Reading guide for The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

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The Great Fire

by Shirley Hazzard

The Great Fire
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2003, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2004, 336 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. If The Great Fire is a historical novel—"historical" in setting as well as in its preoccupation with weight of political and personal history—how does the novel feel particularly contemporary? What themes present in the book exist today, in our world?

  2. The novel is, as well, a veiled critique on Imperialism, on the Western world's presence in foreign lands. In what way does each character reflect a different reaction to the East? What sorts of roles do they (Aldred, Peter, Oliver, the Driscolls, Calder, Talbot) play in its changing politics?

  3. In what ways is love expressed in the novel? Do these characters put themselves at risk for such expression, and furthermore, what must they stand up against to love others?

  4. The idea of destiny–fate–comes up again and again in this world. The word "destiny" itself is mentioned at least four times throughout the novel. If both love and war are then meant to be, if these people's damages lead them to new places, what do these characters' individual lives say about humanity as a whole? Does the novel leave you with hope or worry?

  5. More specifically, what is the fate of women in The Great Fire? Think of the discussion on Western weddings in Hong Kong, on page 159. Of Aldred and Peter's impressions and experiences with women. Of Helen's plight.

  6. Discuss the paragraph on page 111, beginning with "These were their days…"

  7. What role do the mailed letters play in the book? Are they "the sad silly evidence of things," as Aldred says to Helen, or are they more? How does Hazzard use the epistolary form to fuel the narrative?

  8. Why, towards the novel's close, does Aldred remember the stacking of his home's firewood (page 223) with such immaculate detail?

  9. Infirmity is everywhere throughout The Great Fire—from Benedict Driscoll's degeneration to Aldred's wounds to Peter's fate to Dick Laister's father's amputation. What deeper, quieter infirmities exist in the book? What are your impressions about the characters' reaction to their wounds?

  10. What do you believe Benedict said when he yelled at the Japanese servant who would subsequently kill himself?

Copyright Picador Publishing. All rights reserved. Page numbers refer to the USA paperback and may differ in other editions.

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