Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Signature of All Things Discussion Questions


I know I already told you how much I loved Elizabeth Gilbert's new book The Signature of All Things, right? You probably don't need to hear it again.

I used to be in a book club, but it disbanded as everyone got busy and couldn't stick with it and I miss it a lot. I also miss my literature classes in school where I could discuss books with like minded people, so I thought maybe I'd do it here. Every now and then a book will really stick with me and make me want to write about it and talk about it and this one got in my head and won't get out. I tried to look up some discussion questions and frankly, I didn't find very many, surprisingly and they weren't asking the same questions that I would. I decided to come up with my own list and if you've read the book, PLEASE talk about it with me in the comments section. A few years back I wrote a bunch of discussion questions for the book Room, and I had a lot of success with that and found lots of people to talk about the book with me, so I'm hoping the same thing will happen here. Since there are plot spoilers, for those of you who've yet to read it, don't read any further! I added a page break. If you want to read the questions, click on the title of the post to see the whole post.

The Signature of All Things Discussion Questions

1. Why do you think Gilbert made the decision to make Alma "ugly." Our first introduction to Alma refers to her being an ugly baby and looking like her father. Why would ugliness be essential to her character? How might her life have been different if she were prettier?

2. Did Alma's appearance truly make her unmarriable? Most people in those days really weren't particularly attractive, so was this a valid excuse for her spinsterhood or was it possible that men found her intelligence and outspoken-ness more unappealing than her looks?

3. Prudence and Alma are painted as total opposites but in what ways are they alike? Often Alma seems to envy Prudence, but do you think Prudence ever envied Alma? Why?

4. Throughout the book, Prudence often seems a bit shady. Did you feel that she was genuine and sincere or was she all a big facade? What were her real motives? Why was she so mysterious?

5. Prudence chooses to marry her teacher, which backfires in more ways than one, but honestly, why would she choose to marry at all? What purpose did marriage serve for Prudence other than taking her off the market?

6. What is the significance of the scene where Alma plays a comet? What is the symbolism of the comet? How does Alma remain like a comet throughout her life?

7. The novel contains a subplot about slavery and abolition. The Whitakers aren't slave owners, but still these themes creep in. Why? In what ways is Henry's wealth dependent on the culture of slavery? Do you think Prudence and Alma feel metaphorically enslaved in any way and perhaps that is why they might take up the abolitionist cause? Was this theme necessary to the rest of the novel or do you think Gilbert included it to be socially responsible?

8. Alma's sexuality figures very prominently in the novel. Why? Does her masturbation serve to make her a more human and sympathetic heroine? Could the inclusion of the masturbation scenes be considered a feminist statement? After all, most heroines from Alma's period are notably sexless and women of her time were supposed to be pure and without carnal desires.

9. Why do you think Gilbert chose to have Alma remain a virgin throughout her life? How would having sex with someone else have changed Alma's destiny?

10. Alma has one sexual encounter with Tomorrow Morning in which she gives pleasure and does not receive it in any way other than fulfilling a fantasy for herself. What is the significance of this experience? Is Tomorrow Morning a stand-in for Ambrose?

11. Why do you think Ambrose committed suicide? Do you think it was because he was gay or some other reason?

12. Do you think Ambrose used and manipulated Alma or was he genuine in his love for her? Did he just want her as a beard? Was most of their deep connection real or was it just Alma's fantasy because she was in love with him and lonely and desperately wanted a partner and passion in her life?

13. Did Alma do the right thing in sending Ambrose away or was this a cruel and selfish act? What would you have done in the same situation? Why did Ambrose agree, so complacently, to go?

14. Why did Retta Snow go mad? Why did her marriage to George, as a plot device, have to go so horribly wrong? Why do you think Gilbert chose to have their marriage end in disaster and once their spouses died, why didn't George and Prudence get together? Why might Gilbert not have allowed a happy ending for them?

15. Why do you think Alma renounced her inheritance? Why, after being raised in splendor, would Alma choose to live out her days very modestly? Did she feel guilty? Why?

16. In the end, did Alma finally get what she truly wanted in Holland? After all, she found companionship, a job and a family. Was this her happy ending or was this simply Alma settling for the best she could get? 

17. Ultimately, would you say that Alma's life was tragic or was she actually a success? What do you think Alma really wanted? Did she get it?

18. What is Alma's most appealing character trait? What is her biggest flaw? What was the most surprising aspect of her character?

19. Who, besides Alma, was the most compelling character in the book? Why?

20. Throughout the book, much is said about Alma being like her father, but how is she also like her mother? How is Prudence like her adopted parents as well?

21. Bonus Question - why on earth did Alma's mangy dog like Alma's uncle so much?

*** I will add more questions as I think of them. Consider these a starting point and feel free to add your own in the comments section***

7 comments:

Cindy K. said...

Is it fair to leave 21 answers? My book club does this book in July, but I fear I pushed a little too hard in having it included this year. The rest of my group isn't as broadly minded about some of the situations Ms. Gilbert chose to write.

I like your questions, but I'd like to hear your responses, too!

To start: In a way having Alma be ugly made it easier for her to be smart. Given the era, wouldn't she have been told to sit down and shut up if she were smart and attractive? Her lack of physical pleasantries let her mind run wild. That's the part of this book I enjoyed most. She thought anything she wanted without barriers.

