is what I felt--passing. Had always been passing" (100). Why
does Daniel seem to reconcile himself to this process so easily? Does Joey
herself reconcile herself to it in the end? If so, what has helped her to accept
3. Why do you think Joey chose to become a veterinarian? Which of her early
experiences might have influenced her in this decision?
4. Does Eli's choice of euthanasia for his dog, Arthur, tell us anything about
Eli? Does the fact that Joey, as a vet, agrees to perform such operations tell
us anything about her? After Arthur dies, Eli says he feels as though they've
committed some crime together, a suggestion that disturbs Joey. Why is she
disturbed? Do you think she might on some level agree with him?
5. Joey ponders whether her attraction to Eli might be due to the fact that
"the middle-aged Eli contained . . . me also. The self that had known him
then. Myself-when-young" (138). Does this seem an adequate explanation for
her feelings? What else might account for them?
6. How many times during the course of her life does Joey "run away"?
Why has she developed this recurring pattern? What, in general, is she fleeing?
Do you think, as she occasionally does, that her marriage and her career are in
themselves a sort of running away? As the book ends, do you believe that she has
7. Everyone in While I Was Gone seems to have a different idea of what
love is or should ideally be. How do these ideas differ? How are they tested
during the course of the novel?
8. Do you believe that Joey made the right decision in turning Eli in to the
police? Does Eli have any justification in claiming that he has morally redeemed
his life through his work? Does the fact that the police decide not to pursue
Joey's accusation strike you as, in the end, the right thing for all the
characters involved, or does it bother you?
9. "There are always compromises, of course," Joey says about her
marriage, "but they are at the heart of what it means to be married. They
are, occasionally, everything" (95). What compromises have Joey and Daniel
each made in order to stay married? What does she mean when she says they are
occasionally "everything"? What reservations does Daniel have about
Joey's work, and what reservations does Joey have about Daniel's?
10. Daniel and Eli take a quick dislike to one another, based primarily on Eli's
almost mocking criticisms, as a man of science, about Daniel's religious faith.
Do you believe that the moral gap that opens between the two men reflects on
their different philosophies? If so, does Miller imply that religious faith is
"good," and that a purely scientific outlook lacks some essential
11. Cass tells Joey, "I'm just not interested in what you and Dad have. In
a safe life....In sweetness and light" (152). Do you think that Joey and
Daniel do live a "safe life"? Does anyone, for that matter? Is it even
possible to make your life or your marriage safe? Does Joey herself feel that
she has taken a safe way out? If so, is she correct?
12. In what ways does Cass resemble her mother? In what ways are they different?
13. Joey's (or Licia's) friends in the group house feel her to be elusive. Years
later, her daughter Sadie says the same thing. Do you, as a reader, find this to
be the case? Is the "real" Joey different from Joey as she consciously
presents herself to the reader?
14. After Joey tells Daniel about Eli's revelations at the Boston Ritz, Daniel
asks "So what does all this have to do with your going to Boston secretly
to meet him?", and Joey "understood that where the story for me was
somehow all of a piece, for him it was two quite separate narratives, with two
separate meanings" (210). Which of them is looking at the evening
correctly? Are the two narratives quite as connected as Joey found them to be,
or as separate as Daniel sees them?
15. Eli says to Joey, "I suppose it could be said that I need a kind of
forgiveness from you" (201), adding that he has already forgiven himself.
Joey replies, "I don't think it suffices to forgive yourself" (202).
Does Joey, in fact, forgive Eli in the end? Does she forgive herself? Joey
realizes that she needs a very personal type of forgiveness from Daniel, while
Daniel himself makes such requests only of his God. Which approach do you think
is the right one?
Reproduced with the permission of Random House Inc.
Copyright Random House Inc.
Page numbers, in most reading guides,
refer to paperback editions.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ballantine 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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