Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
begins in 1942. London is blacked out, while France suffers under a much greater darkness with half the country under Nazi occupation and the other half a "Free" Zone led by a French puppet government. After a brief but intense love affair with an RAF pilot whose plane disappears over France, Charlotte Gray, a volatile young Scottish woman, contrives to go to France and join the Resistance so that she might search for him. Her Resistance work moves her in ways she had hardly expected, and soon she decides to stay on under her assumed identity, finding that the struggle for the country's fate is intimately linked to her own battle to take control of her life.
For discussion: Charlotte Gray
- Why does Charlotte so deeply identify with France? What tradition does the Loiseau family represent to her? Where, and in whom, does Charlotte recognize this tradition during her undercover work in France?
- Why does Dr. Burch, the psychiatric examiner, mark Charlotte down as "T. C. by 1/2" (too clever by half) [p. 82]? Is this meant as a compliment or a criticism? Would you say it is an accurate description of Charlotte? Does it square with Daisy's view of Charlotte as "unstable" and "vulnerable" [p. 95]?
- Cannerley, in England, feels "frightened" by the political decisions he is being compelled to put into force. "Everyone he knew had made an accommodation with the war, with the demands on their lives of a national emergency, and it seemed to him that he had been drawn into the wrong compromise" [p. 150]. Julien, in France, sees "a chain of compromise and inertia, at no single point perceptible as choice in moral colors, had had in the end a cumulative effect" [p. 154]. What accommodations and compromises have the following characters made: Cannerley, Bernard, M. Levade, Sir Oliver, Gerd Lindemann? At what point, and in what characters, can the choices be said to be positively evil?
- "Did these statements [see p. 167], scored in the bold capitals of anonymity, express the true feelings of the French people? Was this what they would really say if they were free to speak? Charlotte chose to think not." What does the verb "chose" imply? Do you think that the author agrees with Charlotte? Do you think that the virulent French anti-Semitism of the inter-war and war years was a fearful response to the Nazi threat, or an already deeply ingrained part of French culture? What evidence can you provide for either possibility?
- Why did M. Levade convert to Christianity? What do his God and his religion mean to him, and what strengths do they give him? Which aspects of his character are specifically Christlike, and which are more clearly human?
- Julien reads in Pascal's Pensées: "[A] certain sort of evil is as hard to find as what is called good, and this particular evil is often on that account passed off as good. Indeed, it takes as much extraordinary greatness of soul to attain such evil, as to attain good" [p. 317]. Julien connects this particular "greatness of soul" with Petain. What did Petain symbolize for the French people in 1918? What did he symbolize in 1935, and what during the action of the novel as figurehead of Vichy France? Does Julien's application to the Marshal of Pascal's thought strike you as appropriate?
- How does Charlotte's relationship with M. Levade help her to come to terms with her own father?
- After Charlotte returns to England, Julien writes to her that "history is already being rewritten" [p. 396]. In what ways does the wartime France that Faulks describes differ from perceived ideas about the country? Has history indeed been rewritten, and if so, has it been done successfully? Julien goes on to say, "This is a civil war as well as a national war; it is a fight for influence and for possession of history" [p. 396]. If that judgment is true, then which forces in French society won the civil war?
Questions about the novels of Sebastian Faulks
- In Birdsong, Stephen writes: "I am driven by a greater force than I can resist. I believe the force has its own reason and its own morality even if they may never be clear to me while I am alive" [p. 49]. How would you compare this force with the emotional and moral imperatives that drive Charlotte Gray? Is Anne Louvet's passion similar, or different?
- How can you trace France, its character and its fate, through the three periods described in Faulks's novels: World War I, the 1930s, and the Occupation? How did the tragedies of each historical phase inevitably follow the one before it?
- How did the feelings--hatred, aggression, sympathy--between the two sides, German and Allied, differ in the First World War from the Second? Specifically, how do Stephen's feelings toward the enemy in Birdsong differ from Charlotte's in Charlotte Gray?
- A number of the characters in Faulks's novels are survivors of the First World War whose lives, whether they are aware of it or not, are permanently changed by their wartime experiences. In some of them, like the patron of the Lion d'Or, the change is tragic and permanently crippling. In other characters--Hartmann, William Gray, the elder Levade--the effects are more subtle. What do each of these survivors have in common, and how have their early experiences helped to form the course of their subsequent lives? What about the innocent victims of the war--characters like Anne and Charlotte?
- Why do you think that Stephen displays such a powerful will to survive in spite of the loneliness of his life and the unhappiness he has endured? What elements and events of his life have contributed to his instinct for self-preservation? Which other characters in the novels display this will, and which do not?
- As officers, how do William Gray, Stephen Wraysford, and Anne Louvet's father differ in their approach to their responsibilities toward their men and themselves? Do you blame Gray for allowing his men to shoot the German prisoners? Do you fault Anne's father for his rebellion, or do you think that in fact he did the right thing?
- Why has Faulks set the love stories that are Birdsong and Charlotte Gray against backdrops of war? Explore the various parallels drawn between desire and death, love and war. In what ways are the love scenes similar to scenes of battle and death?
Suggestions for further reading
Pat Barker, Another World, The Regeneration Trilogy: The Eye in the Door, Regeneration, The Ghost Road; Philippe Burrin, France Under the Germans; Charles de Gaulle, The Complete War Memories; Ford Madox Ford, Parade's End; Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory; Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That; Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Sweik; John Keegan, The Face of Battle, The First World War; Elizabeth McIntosh, Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the O.S.S.; Eric Newby, Love and War in the Apennines; Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient; Wilfred Owen, Poems; Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944; Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front; Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wartime Writings: 1939-1944; Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and Sherston's Progress; Studs Terkel, The Good War; Evelyn Waugh, The Sword of Honour Trilogy: Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and The End of the Battle; Eugen Weber, The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s
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