Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Contemplating his divorce, Benedick describes his state of mind: "What
frightened me most was, I could no longer believe in my own life as a story.
Everyone needs a story, a part to play in order to avoid the realization that
life is without significance. How else do any of us survive? It's what makes
life bearable, even interesting. When it becomes neither, people say you've lost
the plot. Or just lost it" [p. 19]. At the end of the novel, when Benedick finds
acting work, he concludes: "It was this, I think, as much as the lithium, that
made me better. It meant that I hadn't been written out of the story of my life.
People say that life has no story, that to believe it does is a symptom of
madness, and I had thought this, too. But I knew I couldn't go on living without
some version of the truth. Every version has its blessing and it curse" [p.
301]. Is Benedick's statement that "everyone needs a story" just the artist
speaking, or is he expressing a universal truth? What is the story of Benedick's
life? What is his version of the truth and how does it evolve?
How does each fairy tale that Benedick reads reveal more and more about
Laura's life and state of mind? What is the significance of the order of the
tales in North of Nowhere as read by Benedick throughout the novel? Why
might Craig have chosen to name her novel for Laura's first book, In a Dark
Wood, when it is actually Laura's fairy tales in North of Nowhere
that structure the plot of the novel?
Ruth tells Benedick: "If you read fairy tales carefully, you'll notice
they are mostly about people who aren't heroes. They don't have special powers,
or gifts. Often they are despised as stupid. They are bullied, beaten up,
robbed, starved. But they find they are stronger than their misfortunes" [p.
25]. Is Ruth correct? If so, can "The Wild Wood" [pp. 200207] be accurately
characterized as a "fairy tale" or is it something else? How might the genre of
fairy tales be defined or explained? How do fairy tales compare to other
literary genres? Is it correct to assume that fairy tales are children's
literature, and, if so, why?
How does Benedick's illness manifest itself physicallyespecially after he
arrives in America? If his divorce can be understood as the trigger for his
depression, what might have triggered his high?
What accounts for the fluctuations in Benedick's personality, such as when
he gives his son and daughter each a smack [p. 57] and when he buys them
fourteen pairs of shoes [pp. 253-254]? Are they significant in any way or are
they a normal reaction to the circumstances in his life?
Benedick says of his divorce: "And this is the most hideous thing about
somebody falling out of love with you. When someone loves you, you show your
best self to them, to the world. When you lost that love, you lose your best
self, and are shown instead how loathsome and contemptible you truly are. To be
seen without love by someone who once loved you is to be made lower than anyone
can endure" [p. 59]. And later, Benedick lucidly realizes: "I thought of the
people I had questioned when trying to find out about my mother. I had been so
ready to dislike and condemn them, but it was really myself I had been disliking
and condemning. You're either unbearable to other people or you're unbearable to
yourself, the psychiatrist had said. What if I were both?" [p. 295] Are
Benedick's two statements reconcilable? Is Benedick's earlier statement
symptomatic of a man recently divorced or of a manic depressive or both? Can
Benedick's feelings and behavior towards other people be attributed to his
mental illness or his personality? Are the two so intertwined that it is
impossible to separate them?
Benedick offers Flora an explanation of "mad": "It's when you see or feel
things differently from other people" [p. 128]. Does In a Dark Wood
confirm or refute this definition? How else might one define madness?
The following exchange between Benedick, Ruth, and Cosmo is one example of
how the English personality and temperament is compared and contrasted with the
American personality and temperament:
"Is that true, that you can become anything? Cosmo asked.
"Yes," said Ruth firmly. "That's what American's believe."
"Do English people believe that?"
I [Benedick] cleared my throat. "No, not really."
"What do we believe in?"
"In irony," I said. (p. 129)
In what other ways are English and American psyches and temperaments
compared and contrasted in the novel?
Benedick says: "I grew up in a generation which had no idea that women
were going to be our equals. You were just supposed to keep going no matter
what. But now there's no place for us. We're a biological dead end. It's stupid
to even keep on living" [p. 24]. Does this accurately describe the current state
of affairs with regard to equality between the sexes? What was the gender
balance between Benedick and Georgie, and how did it affect their relationship? From what Benedick is able to piece together, how did gender equality or lack
thereof affect Laura's life and career?
Benedick comments: " It was strange, I thought, the way all the women I
had interviewed about my mother spent at least as much time describing their own
lives as hers" [p. 182]. What do this and other comments in the novel reveal
about the differences between males and females? Is the illness manifested
differently in Benedick than Laura because of their different genders?
How could Benedick's relationship with his children be characterized? Is
he a typical father? Are his frustrations and celebrations normal? Are they
indicative of his illness, and, if so, how?
How accurately does Craig, a female author, give her male protagonist an
authentic male voice? How does her choice to narrate the novel in the first
person affect the reader's understanding of Benedick? Of his mental illness?
What does acting mean to Benedick? How is it different than another
occupation? How might it take on a different meaning for him in light of his
What is the implication of Jane Holly's statement to Benedick that
"artists are nearly always called [mad]. Some are genuinely so. What they do
isn't the product of being nice, or even particularly sane. They're running over
the Bridge of One Hair, like Lolly" [p. 185]? How does the artistic temperament
differ from that of non-artists?
How is the creative process of acting compared to that of writing in the
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor 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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