Now I have a question. Why did the dog fall so completely for her uncle after having such a bad reputation. Alma was ugly, the dog was ugly - did Gilbert do it on purpose?

Anonymous said...

I'm going to a book club discussion on this book in two days and I was searching for some questions to get my thoughts in order for the discussion. These are great questions! I have to ask though, when did Prudence's husband die--I can't believe I can't remember it.

This was an incredible book. How Elizabeth Gilbert managed to write it is beyond me. I can't imagine the research and time that this book took to write. Beautifully written!

kechols said...

Kathy E.: your questions are complex, the story is beautifully written and spellbinding! I would like to hear some of your thoughts regarding answers to your own questions. i will be processing for quite a while and will be reviewing this book for a book club this august, The EveryWoman Book Club sponsored by The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL

Lorae said...

Wonderful questions and closer to my own thoughts. I loved the book and will be attending my book club tomorrow evening. I've heard the response to the book is 50/50. The discussion should be quite interesting. I am still processing my thoughts as I found the book very deep. I loved Alma - such a full and rich character. So courageous, heroic, intelligent, curious and insightful,feminist while being a romantic while being stoic yet tragic in her loneliness. I'm impressed that Gilbert developed such a multi-faceted woman. I might suggest that all other plots, subplots, characters, etc are important to allow Gilbert to describe and develop Alma's complex and at times contradictory personality and allow us into her brilliant mind and emotions on any given subject. The era is perfectly suited to the story of Alma. If she were a true being I would want her as a best friend.

Lorae said...

I am still processing my thoughts as I found the book very deep. I loved Alma - such a full and rich character. So courageous, heroic, intelligent, curious and insightful, feminist while being a romantic while being stoic yet tragic in her loneliness. I'm impressed that Gilbert developed such a multi-faceted woman. I might suggest that all other plots, subplots, characters, etc are important to allow Gilbert to describe and develop Alma's complex and at times contradictory personality and allow us into her brilliant mind and emotions on any given subject. The era is perfectly suited to the story of Alma. If she were a true being I would want her as a best friend.

themouth said...

Your questions are brilliant. The is our book club book and thank goodness, we are all open-minded. I couldn't belong to a book-club that wasn't. I can't even remember all your questions though and I could talk about every single one for a whole week! I did not thing this was a brilliant novel, and I think it needed editing. There was too much in it, and yet no central thought to pull it together. I have seen E Gilbert interviewed, and I love her, and yet, I couldn't read 'Eat, Pray, Love'. I am a reader. I did feel an affinity for so much in this book though. I just wished she had been more like Alma, and left this book in her cupboard for a couple of years, and edited it judiciously. The question that interested me most, was your question about Ambrose and whether he really loved Alma. I think he did. HE wanted an asexual relationship. I understand that desire. I am not asexual, but I know people who are. Not all gay people, like gay sex. For example read, 'Running with scissors.' I had a homosexual friend, who only fell in love with women, but wanted to have sex with men exclusively. People are complicated. Ambrose wanted to be an angel. He wanted his corporeal body to disappear, or at least to be above its needs. He thought Alma was the same as him, a soul mate, who could rise about sexual urges. And he thought 'See you tomorrow' was the same. And I think Alma loved him. And I think she does receive please from oral sex with See you Tomorrow. I found it pretty disappointing though. I kept thinking, 'You're letting her die a virgin!!!???' I found that whole section pretty hard to believe actually...But I think that is what we are supposed to walk away with

Anonymous said...

Your questions are brilliant. My book-club members are all open-minded! I can't even remember all your questions though and I could talk about every single one for a whole week! I did not think this was a brilliant novel, and I think it needed editing. There was too much in it, and yet no central thought to pull it together. I have seen E Gilbert interviewed, and I love her, and yet, I couldn't read 'Eat, Pray, Love'. I am a critical reader. But I did feel an affinity for much in this book. I just wished she had been more like Alma, and left this book in her cupboard for a couple of years, and edited it judiciously. The questions that interested me most, were your questions about Ambrose and Alma. Did they really love each other? I think they did. But they wanted different things. Ambrose wanted an asexual relationship. He may have been gay, but not necessarily. I don't think you need him to be, but whichever way you read it, he did not want sex to sully his relationship. Not all gay people, like gay sex. For example read, 'Running with scissors.' I had a homosexual friend, who only fell in love with women, but wanted to have sex with men exclusively. People are complicated. Ambrose wanted to be an angel. He wanted his corporeal body to disappear, or at least to be above its needs. He thought Alma was the same as him, a soul mate, who could rise about sexual urges. And he thought 'See you tomorrow' was the same. But, as See you Tomorrow tells Alms, SYT needed to conquer. He needed to win, he needed to plunder. And I think Alma loved Ambrose. She cared about him. She didn't need him. They were not well matched. And she behaved badly. But he did totally reject her. And I think she does receive pleasure from oral sex with See you Tomorrow. I found it pretty disappointing though. I kept thinking, 'You're letting her die a virgin!!!???' I found that whole section pretty hard to believe actually...But I think that is what we are supposed to walk away with. That she does gain pleasure from the experience.

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