The opening paragraphs of this book constitute a virtual position paper, raising some of the basic questions of the autobiography to follow--the importance of temperamental differences vs. historical change; the juxtaposition of family continuity and ethical differences. Gosse’s relationship with the past is of great importance, and his need to express and resolve this the motivation for the book, untangling the mingling of love with the pain of difference. One might say that autobiography is especially suited for dealing with the intensity of the parent-child relationship, perhaps even more than fiction with its emphasis on other sexual and social relationships.
Father and Son is one of the rare literary treatments of Plymouth Brethrenism. Why do you think this may be the case? (small numbers, extremely separatist nature of sect)
What are some distinctive features of their doctrines, even within the spectrum of nineteenth-century Protestantism? From the evidence of this book, what seems to have been their attitude toward other Protestant religions?
Can you see differences from and similarites between Gosse’s education and Mill’s account of his early life? What are some differences in Gosse’s mode of presentation?
--like Mill, he sees his parents as representative of a generation, places incidents in a historical context (55), and sees his own education as special
Can you compare and contrast this autobiography with those of Trollope and Martineau?
--like Trollope, both parents presented as significant (a contrast with Mill); like Martineau, Gosse provides a good treatment of childhood responses (e. g., 21)
What seems the narrator's attitude toward his parents, their religion, temperament and world view?
--presents them as virtually unique, unusually literalminded (57, 58)
--judges narrowness and implicit arrogance (96)
--shows respect for his mother's verbal abilities and moral force, believes she could have been a significant novelist
--effect of their tutelage: "They desired to make me truthful; the tendency was to make me positive and skeptical."
How would you characterize Gosse’s style and narrative voice? Is it restrained? Unhappy? Multi-tonal? How does his style affect the tale’s narration?(honest; shows feeling; detailed characterizations)
--gets unpleasant details exactly
--wry distance creates irony and sympathy at the same time (50, 53, 145)
--effective dramatic scenes--e. g. boy worshipping chair
--uses religious rhetoric to comic effect
--metaphors, e. g., 19, 60, 84
What are some humorous situations, and their cause? (e.g., episode of idolatry of the chair, destruction of plumb pudding)
--emphasizes literalness of religious terminology, and a child's attempt to make sense out of an adult world (even though his environment was to some degree a special case, even in other contexts theoretical religious statements are often confusing to children)
--anticipates Piaget in his capturing of a child's reasoning processes (father not omnipotent, 33; sense of dual self, 35; childhood "magic," 38; disappointed expectations, 39; rustling noises, 41)
Which scenes and episodes in the autobiography are especially well-described?
--good presentation of mother's death, and pathos of father's emotion; of his childhood isolation; scene of baptism dramatically narrated
What are some stages in the formation of the young Gosse's identity? (childhood anger and rebellion, 60, 43; 73)
What role does poetry play in his development? To what kinds of poetry is he attracted? (Latin verse, poetry of Thomas Young, Walter Scott) What is shown by his literary tastes?
How does Gosse learn about Shakespeare, and how does he respond? With what unfavorable attitudes does he have to contend?
Does his account of a sensitive Victorian middle-class childhood resonate with others you have read--e. g., that of Waldo in Schreiner’s The Story of the African Farm? Of Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh?
What observations does the narrator make on the changing physical face of nature over the course of the century? Are these concerns shared by other nineteenth-century autobiographers you have read?
What seem to be the narrator's views of class hierarchy? How can you tell?
How does Gosse represent the women he portrays, especially his mother and stepmother? Are his attitudes fair-minded and egalitarian?
What seems the development or structure of the second half of the book? What methods does Gosse use to show the growing divergence of son from father?
Which aspects of reality are shown as responsible for Gosse's eventual skepticism? (sense of forces beyond anyone's control) In particular, what leads him to agnosticism?
What aspects of his parents' religion and training does he believe may have inclined him to view religious doctrines unimaginatively? Does he believe that their might have been alternatives? (more tolerance for imaginative literature might have encouraged sympathy with the more imaginative features of religious belief and practice)
Is the ending appropriate and/or satisfactory? Why or why not? Is there a natural pause from the sequence of his narrative? What is the effect of the final letter and quotation? Do these seem to require further comment?
What are some difficulties in framing the conclusion to an autobiography? (he specifically states that this is not an autobiography, 212)
What seems Gosse's final attitude toward his father, and toward the nature of his upbringing and experiences? Do you think that at times he judges his father too severely or too leniently?
Gosse later became a minor poet and distinguished literary critic. Which features of the autobiography seem consistent with his later career? Does the book satisfactorily anticipate the man he finally became?
Is the autobiography well-organized? What are some basic shaping features of its organization? (mother's death, father's depression)
Does the unity of focus in subject matter add or detract from the interest of his account?
Are there other Victorian writers whose account of their development presents a pattern of imaginative sustenance after deprivation? (cmp. Ruskin, J. S. Mill)
What are some ways in which Gosse's narration differs from these earlier accounts and/or expresses a more modern sensibility? (less sense of moral development toward a particular destiny or social purpose; more interest in the exploration of personality for its own sake)
How would you describe the sensibility of the author of Father and Son? (aesthetic, skeptical, detached)
What effect do you think Gosse’s puritan upbringing may have had on his eventual literary tastes? (penchant for poetry, concern with truth in recording--a Pre-Raphaelite ideal; interest in sculpture)