Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
is set deep in the Louisiana swamp in 1923, in the isolated
town of Nimbus, a place hard to get to and even harder to get out of
alive. Nimbus is a raw place, filled with snakes, alligators,
hard-fighting mill workers, and bountiful cypress trees. There is no
church, no school, no civilizing influence of any kind. The saloon, run
by the cousin of a Sicilian mobster from Chicago, is the only public
institution, and it regularly erupts in drunken, murderous fights. Only
brute forcein the shape of lawman Byron Aldridgemaintains a precarious
order in the town. Byron is back from WWI, where the killing he both
witnessed and committed has forever changed him. Once the heir apparent
to his fathers timber empire, he has fled from his family in
Pennsylvania into this remote region, where his life consists of
breaking up brawls and listening to sentimental music on his Victrola.
Byrons father decides to send someone down to bring him back into the
fold, and when younger brother Randolph arrives in the swamps, he finds
himself drawn into a world unlike anything he has ever encountered.
Randolph soon discovers that his own morality, his own sure sense of
right and wrong, is badly shaken by his brothers actions. Is it
justifiable to use violence to stop violence? Is it always a sin to take
another life, even when doing so might save others? These are the moral
questions most powerfully dramatized in
. For when
Randolph decides to shut down the saloon on Sundays, the most violent
day of the week, the owners down river in Tiger Island begin a cycle of
brutality and revenge that threatens to engulf Randolph and Byron, their
wives, their workers, and even an innocent child.
In writing that is vividly alive to both the rich physical texture of
place and to the most enduring human questions,
tour de force
of the moral imagination.
- How can
the title The Clearing
be interpreted? What does it refer to,
literally? What symbolic meanings might it have? Does the novel follow a
course from confusion to clarity?
- As Randolph moves down the river
towards Nimbus, he has "the sense that the boat was rocking away from
more than just a mud bank, the paddle wheel slapping down the tarry
water on a voyage beyond the things he knew" [p. 23]. In what ways is
Randolph taken beyond his familiar world? How is his life in Nimbus
different from the life he has led in Pennsylvania? What does he
discover, about himself, his brother, and life itself, on his journey?
- Randolph considers the dangerous environment of the mill and
wonders if "the many-fanged geography rubbed off on people, made them
primal, predatory. Had it changed him?" [p. 256]. Has the uncivilized
swampland itself made those who live in it more violent? Has it changed
- The Clearing
takes place in 1923, in the aftermath of WWI.
In what way does the enormous violence unleashed by the war hang over
the characters in the novel? How has the war affected Byron?
- Why is Byron so obsessed with melancholy music? What does this
obsession reveal about his character? Why would someone so tough respond
so emotionally to music? Lillian, thinking about the cycle of revenge,
remarks, "men, they act like they smell" [p. 203]. What does she mean by
this? Would the presence of more women and more families have softened,
or perhaps prevented, the violence both in the saloon in Nimbus and
between Byron and Buzetti?
- Merville tells Randolph, "You know, I got a friend whos a priest.
He says its a sin to kill. I got no problem with that, but what if I
dont kill one, and that one kills two or three? Did I kill that two or
three? I cant figure it out" [pp. 5960]. In what other instances does
dramatize the moral dilemma of trying to decide when
killing is justified, even necessary, and when it is simply wrong, or
sinful? Does the novel, taken as a whole, offer any resolution of this
- Why does Randolph tell Byron that he is Walters father? What does
this action say about Randolphs character? Why does he regret it?
- What effect does Walters presence have on Byron? How does being
around a child change him?
- When Byron tells Randolph that "A forest is good for more things
than shutters and weatherboard," Randolph asks, blankly, "Like what?"
[p. 244]. Why are Randolph and his father unable to see trees as
anything other than a way to make money? How do they typify early
- What does The Clearing
suggest about the relations between
men and women in early twentieth-century America? What roles do May,
Lillian, and Ella play in the novel? In what important ways do they
differ from the men?
- What does the novel suggest about race relations during this
- Randolph thinks that soon phones will change everything, because
"phones werent just ears and voices but eyes as well" [p. 245]. How do
the presence of phones and newspapers affect the outcome of The
- How can the extreme and nearly constant violence in The
be explained? What are its causes and consequences? What is
the narrators attitude toward that violence?
- Why does Gautreaux end the novel with the blind horsewho knew
"that the human world was a temporary thing, a piece of junk that used
up the earth and then was consumed itself by the world it tried to
destroy" [p. 303]trying to follow Randolph and Byron? What does the
scene signify? Of what is it evocative?
Last Car to Elysian Fields
; Joseph Conrad,
; William Faulkner,
Light in August
; Tom Franklin,
Hell at the Breech
; Ernest Hemingway,
In Our Time
; Zora Neale
Their Eyes Were Watching God
; Cormac McCarthy,
the Pretty Horses
; Flannery OConnor,
Everything That Rises Must
Page numbers refer to the USA trade paperback edition, and
may vary in other editions.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.