NEA Big Read


by Marilynne Robinson

I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes.

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the NEA Big Read Reader Resources. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. If you were in Ruthie and Lucille's situation, would you choose to live with Miss Royce, or cross the bridge with Sylvie? Explain in detail why you would choose one lifestyle and reject the other. What is Lucille seeking by choosing an orderly, conventional life? What are the advantages and disadvantages of her choice? What has Ruth gained and what has she lost in choosing a transient life? Support your opinions with passages from the text.
  2. Analyze the symbolic role of the house in the novel. Describe what it represents to various characters in the novel (Edmund Foster, Sylvia Foster, Ruthie, Lucille, Sylvie, and the women of the town). In the middle of Chapter 8, Ruth describes her thoughts as she explores the abandoned homestead on the island. What does Ruth mean when she says, "the appearance of relative solidity in my grandmother's house was deceptive"? Why does she say "it is better to have nothing"? Why do Sylvie and Ruth try to burn down the house?
  3. In the final chapter of the novel, Ruthie and Sylvie cross the bridge to escape Fingerbone. "I believe it was the crossing of the bridge that changed me finally," Ruth says. How and why is this a symbolic crossing? For Ruth, what is the purpose of the crossing, and what is being crossed? What subject does she dwell on while crossing the bridge? What, in a symbolic sense, is she leaving behind, escaping, or liberating herself from?
  4. Ruth's imagination is extravagant, and she is constantly looking for meaningful patterns in the world. Carefully select three or four revealing passages that describe Ruth's inner thoughts. What does each reveal about her concerns, hopes, and fears? What does her language tell you about her background? How do certain word choices reveal the way she sees the world? Create a written portrait of Ruth, using the passages as evidence to support your ideas.
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