Reading guide for The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Falls

By Joyce Carol Oates

The Falls
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: Sep 2004,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2005,
    512 pages.

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Introduction

Is a relationship borne of a tragedy destined to the same fate? How much power does a place have over its inhabitants? Can a family, once unraveled, become whole again? These are the questions at the heart of The Falls, as Joyce Carol Oates unfolds the story of a family who must free themselves of the past in order to find solace and redemption.

It is June 1950, and Ariah Erskine is on the brink of a new life. Niagara Falls is to be the site of an idyllic honeymoon, yet she finds herself married and widowed in the space of a day when her husband throws himself into the raging waters of The Falls. In a state of confusion, convinced her disastrous wedding night has played a part in her husband's decision to kill himself, "The Widow Bride of The Falls," as Ariah comes to be known, keeps a relentless, seven-day vigil in the mist waiting for the recovery of his body.

At Ariah's side throughout her ordeal is confirmed bachelor and pillar of the community Dirk Burnaby, a man whose own family understands first hand the treacherousness of The Falls. Dirk finds himself unexpectedly drawn to this plain, strange woman he has been asked to look after, and he falls in love with her though they barely exchange a word. When Ariah leaves Niagara Falls, it is Dirk who pursues her across the state to reveal his passion for her.

Marrying Dirk once again brings Ariah to Niagara Falls to begin a new marriage and a new life. As the years pass, Ariah and Dirk create a seemingly perfect existence for their family. But the tragedy that began their life together shadows them, eventually eroding their happiness with distrust, greed, and even murder.

In the end, it is Dirk and Ariah's three children who are forced to deal with their parents' legacy of dark secrets, unresolved emotions, and cruel truths. Chandler, Royall, and Juliet Burnaby each seek their answers in a different way. What they discover not only helps them come to terms with their loss, but their mother as well.

Against the mythic-historic backdrop of Niagara Falls in the mid-twentieth century, Joyce Carol Oates explores what happens when the richly interwoven relationships of parents and their children are challenged by circumstances from outside the family -- and also from within. Displaying the "impossibly lush and dead-on imaginative powers" (Los Angeles Times) and "mastery of storytelling" (Newsweek) for which Oates has been praised, The Falls illustrates how a place can be as alive as the people who inhabit it.



Discussion Questions
  1. Compare Ariah's respective relationships with Gilbert and Dirk, and her reasons for marrying each man.
  2. Ariah is deeply impacted by her brief marriage to Gilbert -- their lack of love for one another, their disastrous wedding night, his suicide. How do the physical and psychological circumstances of her first marriage echo throughout her marriage to Dirk?
  3. What attracts Dirk to Ariah when he meets her during her seven-day vigil at The Falls? If they had met under different circumstances would Dirk have fallen in love with her?
  4. In the days before Gilbert's body is recovered, Ariah "refused to behave as others wished her to behave." In what others ways throughout the story does she defy society's conventions and her family's expectations?
  5. Chart the unraveling of Dirk and Ariah's relationship. Is there a specific moment when they begin to grow apart, or is it a gradual process? Is one more at fault than the other?
  6. After months of avoiding Nina Olshaker, what motivates Dirk to take her case? Why does he continue the case even when it begins to jeopardize his marriage, his professional standing, his livelihood, and his friendships?
  7. What is your opinion of Ariah as a mother, both before and after Dirk's death? Describe her relationship with each child and how it relates to the family as a whole. In what ways is each of Ariah's children similar to -- and different from -- her?
  8. Why do you suppose Ariah chose to remain in Niagara Falls after Dirk's death, a place that had claimed the lives of her two husbands?
  9. Chandler, Royall, and Juliet each feel compelled to find out the circumstances surrounding their father's death. What drives each one to go on such a quest, and what is gained by it?
  10. Discuss the many references to suicide -- including Gilbert's death, Juliet's attempt, and the story of the dairy maid -- and their significance in the story.
  11. Why does the family decide to hold a memorial service for Dirk nearly two decades after this death? Why does Ariah at first refuse to attend and then change her mind?
  12. What is Joyce Carol Oates saying about the nature of families in The Falls? Are the Burnabys a typical family?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  
Sign up, win books!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket
    The Search
    by Geoff Dyer
    All hail the independent publisher! In May 2014, Graywolf Press brought two of long-revered British ...
  • Book Jacket
    Mrs. Hemingway
    by Naomi Wood
    Naomi Wood's latest novel, Mrs. Hemingway, is a fictionalized biography covering in turn writer...
  • Book Jacket
    The Stranger on the Train
    by Abbie Taylor
    The opening chapter of Abbie Taylor's debut novel, The Stranger on the Train, took me right back to ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The City
by Dean Koontz

Published Jul. 2014

Join the discussion!

  1.  90Tomlinson Hill:
    Chris Tomlinson

All Discussions

Win this book!
Win The Angel of Losses

The Angel of Losses

"Family saga, mystery, and myth intersect in Feldman's debut novel." - Booklist

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

E C H A Silver L

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.