1. Introduction to the novels of Jane Hamilton
2. About the Author
3. Questions for Discussion
4. More Recommended Reading
Jane Hamilton Reader's Companion, ISBN 0-385-47878-1, copyright
© 1995 by Anchor Books, an imprint of Doubleday, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell
Publishing Group, Inc., 1540 Broadway New York, NY 10036
Introduction to the novels of Jane Hamilton
In these first two novels by Jane Hamilton, one finds the birth and development
of a strong and unique voice in fiction. The Book of Ruth and A Map
of the World are linked by many characters, themes and ideas, but each book
has its own distinct personality. In both of her novels, Jane Hamilton has
created women who are far from perfect--their flaws are made painfully
apparent--but who discover in themselves great reserves of strength. Although
the physical landscape they inhabit (an important factor in both novels) is
very mild, these women seem to be surrounded by destructive forces. Their
families and communities threaten their peaceful existences, and sometimes even
their lives. Although both women may seem initially to be at the mercy of
these destructive forces, there is something in them that never quite gives
The Book of Ruth is told from the perspective of a simple, naive
woman--in describing the events of her life she reveals perhaps more about
herself than she is aware. Since Ruth's voice structures the tale, it is very
neat and methodical. The major events of the novel are complemented by a rich
sense of Ruth's everyday life so that the dramatic climax of the book, which is
hinted at throughout, is part of a well-drawn whole. Hamilton takes a much
looser approach in A Map of the World. We are not limited to Alice's
point of view in this novel; we learn about the events in her life from the
perspective of her husband, Howard, as well. In addition, this novel is not
designed to build to a single, final climax. The characters and the
relationships in this novel are perhaps even more complex than they are in
The Book of Ruth.
Despite the stylistic differences between these two novels, what remains
consistent is Hamilton's ability to convey the emotional lives of her
characters with clarity and resonance. Ruth's and Alice's pain is palpable,
and their joys are our rewards as well.
It is the express purpose of this guide to aid you in reading, discussing, and
more fully enjoying these illuminating works. It provides you with new
perspectives on the works and hopefully provides you with new avenues for your
About the Author
Jane Hamilton lives, works, and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin.
Her short stories have appeared in Harper's magazine, and her first book,
The Book of Ruth, was awarded the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award
for best first novel.
Questions for Discussion
The Book of Ruth
1) Ruth's story is particularly poignant because of the way she conveys so much
that is beyond her understanding. What are the differences between what Ruth
tells us and what we infer about her life and the people in it? How does
Hamilton achieve this?
2) How do you respond to Ruth's naiveté? Does her lack of understanding
about the people in her life frustrate you? Or does her innocence make her more
3) May is in many ways a monstrous character in Ruth's life. What about her,
if anything, makes her seem more human? Do you see any of May in Ruth?
4) How does Ruth get caught between May and Ruby? Does Justy's birth improve
the situation for her at all?
5) Daisy is a puzzling character because of the way she seems so comfortable in
the world of the novel, even while she remains distinct and apart from everyone
in that world. How is her friendship important to Ruth? Is she as well-drawn
as the other characters in the book?
6) The Book of Ruth's climax is hinted at subtly (and not so subtly)
throughout the novel. What effect does this type of foreshadowing have on your
reading? Does it add to or diminish the impact of the events when they finally
7) How do you respond to Ruth's attitude toward Ruby at the end of the book?
A Map of the World
8) We get very little objective sense of the characters in A Map of the
World in relation to each other and their environment; their accounts are
extremely subjective and heavily tinged with emotion. How do you respond to
9) How well do you feel you know Alice? Howard? Theresa? Does Alice come across
the same way through Howard's eyes as she does through her own? How consistent
is your impression of Howard?
10) Do you trust Alice and Howard's versions of the events of the novel? What
do you imagine they must really seem like to the people around them?
11) What is the function of Howard's narration? Does his perspective change
your feelings about Alice and what happens to her? Is it clear why he doubts
12) What do we learn about Alice from her interaction with the other prisoners?
What does she learn about herself?
13) At the point in the novel when Alice is arrested she is still completely
overwhelmed and incapacitated by Lizzy's death and her role in it. How do the
accusations against Alice and her time in prison change her and help her to
deal with what happened to Lizzy?
14) Do you feel as though things are resolved at the end of the novel?
15) Which character in the novel do you respond to the most?
16) Both novels focus on a trio of characters--a triangle of sorts (Ruth, Ruby
and May in The Book of Ruth; Alice, Howard and Theresa in A Map of
the World). Do these triangles have any dynamics in common? What function
does the character outside the marriage serve in each triangle?
17) Compare the characters of Aunt Sid in The Book of Ruth and Aunt Kate
in A Map of the World. Do they serve the same function for Ruth and for
18) How do you see the development of Hamilton's style between the two
19) How would you describe the world of Jane Hamilton's novels? Is it
particularly just or unjust? Does it strike you as realistic?
More Recommended Reading
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! (Bantam)
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine (Bantam)
Houston, Pam. Cowboys Are My Weakness (Washington Square Press)
Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal Dreams (HarperCollins)
MacLean, Norman. A River Runs Through It (Pocket Books)
Stegner, Wallace. Crossing to Safety (Penguin)