Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your
reading of Soldier's Heart
. We hope they will enrich your experience as
you explore Elizabeth D. Samet's inspiring reflections on literature and the
education of America's future warriors.
About This Book
A decade ago, Elizabeth D. Samet began teaching English at the United States
Military Academy at West Point after completing her doctorate at Yale
University. She encountered stark contrasts and surprising similarities
between the two campuses, but nothing fully prepared her for the experience of
watching her students and colleagues deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other
turbulent corners of the
world. What does literatureparticularly the literature of warmean to a student
who is likely to encounter its reality? What is the best way to stir uninhibited
discussions in a setting that is designed to train students to follow orders,
respect authority, and survive grueling physical and mental experiences? This is
terrain Samet traverses each semester, a challenge beautifully captured in
Taking its name from a World War Iera term for a condition akin to
stress disorder (PTSD), Samet's memoir offers insights into America's newest
of cadets. In each chapter she reflects on a rich trove of literature, from
Homer's ancient epics to the work of modern and contemporary authors such as
Wilfred Owen, Virginia Woolf, Randall Jarrell, E. L. Doctorow, and Tim O'Brien.
For many of her students, reading brings solace and inspiration. For others, it
sparks an examination of doubts or fears. In all cases, Samet's courses provide
arenas for the young men and women of West Point to explore life and
- Discuss the book's title. What are the different meanings of "soldier's
what ways does literature address the ailments of what Wilfred Owen calls, in
poem "Insensibility" (epigraph), a heart "small drawn"?
- Although much has been written about West Point and military life in America,
an English professor's point of view on the subject is rare. What specific
this world does Samet offer as a civilian and a humanities professor at a
academy? How is her portrait of military life different from others you have
- How does Samet's description of her students and former students compare to
your stereotypes of soldiers? What are those stereotypes? How does Soldier's
confirm or challenge them?
- Chapter 1, "Not Your Father's Army," touches on the myths and traditions that
define West Point, and military life more generally, by alluding to the
shaped the experiences of past cadets. Which aspects of the past remain vibrant
campus? Which aspects are radically different in the twenty-first century?
- Samet writes that she hears the term relevance more and more in informal
about the education and training of cadets. How are humanities courses
different from military training at West Point? What do such courses contribute
the preparation of cadets? What is the difference between education and
How do you view the purpose of higher education in general, and the role of
and the arts within it?
- How has teaching at West Point changed Samet's experience of literature? How
might her relationship to literature and teaching have been different if she had
taken a position at a liberal-arts college instead of at West Point? How does
teaching style compare to that of English teachers from your past?
- Samet's deployed colleagues and former students write to her with rich
about their favorite literary works. In what ways does literature help them
understand their experience of war? What do their reading choices reveal about
- The author's previous book explores the tension between liberty and obedience
nineteenth-century America, a dynamic she also explores in Soldier's Heart. How
soldiers reconcile the military's demand for conformity with the need for
mindsin an all-volunteer military, no less? How do literature and creative
serve or undermine the need for obedience and innovative thinking? What role
does literature play in forging what West Point alumnus Ulysses S. Grant called
- Why is writing about war one of the oldest forms of literature? What was the
significance of epic poems such as Homer's Iliad or Beowulf to the warriors of
ages? What will characterize the artistic legacy of war in the twentieth and twentyfirst
centuries? What is the relationship between writing and film when it comes to
describing the contemporary war experience? Is your own understanding of war
shaped more by literature or by film?
- Some of Samet's students gravitate toward war literature, while others
read about nonmilitary topics. Does their reading seem more specialized than
of their counterparts at civilian colleges? What works would you include on a
of assignments for cadets? Which classics would you like to see distributed
today in an Armed Services Edition?
- How is the experience of a West Point cadet different from that of a college
at a typical liberal-arts college?
- What surprised you the most about the culture of West Point? How does
hierarchy influence educational practice? Do other American college campuses
have comparable hierarchies? Should civilian colleges do more to emphasize the
self-discipline of students?
- Chapter 3, "Becoming Penelope, the Only Woman in the Room," describes the
ways in which gender is sometimes a factor in Samet's teaching experience. What
advantages and disadvantages come with being a woman at a male-dominated
What specific challenges do women at West Point face? To what degree
does West Point's recent history as a coed institution reflect the changing
the American military and American society? What are the effects of the
associated with Penelope, a woman waiting for a warrior's return? What role does
literature play in helping the cadets think about these issues?
- How was the author's worldview shaped by her upbringingby a father who
enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II, as well as by her years at
Winsor School? How did these experiences influence her teaching?
- Chapter 5, "Bibles, Lots of Bibles," explores the blend of religion and
that permeates some segments of military life. How would you describe religion's
role in the personal experiences of soldiersat West Point and elsewhereand its
influence on national political decisions about war and peace?
- How did 9/11 change the role of Samet and other professors at West Point?
What were your reactions to the scenes in the closing pages, which capture the
difficult debates about the United States' current and future military
- How would you describe the impact of the Iraq war on life at West Point and
the ways in which the cadets and faculty understand their missions? Has the
of war evolved over time?
- How would you define heroism? How does the Army define heroism? What is
the role of literature in the process of turning soldiers into heroes? In your
does the national emphasis on heroism honor or diminish the humanity of
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.