Reading guide for The March by E.L. Doctorow

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The March

by E.L. Doctorow

The March
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2005, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 384 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. In the opening chapter of the novel, Pearl prays, "Dear God Jesus . . . teach me to be free." To what extent is her prayer answered? How does she come to understand the difference between freedom and independence?
  2. Is Arly, the Southern Rebel, simply a wily individual who takes advantage of any opportunity that presents itself, or is there more to him than that? What do you think motivated his final actions? Discuss both of the misfit soldiers: What redeeming qualities did Arly and Will have? Did each of them deserve the ending he had? Why?
  3. General Sherman's description of death as "first and foremost, a numerical disadvantage" is very unemotional. Do you believe he was truly that unfeeling? What other places in the story does this "coldness" show itself? Where is his humanity evident?
  4. Discuss Sherman's leadership style. Would you characterize it as paternal, moral, charismatic? Why do you think Sherman was successful (or not successful)? Are there other characteristics you would assign to General Sherman? List a few and discuss.
  5. Sherman's destruction of everything in his path left nothing with which to rebuild, or to help the freed slaves to begin their new lives. What was the purpose of the pillage and destruction along Sherman's march? Were these acts of opportunity, desperation, or both? Give an example of similar behavior from current events, and discuss the complexity of human reaction when confronted with such serious conflict.
  6. Before Sherman's soldiers marched upon Milledgeville, Emily Thompson could not fathom the possibility of the war destroying her comfortable lifestyle. What changes her mind? What compels Emily to link up with “the enemy” and seek protection with the Union army?
  7. Describe Emily's attraction to Wrede Sartorius, and what tests her faith in him. How does Emily transform during the course of the novel?
  8. Wrede Sartorius cares for his patients in a dispassionate manner. Does he excel as a battlefield surgeon because of, or in spite of, this outlook? How does this behavior affect his relationship with Emily?
  9. Discuss Wrede Sartorius's medical ethics. Do you think they would have been different in peacetime? Give positive and negative examples of his bedside manner. What do you think his true feelings were for Emily?
  10. At the end of the novel, Pearl and David are no longer slaves, but are they free? Has Calvin, who has never lived as a slave, ever lived freely? Are any characters free during the war? Colonel Sartorius, Stephen, Sherman, even Lincoln, live under constraints caused by their situations, commitments, and responsibilities. What is freedom? What makes us free? In 2005, has "the world [caught] up" yet?
  11. Lt. Clark of the Union army is in charge of a foraging party. Clark has "always believed in reason, that it was the controlling force in his life." How do events in the novel refute this belief–for him and for many others?
  12. What does "It's always now" mean in the novel? Why do some characters find that to be an obvious truth, while others find it terrifying? Why might that idea be especially meaningful to a soldier who is living from battle to battle?
  13. Historians have debated whether Sherman's march to the sea was simply a particularly brutal act of war or whether it was a war crime. Do you think Sherman's march was justified? Why or why not? Did E. L. Doctorow's novel help you to understand Sherman's belief that this was not only a war between armies but also a war between societies? How did the unspoken orders of the rank and file shape the outcome of the march?
  14. What insights does Doctorow give as to the reasons why the average Rebel soldier was fighting? The average Yankee?
  15. Sartorius first views Lincoln as weak or diseased, but when he meets the President near the end of the war, his disdain turns to awe. Discuss the reasons you believe he had this change of heart.
  16. The romance between Stephen Walsh and Pearl Jameson stands in stark contrast to the war and destruction surrounding them. Describe their relationship. Were you surprised that their connection lasted throughout the war? What do you think happened to them?
  17. Hugh Pryce, the English journalist, was stunned to overhear ordinary soldiers discussing moral issues of the war. He believed their concern with substantive moral issues showed "quintessential American genius" and could never imagine Her Majesty's rank and file having such a discussion. Do you agree that this type of questioning and rationalization is uniquely American? Why or why not?
  18. From the shrewd analytical mind of General Sherman, the stoicism of Wrede Sartorius, the compassion of Emily Thompson, the feistiness of Pearl and the comic relief of Arly, Doctorow show us the minds of his characters as they struggle to survive the cruelty of war. Which of these or other characters in the book do you think you would be most like in a time of crisis and why?
  19. Describe your feelings as you read Sherman's Special Field Order to himself at the end of the war–to pitch a tent in the forest and spend one last night beneath the stars. Have you ever known someone in the military who found it difficult to transition back into civilian life?
  20. There were many survivors in The March. Some survived with integrity and honor. What characteristics did these characters hold that helped them maintain their civility during war?

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