Reading Guides

The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck
Robert DeMott
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The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton
Cynthia Griffin Wolff
Laura Dluzynski Quinn
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Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary
Joseph Conrad
Owen Knowles
Robert Hampson
J. H. Stape
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Read an excerpt



The Adventures of Augie March

  1. In his pilgrimage from Chicago to Michigan and Mexico, to the African Sea and Paris, does Augie ultimately find the life he had imagined for himself? Is he disappointed? Was his search worthwhile?
  2. Augie believes that "a man's character is his fate." How did Augie use his character to determine his fate? How does his fate differ from that of Simon? From that of Einhorn? What and who were some of the negative forces that got in the way of Augie's dream of happiness on the "axial lines of life"?
  3. Getting involved with Thea Fenchel and her eagle was a turning point for Augie. What happens to Augie's sense of reality when Thea abruptly leaves him?
  4. Near the end of the novel, Augie makes two important commitments: he enlists in the Merchant Marine and hastily marries Stella. Why, after a life of not being beholden to any one job or person, do you think he made these decisions? Were these examples of claiming "something as his own"?

The Grapes of Wrath

  1. As the Joads journey west, their financial situation worsens until they realize they have almost nothing to live on. How does this affect the dynamics of the family? How do Ma Joad's responsibilities to the rest of the family change, and what does she ultimately sacrifice? What are the Joads learning about survival and about helping other people outside of the family?
  2. Steinbeck alternates chapters telling the Joad's personal story with chapters on the universal plight of the migrant worker. How would the impact of the Joad's story have differed had Steinbeck not inserted background material? How do these chapters, "pace changers" as Steinbeck called them, clarify the Great Depression's social and economic climate?
  3. Jim Casey's philosophy that we are all one small part of "a great big soul" echoes Emerson's idea of an Oversoul from which every man comes and to which every man returns in death. In 1939, many people considered Casey's beliefs thinly veiled communism. What social message does Casey give the novel? In what ways is he a Christ-like figure?
  4. Despite the filth, disorder, and decay the Joads encounter at the first camp in California, they push forward. What does this say about the spirit of the migrant workers? About Steinbeck's view of humanity? Do you see in their response to this challenge something that is uniquely expressive of the American character?

Love in the Time of Cholera

  1. What does the conflict between Dr. Juvenal Urbino and Florentino Ariza reveal about the formal customs of Europe and the heartfelt ways of Caribbean life? How is Fermina Daza torn between the two?
  2. Set against the backdrop of recurring civil wars and cholera epidemics, the novel explores death and decay, as well as love. How does Dr. Urbino's refusal to grow old gracefully affect the other two characters? What does it say about fulfillment and beauty in their society? Does the fear of aging or death change Florentino Ariza's feelings toward Fermina Daza?
  3. Dr. Urbino reads only what is considered fine literature, while Fermina Daza immerses herself in contemporary romances or soap operas. What does this illuminate about the author's attitude toward the distinction between "high" and "low" literature. Does his story line and style remind you more of a soap opera or a classical drama?
  4. Compare the suicide of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour at the beginning of the book with that of Florentino's former lover, América Vicuña at the end. How do their motives differ? Why does the author frame the book with these two events?
  5. Plagues figure prominently in many of García Márquez's novels. What literal and metaphoric functions does the cholera plague serve in this novel? What light does it shed on Latin American society of the nineteenth century? How does it change its characters' attitudes toward life? How are the symptoms of love equated in the novel with the symptoms of cholera?

The Age of Innocence

  1. Wharton's title was an allusion to a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds depicting a five-year-old girl. What light does this cast on Wharton's view of the world she was chronicling? Do you think the title is ironic?
  2. In the early outlines for this novel, Wharton played with the idea of having Newland break his engagement to May and marry Ellen; eventually the two separate and return to their own worlds. Why do you think Wharton, in the end, did not opt for this plot line? What, if she had, would have been different about the "message" of the book? What would you have ultimately thought of the characters?
  3. What does Wharton reveal about Old New York and about Newland Archer through the characters of Cynthia Mingott, Ned Winsett, Julius Beaufort, Mr. Welland, and Janey?
  4. Do you agree with Newland Archer that he missed "the flower of life"? What would this other life have been like, if he could have lived it without negative consequences to May or anyone else?
  5. The Age of Innocence contains both satire and nostalgia for for early twentieth-century New York society. What does Wharton find repellent about old New York? What admirable? How is the relationship between Newland and his son Dallas emblematic of the evolution of Old New York?

Heart of Darkness

  1. What do we know about Marlow before he begins to tell the story of his voyage to find Kurtz? Marlow initially justifies British conquests by asserting they are motivated by "an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to." Are we given any reason to doubt this conviction or his veracity as a narrator?
  2. The imagery of light and darkness permeates the novel from its opening pages. What is the significance of the darkness over the Thames at the opening and closing of the novel? How does the novel subvert the traditional imagery of the West bringing the light of civilization to darkest Africa? Does darkness in the novel represent evil, emptiness, savagery, or some other force?
  3. In what way had "all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz"? Why did he inspire such faith and adoration in his admirers? Has he -- as Marlow suggests -- transcended traditional morality?
  4. Why does the meeting with Kurtz's grieving fiancée unnerve Marlow so greatly? Although he deceives her about Kurtz's final words, why does he feel that "justice" would have been served if he had told her the truth?