Reading guide for The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

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The Technologists

A Novel

by Matthew Pearl

The Technologists
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2012, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2012, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. A major theme of the novel is the end of the Civil War and its lasting reverberations. Discuss the impact of the war on various characters—whether via their direct participation or through their failure to actively take part—and how society was changed as a whole. Compare and contrast Marcus and Frank, whose wartime experiences transformed them in vastly different ways.
  2. Agnes Turner and Ellen Swallow both wish to gain entrance to a world that has traditionally been closed off to them, and each faces her own set of challenges in doing so—Agnes in breaking free from her family's expectations, and Ellen in the fierce ostracism she faces from her classmates. While this attitude toward women may have been customary for the era, were there any aspects of it that particularly surprised you? On the other hand, what characters or trends ran against the prevailing sensibilities? Did you ever feel that Agnes and Ellen were treated unjustly within the special microcosm represented by the Technologists society? How might the members' feelings toward their female cohorts have evolved over time?
  3. One reviewer called Marcus Mansfield "an American archetype—the plucky outsider" who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to lead the charge of technological advancement. What does this say about what it means to be an American and, based on that, are there any other characters who might also qualify as an "archetype"? Why or why not? How is Marcus's situation echoed by other elements of the novel?
  4. The clash of religion versus technology—faith versus reason—is a key conflict within the novel. At one point, Agassiz accuses Edwin of not believing in God because he also sympathizes with Darwin's theory of evolution. On a larger scale, Tech is condemned for not requiring its students to attend chapel—to which Marcus responds, "Our laboratories are our chapels. . . . It is not a matter of holding religious sentiment." What is the significance of Tech maintaining a separation between the church and the institution of education, and how might this have enabled its students to maintain ties to both pursuits? Are there elements in the novel that suggest the two must be mutually exclusive? Does Harvard's stressing the importance of religious practice somehow ground it in the traditional ideals that MIT was striving to transcend? How does the tension between science and religion embody some of the novel's greater themes?
  5. The novel explores the idea that those who own technology also own power, whether that power is used for good or for evil. Similarly, it examines the fear that science will advance so quickly that mankind will essentially become the "tools of our tools." Do you think this struggle for power goes hand in hand with technological progress, and do you see this as still being an issue in the twenty-first century?
  6. Matthew Pearl is known for his colorful metaphors and references. At one point, he draws an allusion to the book of Genesis, in which we're told there is a flaming sword placed to the east of the Garden of Eden so that mankind would never be allowed to enter again. Did you make anything of Cheshire's deeming himself the "avenging angel" whose tongue is a "flaming sword"? Elsewhere, did you see any significance in Frank's Ichabod Crane sculpture and its destruction at the hands of the Med Fac members? Were there other metaphors and images that you found especially resonant?
  7. Several of the characterizations were inspired by Pearl's research into actual Tech students—Bob Richards and Edwin Hoyt were real people, Marcus and Hammie are compilations of several Tech boys, Ellen Swallow was the first female to attend the college, and, of course, William Barton Rogers was the original founder, among others. How did these renderings inform your reading and what did you find most interesting or unexpected about these individuals? How would you compare or contrast these students and their world with today's academic precincts?
  8. Did you find that Marcus had a stronger loyalty to MIT as a "working-class" student than those who came from more privileged upbringings? How else did you see the class struggle manifest, both within and outside of Tech?
  9. Were you surprised to learn that MIT wasn't granted the power to present degrees until weeks before its first graduation, even though it had been seven years since the college was founded? How does this coincide with the following claim: "Those who embrace the new sciences, who experiment forthrightly and dare search for truth, will be seen as harboring secrets and dark intentions. Science explains so much, anything unexplained is pinned to it." Do you think there's a tendency to try to limit the boundaries of scientific exploration, and what can be gained or lost by doing so? What else about this period in education struck you?
  10. Ellen tells Bob that her father has always lived by the motto, "Where any one else has been, there I can go," to which she responds, "It was not a bad working motto, but I like to think adventurous spirits do what has never been done before. That is a pioneer." Discuss how the definition of a pioneer is exemplified throughout the novel, both in terms of characters and institutions. Are there any who might fit the bill even though their intentions are unsavory?
  11. Like The Technologists, Matthew Pearl's first three novels—The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens—have all been set primarily in the vibrant milieu of mid- to late-nineteenth-century America. What scenes and motifs from The Technologists were the most memorable to you, and did you draw any similarities to these prior works? The Technologists might also be said to be somewhat of a departure from Pearl's other novels, which are all rooted in literary history. What do you make of his transition into the realm of historical science and education?
  12. Were you surprised when the source of the catastrophes was revealed? How do you interpret the motivation and psychological turmoil behind it? What do you think it is that makes some characters abuse their superior knowledge of science and technology, while others who are equally as capable are never tempted to use these tools as a means to exert their authority?

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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