Questions For Reading: The Girls of Slender Means

April 26, 2010

Here are some questions to guide you into thinking and perhaps writing about some issues on Spark’s novel.

1. Spark uses the omniscient point-of-view to the extreme. (The omniscient point-of-view is when the author narrates the story from above. We do not see the story from any of the character’s perspective. Instead, the author assumes a perspective of authority. The author sees all.) What are the advantages and disadvantages of omniscience? Why do you think and author would choose the omniscient point of view over the other options, like first person narrative, or third person, etc?  What type of effect does the omniscient point of view have on your reception of the narrative? What kind of tone does it create?

A typical photo of the destruction from the Blitz: compare it to Spark’s description in the first two pages of the novel.

2. Re-read the first two, magnificent pages of the novel. How does the depiction of the destruction and the choice of words and phrases Spark uses pre-figure / foreshadow the events of the novel? How do the first two pages set the tone of the novel? What might the various scenes of the Blitz Spark depicts say about the people who live in and lived through the event?

3. How do you describe the inhabitants of the May of Teck Club? What are the dozen or so “girls” like that Spark focuses on? How do you interpret Spark’s description of the girls on p. 9: “few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means”?

4. What is the funciton of the fragments of phone calls that Jane Wright makes to people fifteen years after the events of the narrative?  What is she trying to figure out?  What type of success is she having? Why does it seem that most of the people she speaks to seem to have little to nothing to offer her?

5. Spark is a master of a technique known as “flashforward.” This is when an author shows events that happen in the future of the main temporal flow of the narrative. It is different from “foreshadowing” in that the author shows us details and events ahead of time, even going so far as to give away the ending of a narrative.  In this novel, Spark give us information about the future that is usually reserved for the ending of a traditional novel. We know in advance that Nicholas converts from atheism to Catholicism, becomes a monk, and dies a martyr for mysterious reasons in Haiti. We know that there is a great tragedy that afflicts the May of Teck Club. What effect does it have on the narrative, and reading the narrative, that you know most of the important details about the ending?  How does it effect the narrative that throughout the novel the focuses mostly on Nicholas, we know that he dies shortly after the events of the narrative?

6. Why does Nicholas idealize the May of Teck Club? How is his vision of the place dissonant with reality? What is important for the narrative and this issue of his idealization of the Club about the briefly mentioned fact that Nicholas served in Dunkirk in 1940? (If you don’t know what Dunkirk was, google it to see how both horrifying and triumphant the event was.) And that he suffered a mild nervous collapse shortly after?   Look closely at p. 92 when Nicholas sleeps with Selina in his apartment. How does the narrator depict how Nicholas feels about Selina, and the reality of who Selina is and what she wants?

I think this is one of the best covers of the novel.
I think this is one of the best covers of the novel.

7. What do you think that the buried and un-exploded German bomb in the garden of the Club represents?  How do you think the explosion of the bomb in the end is symbolic?

8. The narration of the explosion in the penultimate chapter is brilliant. The climax of the scene, and of the novel, is when Selina races back into the slim bathroom window during the fire.  What is significant about her “inhuman” act? How does Nicholas respond to it?  What do you make of his gesture “crossing himself” when he sees her emerge from the window carrying the Schapperelli dress?

One of the elegant Schiaperelli dresses.
One of the elegant Schiaperelli dresses.

9. Why do you think that Joanna is the only member of the Club to perish in the fire?  What is her character all about?  How does she contrast Selina?  And here’s a challenge question: how does she resemble Selina in many ways more than she contrasts her?

10. Why do you think that Nicholas, an anarchist and an atheist, converts to Catholicism–and then goes the whole Catholic nine-yards, becoming a monk and then a martyr in Haiti?  What experiences and events in the novel serve as clues to his conversion?  Do you think it had a lot to do with Selina’s act during the explosion? And here’s a challenge question: how seriously do you think we are supposed to take Nicholas’s conversion?

11. How do you interpret the note that Nicholas left behind in his manuscript, “a vision of evil may be effective to conversion as a vision of good” (p. 140)?

12. How would you describe the narrative voice of the novel?  In other words, there is a distinct narrator of the story, looking down on all the events, and often making editorial comments.  Perhaps it is Spark herself as the author? Perhaps it is a narrator Spark assumes as a persona?

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