Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- In the opening chapter of the novel, Pearl prays, "Dear God
Jesus . . . teach me to be free." To what extent is her prayer
answered? How does she come to understand the difference
between freedom and independence?
- Is Arly, the Southern
Rebel, simply a wily individual who takes advantage of any
opportunity that presents itself, or is there more to him than
that? What do you think motivated his final actions? Discuss
both of the misfit soldiers: What redeeming qualities did Arly
and Will have? Did each of them deserve the ending he had?
- General Sherman's description of death as "first and
foremost, a numerical disadvantage" is very unemotional. Do
you believe he was truly that unfeeling? What other places in
the story does this "coldness" show itself? Where is his
- Discuss Sherman's leadership style. Would you
characterize it as paternal, moral, charismatic? Why do you
think Sherman was successful (or not successful)? Are there
other characteristics you would assign to General Sherman?
List a few and discuss.
- Sherman's destruction of everything in his path left
nothing with which to rebuild, or to help the freed slaves to
begin their new lives. What was the purpose of the pillage and
destruction along Sherman's march? Were these acts of
opportunity, desperation, or both? Give an example of similar
behavior from current events, and discuss the complexity of
human reaction when confronted with such serious conflict.
- Before Sherman's soldiers marched upon Milledgeville,
Emily Thompson could not fathom the possibility of the war
destroying her comfortable lifestyle. What changes her mind?
What compels Emily to link up with the enemy and seek
protection with the Union army?
- Describe Emily's attraction to Wrede Sartorius, and what
tests her faith in him. How does Emily transform during the
course of the novel?
- Wrede Sartorius cares for his patients in a
dispassionate manner. Does he excel as a battlefield surgeon
because of, or in spite of, this outlook? How does this
behavior affect his relationship with Emily?
- Discuss Wrede Sartorius's medical ethics. Do you think
they would have been different in peacetime? Give positive and
negative examples of his bedside manner. What do you think his
true feelings were for Emily?
- At the end of the novel, Pearl and David are no longer
slaves, but are they free? Has Calvin, who has never lived as
a slave, ever lived freely? Are any characters free during the
war? Colonel Sartorius, Stephen, Sherman, even Lincoln, live
under constraints caused by their situations, commitments, and
responsibilities. What is freedom? What makes us free? In
2005, has "the world [caught] up" yet?
- Lt. Clark of the Union army is in charge of a foraging
party. Clark has "always believed in reason, that it was the
controlling force in his life." How do events in the novel
refute this belieffor him and for many others?
- What does "It's always now" mean in the novel? Why do
some characters find that to be an obvious truth, while others
find it terrifying? Why might that idea be especially
meaningful to a soldier who is living from battle to battle?
- Historians have debated whether Sherman's march to the
sea was simply a particularly brutal act of war or whether it
was a war crime. Do you think Sherman's march was justified?
Why or why not? Did E. L. Doctorow's novel help you to
understand Sherman's belief that this was not only a war
between armies but also a war between societies? How did the
unspoken orders of the rank and file shape the outcome of the
- What insights does Doctorow give as to the reasons why
the average Rebel soldier was fighting? The average Yankee?
- Sartorius first views Lincoln as weak or diseased, but
when he meets the President near the end of the war, his
disdain turns to awe. Discuss the reasons you believe he had
this change of heart.
- The romance between Stephen Walsh and Pearl Jameson
stands in stark contrast to the war and destruction
surrounding them. Describe their relationship. Were you
surprised that their connection lasted throughout the war?
What do you think happened to them?
- Hugh Pryce, the English journalist, was stunned to
overhear ordinary soldiers discussing moral issues of the war.
He believed their concern with substantive moral issues showed
"quintessential American genius" and could never imagine Her
Majesty's rank and file having such a discussion. Do you agree
that this type of questioning and rationalization is uniquely
American? Why or why not?
- From the shrewd analytical mind of General Sherman, the
stoicism of Wrede Sartorius, the compassion of Emily Thompson,
the feistiness of Pearl and the comic relief of Arly, Doctorow
show us the minds of his characters as they struggle to
survive the cruelty of war. Which of these or other characters
in the book do you think you would be most like in a time of
crisis and why?
- Describe your feelings as you read Sherman's Special
Field Order to himself at the end of the warto pitch a tent
in the forest and spend one last night beneath the stars. Have
you ever known someone in the military who found it difficult
to transition back into civilian life?
- There were many survivors in The March. Some
survived with integrity and honor. What characteristics did
these characters hold that helped them maintain their civility
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.