Reading guide for The Observations by Jane Harris

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The Observations

By Jane Harris

The Observations
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2006,
    416 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2007,
    416 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

About the Book

When she runs away from Glasgow in the early 1860s, departing so precipitously that she leaves her overcoat behind, teenage Bessy Buckley knows all too well the sordid, ugly life she is leaving behind. However, not even her own powerful imagination can prepare her for the strange new life that awaits her. Through Bessy's narrative, which she relates with both gritty humor and heartrending pathos, the reader enters the world and mind of a Victorian working-class girl and shares in her none-too-gentle passage toward self-knowledge and independence.

Chance and necessity combine to lead Bessy to accept work as a maidservant at the country estate of James Reid, a self-absorbed petty aristocrat bent on capturing a seat in Parliament. Mr. Reid's obsession, though, pales in comparison with the peculiarities of "the missus."

From the outset of their relationship, Arabella Reid perplexes her new employee with a battery of bizarre commands. Perhaps the strangest but most urgent of these is that Bessy must keep a journal, detailing her most trivial actions and innermost thoughts. As Arabella's behavior grows increasingly erratic, Bessy soon discovers that her entire life is the consuming subject of her mistress's experimental scrutiny. When she further discovers that Arabella is at work on a secret manuscript, a book of "observations" on the behavior of domestic servants, Bessy is horrified that her sordid past is not as carefully concealed as she has supposed. Bessy impulsively responds by seeking vengeance, and her stratagem for getting even unleashes an extraordinary chain of events marked by guilt, passion, betrayal, and madness. Standing just at the margins of Bessy's and Arabella's relationship are two other compelling figures, one apparently angelic and the other appallingly satanic. Arabella is haunted by the memory of Nora Hughes, a nearly perfect maidservant who preceded Bessy in Arabella's employment and whose tragic death raises unanswerable questions. Bessy is likewise tormented by the memory of her mother, Bridget, whose mistreatment of her only child beggars description.

As remarkable for its astute sketches of its minor characters as it is for the rich, authentic voice of its narrator, The Observations is the outstanding debut novel of the noted short story writer Jane Harris. Both through the clinical perspective of Arabella and the cynical but indefatigably hopeful eyes of Bessy, the reader, too, is invited to observe the foibles of ambition and the destructive power of untrammeled lust. More significantly, however, the novel is a book about the act of writing itself. Arabella, who carefully conceals the existence of her manuscript from her husband, uses her work to pursue a life of the mind that would otherwise be denied her. Bessy, for her part, gradually learns through the keeping of her journal that she has thoughts worth preserving and a life worth fighting for. As she learns about writing, Bessy also learns about loyalty and the courage to survive in a shattered world.



Discussion Questions

  1. Bessy is a poor girl who finds it best to deny that she has a family. Her mistress, on the other hand, is married to a landowner preparing to make his entry into national politics. How does their enormous difference in social status shape their relationship? Do they ever truly overcome this gap, and if so, at what cost?
  2. What is Arabella Reid's view of the working classes before Bessy's arrival? Does her acquaintance with Bessy change Arabella's view of her supposed inferiors, and if so, how?
  3. Arabella is virtually obsessed with chronicling and analyzing the thoughts and actions of her maidservants. How would you characterize the motives behind her research? Is her interest propelled by kindness, aggression, voyeurism, or some other emotional or intellectual force?
  4. The Observations is a novel of competing narratives. One of the struggles between Bessy and Arabella takes place over who will have the right to explain who Bessy is and, thereby, determine her identity. How does Arabella perceive Bessy in her secret manuscript, and how does the novel as a whole challenge and correct Arabella's "observations" on this point?
  5. After his wife's ordeal, James Reid finally praises Bessy for her loyalty to Arabella during her illness. Is he correct, or do Bessy's actions following Mrs. Reid's collapse sometimes tend to thwart and endanger her recovery? Does Bessy, perhaps on an unconscious level, still desire to harm Mrs. Reid even after the latter's breakdown?
  6. Although they never meet, Bessy and Nora are implicitly compared throughout the novel, with Nora being represented as the good girl and Bessy figuring as the bad one. Despite these implied designations, however, it is Nora who is destroyed by sexual mistreatment, whereas Bessy survives and achieves a degree of triumph over her past. What accounts for this difference in outcome?
  7. At the end of the novel, Arabella announces that her new magnum opus will treat the subject of insanity. However, she comments to Bessy that this work is "barely begun." Few if any of the characters in The Observations are free from some kind of obsession or emotional disturbance. Choose a character other than Arabella and offer an analysis of her or his mental health.
  8. Early in the novel, Bessy is resistant to Arabella's command that she write about everything that befalls her. At the end of the novel, however, we learn that she has written the entire story we have just read at the behest of Dr. Lawrence, who, like Arabella before him, takes a clinical interest in her "observations." Why and how do you think Bessy has so completely overcome her reluctance to express herself?
  9. In her relationship with her mistress Arabella, Bessy is almost simultaneously rebellious and anxious to please. What accounts for her powerfully conflicting emotions?
  10. The Observations deals with the lives of women whose fortunes have almost always been worsened by the selfish desires of men. How do women in the novel deal with the demands of masculine self-interest? In what instances are their responses successful, and why?
  11. Throughout The Observations, Bessy makes judgments about her own character and actions. In this novel, in which analysis and surveillance take place everywhere, how accurate is Bessy when it comes to observing herself?
  12. When asked to sum up Bessy in a single word, her fellow servant Muriel says, "Irish." What perceptions and values are associated with Irishness in the novel? Do these perceptions remain constant, or do they vary depending on person and circumstance?
  13. James Reid pins his hopes for Parliament on the state-of-the-art fountain he buys for the town of Snatter. The railroad, an innovation still within the time of living memory for people in this novel, violently claims the lives of two characters. What comment do you think Harris is making about the collision of traditional lifestyles with rising technology?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin. 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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