Excerpted from Pearl by Mary Gordon. Copyright © 2005 by Mary Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Mary Gordon is the author of six previous novels, two memoirs, a short-story collection, and Reading Jesus, a work of nonfiction. She has received many honors, among them a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an O. Henry Award, an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Story Prize. She is the State Writer of New York. Gordon teaches at Barnard College and lives in New York City.
1. How does Maria’s Catholic background inform her thought processes, despite her adamant rejection of the Church? What specific childhood event initiated the erosion of her love affair with Catholicism? How does the narrator explain Maria’s sudden flashback to “the terms of her childhood . . . fast, abstinence, sin, virtue” [p. 259] after she is chastised by Joseph? Is Maria able to identify her reaction with the same clarity?
2. The concept of naming looms large throughout the novel. Maria “insists on not being misnamed” even during an emergency [p. 6]; the narrator refers to him/herself as “present at the naming” [p. 13]; Bobby Sands starves himself to death over Thatcher’s refusal to classify him as a political prisoner, “a name she thought incorrect” [p. 29]; Breeda is thought of by the boys as “someone’s sister, someone’s mother, a body without a name” [p. 146]; Pearl feels she has been “misnamed” when a doctor refers to her as a suicide [p. 202]. What does the author suggest about the power inherent in the act of naming–or misnaming–another human being? Is this a particularly Judeo-Christian concept, or does it transcend cultural boundaries? What is the significance of Pearl’s name and of the novel being named for her?
3. Pearl’s strike is distinct from previous hunger strikes in Ireland in that “the hunger strikers hoped against hope that they would be stopped. . . . Pearl doesn’t want to stop; she wants her death for its own sake, as a release from being overwhelmed” [p. 20]. In this light, does Pearl’s action read as self-absorbed? How is the reader’s view of Pearl affected by the opinions of characters like the medical resident who comments, “This kind of anorexia is always a disease of the affluent” [p. 224], and Mick who remarks, “As theater what [Pearl] did was very potent” [p. 292]? What does Stevie mean when he tells Maria that Pearl “deliberately misled us” [p. 282]?
4. Joseph thinks of himself as a failure, a weakling, and a generally ineffectual, disappointed human being. Yet Maria feels that “she has only to be near him to be safe” [p. 204]. What is the source of this disconnect?
5. Pearl is enchanted by Ireland because, unlike the United States, she sees it as a place “where things were serious and people knew what was important and would say it. In Ireland, Pearl felt for the first time that she was a part of history. In America, history had no meaning for her. She could never see herself as part of American history” [p. 27]. Is this a common perception among young people in America? What cultural forces, or lack thereof, might contribute to this attitude? What Irish social mores encourage engagement in a sense of place and history?
6. What does Ya-Katey mean when he states, “I fear purity; I fear it very much; it is a dangerous idea. . . . The mess is our only hope against the tyranny of the pure” [p. 95]? To Maria, the word purity connotes the “wonderful feeling . . . of being whole, of being entirely one thing, and that thing only” [p. 96] that she achieved as a child on the day of her First Communion. Why does she keep this memory secret from Ya-Katey? What sort of purity does Maria seek as an adult? What does purity mean to Pearl and to Joseph?
7. What sort of backdrop does the Tara Arms Hotel form for Maria and Joseph’s excruciating waiting game? What social or cultural information is conveyed by the physical details of the place? Why does it affect Joseph to the extent that “seeing those carpets, and the dingy wallpaper with its pattern of olive-colored reeds, he feels despair for the world. And more: a sense of deep estrangement” [p. 205]?
8. What is the significance of “the form of the chronicle” that the narrator adopts on page 39? What point does the author/narrator make about the ramifications of familial history and the act of storytelling? Could the novel succeed without this extensive background information?
9. Of Breeda and the peace agreement vote, the narrator says, “We forget that there are moments, public moments, what could be called moments in history that change a life. By we I mean those of us who have been brought up, as Pearl had been, in safety and prosperity, whose lives have been shaped by private moments, private acts” [p. 157]. What is implied about the reader by the narrator’s use of the words we and those of us? What effect is achieved through the narrator’s assumption of solidarity with the reader? What particular biases does the narrator weave into the stories of Maria, Pearl, and Joseph? Does this narrator play favorites among the characters?
10. Joseph is keenly aware of the fact that his mother was a servant to Maria’s father and seems to believe that this truth forms an inevitable barrier between him and Maria. Is he right, or is he paranoid? Is Maria’s memory equally ingrained with this dichotomy?
11. Maria’s reaction to the possibility of Pearl’s death reads like an angry mother-goddess mantra: “I will consume your wish to die. You cannot resist me. You won’t win. Having once come from my body, you will bend to my superior, my far more ancient will–not only mine but every mother’s throughout history. You will succumb and once again be more mine than your own” [p. 192]. What lesson does Pearl suggest about this kind of mother love?
12. Is Pearl responsible for Stevie’s death?
13. How does the narrator build tension into the dinner scene after Maria and Joseph meet with Hazel Morrisey? What is the real content behind Joseph’s enigmatic rebuff, “You’ve had enough butter. . . . You’ve had more than enough” [p. 258]? How does Maria’s decision to continue eating–“It’s simple, she says to herself. I should eat. Food brings strength. I require strength. Therefore food” [p. 260]–highlight and contrast with Pearl’s thoughts about eating? Is this episode intended to turn the reader against Maria?
14. Is it useful to read Pearl as a reflection of the Christ story, with Maria in the role of Mary, Joseph as the eponymous surrogate father, Ya-Katey the progenitor who makes a brief visitation, and Pearl as the sacrificial lamb who accepts death in a gesture of atonement, only to be later resurrected? In this scheme, the phrase, “[Pearl] has worked at emptying herself” [p. 102], reflects Philippians 2:7 in which Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” And when Pearl decides to witness Stevie’s death, “The stone slab that had pressed her down . . . was thrown up with the force of her new rising” [p. 174], hints at Easter. What other references support this reading of the novel? What point could the author be making in alluding to the New Testament story?
15. What does it reveal about Joseph that “he believed that a poem about a garden or a painting of a garden was greater than a garden itself” [p. 123]?
16. Pearl’s goal is “to make a sentence of herself, to make of her life one sentence that she knows to be true” [p. 84]. What does Pearl suggest about both the inadequacy of words amidst violence and the power of words to redeem?
17. Why does Joseph see the vision of Maria and Pearl holding hands as “a misleading beauty” [p. 310]?
18. Pearl asks big questions: “What is knowing? What can be known, really known? . . . What is living? How do you understand a life?” [p. 231]; “What is the relation between love and appetite?” [p. 261]; “If you were forgiven, could you still be unforgivable?” [p. 326]; “What did it mean, to face life? What was the face?” [p. 338]; “When the sufferer is suffering, isn’t it an eternal present, like the mind of God?” [p. 218]; “Why do we want life?” [p. 340] What do these heady topics contribute to the story? Does the novel provide answers to any of these questions?
19. What happens to Devorah’s passion for singing? How does Devorah’s story shed light on the three central characters?