1. Do any themes or incidents in this novel contain possible autobiographical resonances? (e. g., Mrs. Hewett had been arrrested for theft; Sidney suffers as an artist forced into poverty by his father's death; marriages are unhappy)
  2. How would you describe Gissing's descriptions of places and situations? (detailed anatomization of London)
  3. What is the relationship between the depictions of poverty and the novel's plot?
  4. What seems to be Gissing's attitude or tone toward the circumstances he describes? (a tone of dry sadness, laconic bitingness toward the facts he narrates--blended disgust and sympathy; many examples of dignity affronted by sordid greed are presented, and a physically and morally repellent environment [16, 36, 45, mild authorial intrusion], with excellent descriptions of London streets and locations) 
  5. What are some instances of narrative irony, and how do these affect the novel's message and tone?
  6. How are chapter titles used to convey Gissing's points?
  7. What effect does the opening scene have on our expectations of the novel? (Clem persecutes Jane; her horrific malice will continue)
  8. With which characters are we expected to identify? (Sidney, Snowden) For which ones do we have the most sympathy?
  9. Where does the moral center of the novel lie? Does it shift a bit toward the end?
  10. What are some associations of the name "Sidney Kirkwood"? Of "John Snowdon"?
  11. What economic or political views are embedded in the narrative viewpoint of The Nether World? (53, 54, 57, 100, 138, 181, 182, 187; 143, John Hewett is presented as weakly attracted to social rebellion, but Kirkwood sees through this) Does the author accept the theory of the improvident poor?
  12. Who seems to represent radical reformers, and how are his views and speeches characterized? (John Hewett, an embittered malcontent; narrator dislikes excessive zeal, 229)
  13. How do the more level-headed members of the working-class view the possibilities for reform? (skeptically, after the reformism of earlier years)
  14. How evident is Gissing's narrator? On what occasions does he intrude authorially? (109, 110, 302) Do you find these passages effective?
  15. Is Gissing's style appropriate to the novel's subject? How would you characterize it?
  16. What are some features of the novel's characterizations? Are the characters consistently presented? Do they develop?
  17. Are their psychological and moral traits reflected in their physical selves? (162) If so, is the practice of reading character through physiognomy common to Victorian novelists? (true of Dickens and Eliot)
  18. How are descriptions of food used to indicate character or milieu?
  19. How do Gissing's judgments of his characters affect our response to the novel? (e. g., John Hewett, his wife, Clara 79, 94, Jane, Clem, Pennyloaf) Which characters are most worthy of respect?
  20. Are there any features of conventional melodrama in the plot of The Nether World?
  21. Are the several subplots naturally related? Are they appropriate for the working out of Gissing's themes?
  22. Is Gissing's style appropriate to the novel's subject? Could this novel have been presented, say, in the style of Eliot's Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda? How is his subject matter different? (deals with present, unlike Eliot; like Dickens, presents urban life, though with more emphasis on the lower classes, who are not presented for comic interest)
  23. Is the title strictly accurate? What range of social classes is presented in the novel? Are there aspects of working-class life which we do not see? Do you think that the characters we meet are typical members of their class?
  24. What is the purpose of showing the scenes in which Bob and Pennyloaf celebrate their wedding? (107, 110) The quarrels in the soup kitchen? What conclusions does the narrator draw from each?
  25. Does Gissing's narrator seem to hold hereditarian or Darwinian views? Would these have been common at the time? What explicit statements does the narrator make on the competition for survival and its consequences? (207-208) What effect do these views seem to have upon the plot?
  26. Do the novel's events bear out these hereditarian views? For example, do the novel's children resemble their parents? Are the characters' choices determined by heredity or social circumstances? (social circumstances don't force Sidney to desert a woman he loves to marry one whom he knows to be of inferior character; circumstances don't force Michael Snowdon to disinherit his faithful daughter in favor of his worthless son)
  27. What are shown to be the destructive effects of competition? (194)
  28. How is Newgate prison described?
  29. How are descriptions of food used to represent character or milieu?
  30. At what point does the narrator claim that he is censoring the material he is representing? (lower class speech, 158--too offensive for his hearers)
  31. Would you describe the central plots as sentimental? Anti-sentimental?  Is Sidney Kirkwood a believable hero? What are some remnants of the traditional Victorian plot?
  32. Are any of the novel's father-son relationships successful? Who seems more at fault in each case?
  33. How is education or its lack significant in affecting characterization and plot? (the educated characters are the most detached and dissatisfied; Michael Snowdon's defects of education affect his judgment)
  34. How is Jane characterized? (136, 152, 166, 233)
  35. On what grounds does Gissing present Jane as unattracted to schemes of philanthropy? How does he know that she is unfit for and repelled by philanthropic efforts? (233) Why is she offended by a life of serving the poor? (are soup kitchen worse than her life as a flower-maker had been?)
  36. How does the novel represent the varous kinds of working-class reformists and middle-class philanthropists? What are Gissing's complaints against middle-class philanthropy? (harsh toward recipients, 257; emphasize efficiency over the preservation of cultural ties; fail to consult recipients)
  37. Are these representations likely fair and accurate in the main? (seems to assume it's impossible to help others and that charity will backfire) Are some of these charges still mounted today? (wealthy foundations impose their own values on other cultures and the poor)
  38. What does the narrator see as flawed in Michael's wishing his daughter to have experiences similar to those to whom she would be ministering? Might there have been a middle ground?
