Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- What is the significance of the novel's title, in itself and in
association with the Emily Brontë quotation used as an epigraph? Why is the
title in the plural?
- What "frail and rusted shards" and relics of "the long
ago" actual and metaphoric are still present in, or emerge
from, the town, fields, bogs, and woods of Cloontha and Slieve Clochan and
affect the people of today? In what respect might individual characters
themselves be regarded as relics of "the long ago"?
- In the preface, O'Brien writes: "They say the enemy came in the
night, but the enemy can come at any hour, be it dawn or twilight, because
the enemy is always there and these people know it, locked in a tribal
hunger that bubbles in the blood and hides out on the mountain." Who or
what is "the enemy"? How would you describe that "tribal
hunger"? How does it make itself known in the lives of the characters?
- In what ways are Reena and Rita's methods of acquiring land both different
from and similar to the historical and contemporary ways of others? To what
extent is their attachment to the land similar to Joe's and Mick's?
- In what sense are the bogs "sacred places and the storehouse of our
past," as Joseph writes to Bugler? What importance does this view of
the bogs and of the mountain itself take on?
- How important to the story and to the lives of the people of Cloontha is
the notion of the outsider"the inferiority of the returned
exile," in Mr. Leveau's words? Why in a community like Cloontha is the
outsider, however related to the locality by family history, seen as a
- Just before he beats her, Breege sees in Joseph's eyes "that mad rage
that is the inverse of love." What other "inverses" of and
obstacles to love occur in the novel? How and why do destructive feelings
and actions turn people away from the love and friendship that they
otherwise feel or might feel for one another?
- As a result of Joseph's attack on Breege, "Fear had come into the
house and with fear falsity." What fears and what falsities existed in
the lives of Breege, Joseph, and the others prior to the beating, and which
become prominent after the beating?
- What roles, possibilities, opportunities, and resources are open to the
women of Cloontha? What are the consequences for Breege and other women of
ignoring or challenging conventions and expectations?
- What is the purpose of the sometimes garbled, sometimes inappropriate
literary and mythic quotations and allusions favored by Joseph and the
Crock? How does deliberate or unintentional misrepresentation of history,
myth, legend, and law result in a distorted view of the present and a
deformed sense of oneself?
- In what ways, and to what extent, does Breege take on a mythic presence
and function, especially beginning on the moonlit night when she takes
Bugler to her family's graveyard on the lake isle? In what ways, and to what
extent, is Joseph's behavior the contrary of the mythic hero's or legendary
warrior's? What other characters might be seen as similarly representing or
alluding to mythic figures?
- What supernatural signs, elements, and presences play a part in the story?
How are they introduced, in what contexts, and with what relevance to the
characters and the action?
- What factors result in Joe Brennan's ending up feeling "outside
everyone and everything . . . , an outcast in the world"? What
forcespersonal, familial, communal, and historicalcome together to
impose an outcast state on Joseph? To what extent is he himself accountable
for his virtually complete isolation?
- Alone in the Brennan house after Joe's sentencing, Breege, "holding
her belly, . . . reaches back, back to those nameless and spectral forces of
which she is made. " If we were to give names to those "spectral
forces," what might we call them? In what way are they the forces of
which Breege herself is made?
- O'Brien has said that "for the characters in Wild Decembers,
the holding on to land is as vital as the holding on to life. They are
interchangeable." In what ways are the two interchangeable for
O'Brien's characters? To what extent might that interchangeability be the
consequence of generations of deprivation and an inherited fear of
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Mariner Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.