Reading guide for The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears

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The Dream of Scipio

by Iain Pears

The Dream of Scipio
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 608 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2003, 416 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Questions for Discussion
  1. In The Dream of Scipio, the stories of Manilus Hippomanes, Olivier de Noyen, and Julien Barneuve are linked through time by a philosophical text which suggests that "man is responsible for his own salvation, but through knowledge, not through deeds or faith." (p. 154). In other words, "that action is virtuous only if it reflects pure comprehension, and that virtue comes from the comprehension, not the action." (p. 381). In what ways is this tenet illustrated by the lives of the three main characters? In what ways is it challenged?
  2. "Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless." Discuss the trajectories of Manilus, Olivier and Julien in the context of this phrase. To what degree does each character possess each quality at the beginning of their stories? What about at the end?
  3. The historical events depicted in the novel include the fall of Roman civilization in Gaul; the coming of the plague to Europe; and the fall of France to the Nazis. Do you think that Manilus, Olivier, and Julien are motivated by identical forces at different periods in history? Or are they fundamentally different characters? Discuss.
  4. Sophia advises Manilus to pretend to worship the Christian gods in order to attain power; Olivier reads a letter meant for Ceccani, his employer and protector; Julian betrays Bernard to save Julia without a second thought. Can you think of other morally ambiguous moments in this novel? How do these examples relate to the larger theme of individual responsibility in society? Discuss.
  5. Compare the father-son relationships of Manilus, Julian and Olivier. How is each man shaped by his family history? In what ways does each transcend and fulfill the expectations of his father?
  6. "Do you think that the peace of a thousand cancels out the unjust death of a single person?" Sophia challenges Manilus (p. 389). Why does she see his actions as a corruption of her teachings? What would Sophia say about Olivier's betrayal of Ceccani? What about Julian's participation in the Vichy government?
  7. Compare Sophia, Rebecca, and Julia. In what ways do the women act as counterpoints to the male characters in the novel? To what conventions are they bound? To what extent do they fall prey to the norms and restrictions of the times in which they lived? In what ways do they circumvent these proscribed roles?
  8. In all three time periods depicted in the novel, the fate of the Jews of Provence played a central role in the outcome of events. Why do you think the Jews of Manilus' Vaison, Gersonides and Rebecca, and Julia and Claude Bronsen take on such magnitude in this story? Why are the fates of the different characters so different? What, if anything, can you infer from the final assessment of Gersonides to the contents of the manuscript Olivier brought him? (p.381-382).
  9. Discuss the ways in which the concept of faith relates to the overall themes of the novel. For instance, Gersonides poses the question to Olivier: "...What sort of man can persecute others in the name of a faith he clearly does not profess?" (p.210). How would you answer this question? Is the idea of faith equally relevant to all three storylines? Why or why not? Is Manilus justified in his use of faith to consolidate his power?
  10. Julien Barneuve thinks of himself as "a crusader for the true values of civilization, burning with the love of life and learning in an age that valued neither." (p. 24). Manilus Hippomanes felt a similar fire, as did Olivier de Noyen, who "had as his private goal the purification of letters, the casting out of the corruption of his times." (p. 17). Based on the outcome of their three stories, what would you conclude about the aforementioned "true values of civilization"? Are there such things? Who is the arbiter of these values? By what means are they to be preserved? Discuss.

Penguin Books, Marketing Department CC, Readers' Guides, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014-3657
Reproduced with the permission of the publisher. They may not be reproduced, duplicated or distributed without written permission from Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copying these materials for anything other than your personal use is a violation of United States copyright laws.

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