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
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
In her relationship with her mistress Arabella, Bessy is almost
simultaneously rebellious and anxious to please. What accounts for her
powerfully conflicting emotions?
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?
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
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?
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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