Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
This quotation by William Dean Howells, an anti-Imperialist
writer during the early 20th century and friend of Mark Twain, precedes All
Is Vanity: "People are greedy and foolish, and wish to have and to
shine, because having and shining are held up to them by civilization as the
chief good of life." Do you think Howells observation about human
psychology is correct? Furthermore, what do you make of the distinction
between "people" and "civilization"? Are the structures
and contrivance of civilization made by people? Why do you think Schwarz
chose to begin with this quote and how did it influence your reading of the
Is Margaret a sympathetic character? How is she interesting;
how is she flawed? We only hear Lettys direct voice a few times
throughout the novel how well did you get to know her? To whom do you
relate more, Margaret or Letty?
Is a child, Margaret thinks "Margaret was admired, but
Peggy, I believed, would be well-liked. The way Letty was." (8) At the
end of the novel, Margaret signs her letter to Judge Brandt "Peggy
Snyder." What do you think motivated her to do so? A desire to be
well-liked or a desire to be more like Letty?
Margaret and Letty are both extremely imaginative women, but
their imaginations dont always go beyond the limits of particular roles
and/or situations. Margaret comments "I had trouble imagining jobs
other than those depicted in television dramas " (12) Do you relate
to this tendency of Margaret and Letty to base imagination on false
appearances instead of reality? Why do you think Margaret and Letty share
this character trait?
Have you ever had a friendship like the one between Margaret
and Letty? What do you think about their friendship? What do you think of
the boundaries of intimacy between female friends? Do such boundaries exist?
Early on, Letty says "I cant blame Margaret
entirely. Though she directed, I acted. The question is: who wrote the
script?" (18) Who do you think wrote the script for Lettys demise?
Do you think there is a clear-cut answer?
Schwarz deals with notions of class and class mobility
throughout the novel. How would you describe the class structure that she
portrays? What does it mean for one to be "classy"? Are social
classes real, fixed entities or are they perspectives that one adopts?
Mothering is another theme in All Is Vanity. Letty is
a mother of four children, and early on, Margaret, buying baby name books,
describes herself as a mother because of her novel-writing efforts. What do
you think are the similarities between mothers and authors? Do you believe
both positions bear the same kind of social devaluation (such as peoples
assumptions that it doesnt take much effort to be a mother or to write a
How would you define "work"? Margaret states
"Though I appreciated Lettys attempt to empathize, I did not, I
admit, relish her equating her work with mine." (56) What is the
relationship between ones work and ones social class? If social class
is structured by the kind of work one does (e.g. factory workers compared to
investment bankers), then in what class do mothers and authors fit?
The novel is structured so that we directly participate in
Margarets story, while we only see Lettys life through her emails to
Margaret. Do you think the Letty and Margaret have distinctive narrative
voices? If so, whose did you like the most? Why do you think Schwarz
structured the novel this way? How might this structure dilute or dramatize
Describing the hilarious problems that arise while making
petit fours, Letty writes " these old-fashioned cakes project
precisely the right image. They demonstrate that my children come first in
that Im devoting my time and creativity to delighting my daughters
class with ephemeral finger food, but at the same time they prove that Im
too sophisticated to be limited to a smiley-faced cupcake kiddie
world." (35) Why do you think Letty puts so much emphasis on material
goods? Do you think this is one of Lettys idiosyncrasies or is it a
common trait in a consumer culture? Do you identify with Lettys
What does it mean to be a "consumer"? While both
characters are consumers, Letty desires material goods while Margaret
desires intellectual status. Is there a difference between material
consumerism and intellectual consumerism? Can people own ideas in the same
way that they own a car?
What is the difference between fact and fiction? If we think
of Lettys life as fact and The Rise and Fall of Lexie Longtree Smith
as fiction, wherein lies the difference? Consider the difficulty Margaret
had in creating a character from scratch, as opposed to the ease with which
she writes the novel modeled on Lettys life.
Throughout the book, Margaret elaborates on how Letty
excelled at almost all tasks: mathematics, languages, cooking and even
writing (Margaret confesses that, as a teenager, her letters were modeled
after Lettys). Is Letty the woman that Margaret always thought herself to
be? Was Letty really the Robin to Margarets Batman? How much of
Margarets conception of her childhood self do you think is steeped in
The trials and tribulations of Margarets novel-writing
are some of the funniest parts of All Is Vanity. Do you think that
Margarets neurosis is emblematic of all writers? Must a writer be
somewhat obsessive and neurotic to succeed?
Who do you think is the real story-teller in All Is
Vanity: Margaret or Letty? Does Margaret simply appropriate Lettys
story and claim it for herself, or does she have her own story to share?
In what ways are Margaret and Letty similar? In what ways
are they different? Are the two women simply inversions of one another
when one fails, one succeeds; while one grows poorer, one gets richer?
Regarding motherhood, Letty writes to Margaret: "This
is why you can do nothing other than pay attention to your children when youre
a mother, because if youre dying to get back to something else your
own endless story, for instance you just feel impatient, whereas
otherwise you would be utterly charmed by this little creature who really
hasnt been talking for all that long wanting to tell you and tell you and
tell you things hes made up out of his clever little brain" (174).
In becoming mothers, do you think women give up all claims to autonomy and
creativity? How does this sacrifice compare with the metaphorical
"mothering" of an author?
Ultimately, what do you take to be the flaw which motivates
Margaret to make such poor choices? What is Lettys flaw? Was there
evidence of these flaws early in their character development?
Letty describes her husband as an academic who thinks that
art is intrinsically valuable that its aesthetic transcends people and
the material world. Yet, in the world of High Art, materialism and
consumerism seem to walk hand in hand: from gourmet lunches and dinners, to
homes, to elaborate charity functions given for greater art appreciation and
education. What do you think is the relationship between art and
consumerism? Does art transcend consumerism, or do artists engage in
self-deception akin to Margarets?
Is there a truth to be found in consumerism? Does having
better things make you a better person? Is consumerism the sole mechanism
for class mobility, or is there something more to socioeconomic class than
ones purchasing power?
In the very beginning of Margarets betrayal of Letty, she
compares Lettys alter-ego, Lexie, to Jay Gatsby (From F. Scott Fitzgeralds
The Great Gatsby) and muses: "Comparing Lexie to Gatsby was
somewhat misleading. No matter what Gatsby did, he couldnt change the
fact that underneath he was still James Gatz, a nobody from the Midwest, and
therefore unacceptable to posh Ivy Leaguers and their crowd. He got to blame
fate and society for his unhappiness. But now, in a world in which any girl
from Glendale could go to Yale if her SATs were impressive enough, who did
Lexie, or Letty and I, have to blame when we discovered we were not who we
wanted to be? Only ourselves." (229-30). Do you think Margarets
right? That, unlike the 1920s, people now have only themselves to blame for
their social inequities?
What do you think is Schwarzs ultimate message in All
Is Vanity? Is there are moral to the story?
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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