  39. What does the narrator seem to believe are the natural traits of women? Accodingly, what does he consider to be Jane's best natural traits? (naturally consoling and helpful)
  40. What are Michael's plans for Jane's future, and on what grounds does Gissing's narrator find these deficient? (178, 223, 230, 233, 235, 236)
  41. How does she respond to the suggestion that Sidney might share her wealth? (delighted, 226)
  42. If political solutions for social problems are not effective, what may be some possible private ones? (143; Jane is kind and understanding toward those she knows)
  43. What are the contents of Michael Snowdon's first will? Does he neglect his son? (no, gives him 7000 pounds, enough to support him in comfort for life)
  44. What causes him to disinherit his daughter? Might another way have been found to carry out his wishes and provide for his granddaughter? (someone could have been delegated to administer the money)
  45. What seem to be the narrator's attitudes toward religion? (152)
  46. What seem to be motives for Sidney's reluctance to tell Jane that he loves her? (180) What results from this delay?
  47. Is adequate reason given for Sidney's marriage to Clara? Why doesn't he marry the woman he loves and respects? Do you find his "conscientious objections" to a marriage with Jane convincing? Selfish?
  48. What kind of marriages do we see throughout the book? (Hewetts, Byasses, Pennyloaf and Bob, Clem and Mr. Joseph Snowdon, Michael and Jenny Snowdon)
  49. What seems to be the purpose of introducing the Joseph Snowdon plot? Of Michael Snowdon's story of the past? (174; desires to help the poor) How does the arrival of Joseph change the lives of the Snowdon/Kirkwood/Peckover circles?
  50. What is added to the novel by the presence of Clem Peckover and her mother? (Clem an entirely hateful character and her mother not much better)
  51. What are some of her schemes? (desires Bob to arrange for murder of Jane! pushes him to further neglect and abuse of his wife; wants her husband to curry favor with his father) Do these affect the plot?
  52. By the presence of the Byasses? Mr. Scawthorne? What do you make of the latter's proposal to Jane? (indicates that Sidney is not the only man who finds her a desirable potential mate)
  53. How is the topic of alcohol consumption introduced throughout the book? What seem to be Gissing's reaction to public houses? His views on drink?
  54. What prompts small children to consume vinegar? (241)
  55. Does the Clara Hewett subplot illustrate any of the novel's main themes? What are her "notions" of society and her ambitions for the future?
  56. How is she characterized when we meet her again? (amoral, drawn to hedonism, 207) How does she behave toward her fellow actress Grace? (seems unfeeling, considering that the other woman is dying)
  57. How does the narrator interpret Clara's attitudes and the causes of her continuing lack of affect? (he sees her as a victim of limited circumstances, 295--does this seem entirely convincing?)
  58. How is John Hewett's relationship to his daughter portrayed? (possessive, 296-97; Gissing seems to condone Hewett's cherishing of one daughter even at the expense of his wife and other children, 371; seems a near-incestual relationship)
  59. How does Clara respond to the loss of physical beauty? Why do her family assume that they must protect her from the necessity of working?
  60. Does the narrator seem to accept this protective view? (as a "lady," she is not expected to adapt, rendering her life lonely and meaningless)
  61. In her interview with Sidney, how is Clara's behavior described? (acting, 291) How does the narrator intrude in describing this interview? (293) What are her motives in seeking to attract him? (desire for passion; does this seem consistent with her later behavior toward Sidney and her children?)
  62. What are his motives for courting her? Are they entirely charitable, or is he drawn to her by a resurgence of attraction? If so, does the narrator find him blameworthy in shifting his affections? (hurts Jane and his future children)
  63. Are there moments of foreshadowing in the novel? (180)
  64. What is the purpose of the Hewett-Pennyloaf subplot? (cmp. Dickens) The entrance of Scawthorne?
  65. What role is played by the Salvation Army in serving members of the underclass?
  66. Are there Dickensian characters or motifs in the book? (e. g. Great Expectations theme, 354, portrayal of Jane) Do Gissing's plots show the influence of Dickens?
  67. Are the reasons for Kirkwood's rejection of Jane and Michael's change of inheritance convincing? Are the final plot outcomes caused by poverty and injustice, as Gissing would have us believe? (Sidney and Michael act in arbitrary ways; the action of actress Grace is one of personal malice; Joseph is a shark anyway, and Clem sadistic not from poverty but by character)
  68. Do you feel Clara collapses more than her situation renders needful? Is her behavior after her disfigurement consistent with her earlier character? What points are made in the final characterization of Clara? (Gissing seems to accept Clara's desire to withdraw as natural--her face had been her only asset, 284)
  69. Does the plot justify the novel's ending? Do you feel the novel's ending provides a satisfactory closure for the issues it raises?
  70. What purpose is served by Jane and Sidney's final encounter at the grave?
  71. What seems to be the implication of Gissing's ending? (isolated nobility is all that the world can give) How does it affect our retrospective view of the incidents of the novel?

Some Final Questions:

  1. What important social issues are treated in this novel? (effects of social circumstances on character; difficulties of maintaining an intellectual or moral life under circumstances of poverty) To what extent is the novel successful in representing them?
  2. If you have read New Grub Street or The Odd Women, what are some parallels and contrasts in Gissing's views and their presentation? Do these other novels present a more hopeful view of life's possibilities? How would you characterize Gissing's general view of life?
  3. What are some differences between Gissing's portrayal of social distress and that of Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens? What does Gissing emphasize in his descriptions of lower-class life? (shift in class viewpoint; more detail; more variety of character and situation among poor; less identification with a particular protagonist and more with a shared situation; less moral uplift and hope of solutions; deals with present, unlike Eliot; like Dickens presents urban life, though with more emphasis on the lower classes, who are not presented for comic relief)
  4. What are some differences in style between Gissing's The Nether World and say, Eliot's Middlemarch or Daniel Deronada?