Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
Aguilar, a literature professor reduced to selling dog food after losing his
job at the university, returns from a short trip to find his wife, Agustina,
transformed into someone terrified and terrifying, a being I barely recognized
[p. 1]. The daughter of a well-to-do family who delights in breaking the rules
and flaunting her eccentricities, Agustina Londoño was found cowering in a hotel
room; the manager reported that an unidentified man left her there the previous
evening. Searching for an explanation for Agustina's breakdown, Aguilar pieces
together his own recollections, speculations based on Agustina's vague stories
about her past and bits of family history revealed by Agustina's aunt, Sofi, who
has arrived to help care for her.
As the novel unfolds, other stories intersect with Aguilar's narrative. We hear
from Agustina herself, in tangled tales that conflate past and present, memory
and fantasy. Midas McAlister, Agustina's former lover and a money launderer for
Escobar, paints a wry and telling portrait of Colombia's corrupt societyand of
the corruption in the heart of the Londoño family. Glimpses into the life of
Agustina's grandfather, Nicholas Portulinus, a talented and eccentric musician
and composer, hint at a family history of madness.
- The multiple narratives in Delirium are presented without
transition. Discuss the elementsfor example, the use of recurring images
both actual and metaphoricalthat connect one section to the next.
- How would you describe the tone and style of the various threads of the
novel? What does Aguilar's account demonstrate about the way he thinks and
looks at the world? Are Agustina's monologues simply the ramblings of an
unbalanced woman or do they reveal something about her character,
intelligence, and perceptiveness? What stylistic oddities bring out her
state of mind and self-awareness? What effect does Midas's slangy language
and casual, conversational style have on his credibility as a narrator? How
would you compare Aguilar and Midas in terms of their reliability and the
sympathy they evoke in readers? What literary qualities distinguish the
vignettes about Nicholas and Blanca from the other narratives? Are they as
powerful and engaging as the other stories?
- In what ways do Aguilar's and Sofi's reactions to Agustina's behavior
differ? What principles (or beliefs) shape their responses? What roles do
their personal histories with Agustina play in the way they interpret her
rages and compulsive rituals?
- Aguilar says, I never bothered to ask [Agustina] about her past, her
family, or her memories. . . . I mourn the questions I didn't ask [p. 21].
Do you think that Agustina would have been open with him about the negative
sides of her upbringing or would her own confusion and guilt have made that
impossible? What insights does Aguilar's list of the faults her family finds
with him provide into why he and Agustina were attracted to one another? To
what extent did each of them act out of willfulness and self-interest?
- How does Agustina see her father? Does her portrait of him change as the
novel progresses? In what ways is their relationship shaped by the dynamics
in the household, the family's status, and traditional Latin American
culture? Are there moments or incidents that capture familiar experiences?
Discuss, for example, what their ritual of locking their doors together [pp.
75-6] and their interactions when Agustina begins dating [pp. 192-8]
illustrate about the nature and complexities of many father-daughter
- What do Agustina's efforts to protect Bichi show about her inner
conflicts? What is the significance of the juxtaposition of religious and
sexual elements in the secret ceremonies they conduct [p. 33]?
- Eugenia is presented from various perspectives, from Aguilar's view of
her as a cold, uncaring mother [pp. 22-4] to Agustina's memory of watching
her prepare for an evening out [pp. 97-100], to Sofi's description of her
sister's isolation within the family [p. 108]. How do the personalities,
needs, and prejudices of each influence their impressions of her? In a
society built on the unquestioned authority of men, could Eugenia have
played a larger, more effective role in the family? Could she have prevented
his brutal treatment of Bichi or at least mitigated the effects of his
blatant preference for the macho Joaco? What does her reaction to Agustina's
first period [pp. 151-2], and especially to the confrontation that
ultimately tears the family apart [p. 300], reveal about her own sexuality
and the repression of upper-class women in Colombia? Does the exposure of
lies and deceptions the family harbors change your opinion of Eugenia?
- Class and money are central to the plot of Delirium, as well as
the interactions among the characters. How does Midas capture this, both in
his dealings with Escobar, Spider, and the other thugs, and in his behavior
with and observations about the Londoño family? Why is he better able to see
the importance of both class and money than the other characters? Do you
think he expresses the author's point of view on the underlying economic and
social causes of Colombia's corruption and the violence that has become
- In his description of life with Agustina, Aguilar says, Madness is a
compendium of unpleasant things: for example it's pedantic, it's hateful,
and it's torturous [p. 105], and Midas, addressing the absent Agustina,
complains, You start to use fancy words and predict things like a prophet,
but a whiny, annoying prophet . . . [p. 254]. How do you think Agustina
would respond to these characterizations? What aspects of their descriptions
come out either explicitly or implicitly in her own accounts? Do her
memories and fantasies offer a more profound and perhaps more realistic
portrait of madness and the consequences, real or imagined, of being a
- Why does the story of Nicholas and Blanca add to the novel? What
insights does it provide to the nature and causes of madness? Are there
parallels between the emotional confusion (about love, sex, and belonging,
for example) Nicholas and Agustina experience? Are there similarities
between Blanca and Aguilar and the roles they play in their spouses' lives?
- Aguilar describes Colombia as a country . . . split from top to bottom
by a mountain range, the highways . . . twist and twine around abysses . . .
and they're seized every day by the army, the paramilitaries, or the
guerillas, who kidnap you, kill you, or assault you with grenades . . . [p.
29]. How do the images this passage invokes relate to Agustina's breakdown?
In what ways does Colombia's decline into chaos and fear parallel the
delirium Agustina suffers from?
- Although Escobar was killed in 1993, the drug trade continues to thrive
in Colombia. What does Delirium demonstrate about the power of
drug-traffickers and the failures of America's war on drugs?
- The epigraph of the novel quotes Gore Vidal: Wise Henry James had
always warned writers against the use of a mad person as central to a
narrative on the ground that as he was not morally responsible, there was no
true tale to tell. Does Delirium belie James's wisdom? Can you think
of other novels in which a mentally ill or disturbed person plays a central
role and exposes the deceptions and the immorality within a family or a
society? Are the situations in which these lies are necessary to the
survival of an individual or even an entire nation?
Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits;
Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies;
Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives;
Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases;
Rosario Ferré, The House on the Lagoon;
Jorge Franco, Rosario Tijeras;
Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold;
Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest;
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon;
José Saramago, Seeing;
Don Winslow, The Power of the Dog.
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