What were “odd women”? Why was this a term used by Victorians? What factors may have made marriage a topic of controversial and (on occasion) bitterness at the time?
What are some features of Gissing’s style? How, for example, might you contrast it with that of Dickens or Eliot?
1. In chapter one, what “odd women” do we meet? Why do you think Gissing chose this family scene for the novel’s opening?
What attitudes of the parents are implicitly criticized in Gissing’s presentation?
2. What has changed in the intervening 15 years since chapters 1 and 2? What specific problems result from their inability to gain adequate employment?
3. What do we learn about the Barfoot establishment? How is Rhoda Nunn described? Do you think the narrator views her favorably? (60-61) What are some implications of her name?
What impresses Virginia about her former friend Rhoda?
4. What type of suitor does Monica reject, and on what grounds? Do you think the narrator/author judges her choices favorably or unfavorably?
What would Victorians have thought of the circumstances under which she meets Mr. Widdowson? What does Monica think of the prospect of learning to be a clerical assistant?
5. Are there any ominous signs in Widdowson’s account of himself to Monica? (he does seem hermitlike) Should he have told her outright that his income was 600 pounds a year? How does this news affect her?
Are there any oddities of his behavior which may bode ill for the future? (46) Does Monica love him? (48)
6. What contrasts do we see in the characters of Miss Barfoot and Rhoda? (52, 56) What are some of Miss Barfoot’s limitations in charity, and why do you think these are mentioned?
How do they differ on the issue of whether to reinstate a “fallen woman”? (56-59) What are their different views on the value of marriage for women?
Does the narrator seem to have class biases of his own? On what basis does he judge his female and male characters?
7. What changes in Monica’s life occur when she is able to leave the shopworker’s establishment? (better lodging, better health, shorter hours, makes a friend)
What part does Mr. Widdowson play in her new life? (follows her, worries about her, 73, she agrees to meet him weekly)
8. On a visit to Miss Barfoot, what tales does Everard tell of his friends’ unhappy marriages? Does anything in his account seem one-sided or biased?
What does Miss Barfoot tell Rhoda of Everard’s past? (85) For what occupation had he trained, and what does he do now? What do you make of the fact that neither Mr. Widdowson nor Everard have an occupation?
9. Under what circumstances does Everard’s friend Mr. Mikelthwaite prepare for marriage? Why do you think this incident is included in the plot? What intention toward Rhoda does Everard express, and what is Mr. Mikelthwaite’s response?
10. When Everard visits Miss Barfoot and Rhoda to tell them of Mickelthwaite’s marriage after a 17 year courtship, what does he claim are his views on what would be an ideal marriage? (104) Has his relationship to his cousin and Rhoda undergone change?
11. What are some contrasts between Monica and her friend Mildred Vesper? What views does Mildred hold on her friend’s upcoming marriage?
12. Which two weddings and marriages are contrasted in this chapter? Who attends each?
What gift has Everard given the Mikelthwaite family? Why does he feel no inclination to return home after his meal with the Mikelthwaites?
13. What rift temporarily separates Rhoda and Miss Barfoot? What is Everard’s opinion when he hears of the quarrel? How are their differences finally reconciled?
Do you find anything lacking in Mary Barfoot's speech? Do you think it presents an overly self-critical view of Victorian women?
14. "Motives Meeting": At this point, what are apparently Barfoot's intentions in courting Rhoda? What views of an ideal union does he propose? How does she respond to him, and from what intentions? (148)
What does the reader assume may be the outcome to all this?
15. "The Joys of Home": How is this title ironic? What are some of the topics on which Monica and Widdowson differ? What are his views of an ideal life? Of religion? (154) Of wifely duty? Of her possession of independent property? (153)
Of foreign travel? (158-59) On what grounds does he decide that they should not travel to southern France?
Chapter 16. "Health from the Sea": How is this title also ironic? What complications arise as the Widdowsons attempt a conventional outing to the seashore?
Chapter 17, “The Triumph”: Under what circumstances does Everard declare his love for Rhoda? Is this a proposal? How does she respond? Is he disheartened? Does he seek marriage or a “free union”?
What is the effect of this conversation on her? Why is the chapter titled “The Triumph”?
Chapter 18. “A Reinforcement”: What fate overtakes Everard’s brother Tom? How does Everard amuse himself in the midst of courting? What prompts Everard’s interest in Monica and her husband?
Chapter 19. “The Clank of the Chains”: What occurs when Widdowson follows his wife to the Academy? Whom does he suspect of flirtation with his wife? To what type of leisure pursuit does Monica turn in her distress?
What prompts Monica’s attraction toward Bevis?
Chapter 20. “The First Lie”: What is this “first lie”? Is Widdowson content with it? What had Monica and Bevis discussed?
Chapter 21. “Toward the Decisive”: What do we learn of Mary Barfoot’s reasons for an interest in Everard’s love affair? Is this unexpected? Does this seem plausible? What are her ultimate emotions toward the young couple? Does she predict future happiness?
What motives prompt Rhoda’s sudden friendliness with Mildred? What information does she glean? What prompts her visit to Widdowson at Herne Hill, and with what results?
Under what conditions does Everard suggest that he will meet up with Rhoda? What are some implications of this choice of site?
What do we learn about her emotions from the manner in which she prepares for the trip? Why do you think the narrator reminds us of Mary Barfoot’s response?
Does Gissing's narrator seem to have class biases of his own? On what basis does he judge his female and male characters?
Is the helplessness of the Madden sisters the result of temperament or of upbringing? Is the answer to this question important to the kinds of points Gissing was trying to make? Does their final improvement in happiness undercut the novel's plea for better occupations for women?
Are there resemblances betwen the Widdowson-Monica plot and The Doll's House? What finally causes the failure of their marriage? (She deceives, he affects to "protect," is possessive; in The Doll's House, by contrast, an outer crisis precipitates their separation.)
Are there comparisons with John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman?
What seems to be Gissing's response to the ideals of democracy? (15, 83-84)
Are any of the characters of this novel presented as snobbish in some respects? Does Gissing disapprove of their attitudes? (102, 128, 183)
What are some features of Gissing's style? Are there interesting features of this novel's style and form? Are there distracting or awkward elements in Gissing's style? (narrator interprets rather than shows; heavy style, trite at wrong moments, e. g. 266) Yet also there is a startling immediacy of emotion--characters weep at right moments.
Can you trace elements of Dickens's influence on Gissing? (Vesper almost a Dickensian sentimental archetype)
Do the protagonists develop in character during the novel?
What seems to be the thematic purpose of presenting the affair between Monica and Mr. Bevis?
Why do you think the Mickelthwaites and the feeble Maddon sisters are included in the novel? What is represented by each? (conventional domestic bliss, despair) What do they indicate about the desirability of marriage? Are there other characters or marriages which serve as examples, good or bad?
Is this a novel in which social circumstances determine events? What causes the complications in the relationship between Everard and Rhoda?
In the final scene between them during their northerly vacation, what finally causes the failure/degeneration of the relationship between Rhoda and Everard? (277, 299) Are either of them presented as more unreasonable?
Why isn't Everard concerned to prove that he hasn't been unfaithful, and why does Rhoda wish him to attempt to bring evidence of his honesty?
What is Everard's motive for rejecting marriage, and hers for rejecting a free union? (latter issue virtually avoided, 264, 265) Do either or both of them learn from their experience?
In their later and final interview, has either or both reversed his/her position? Why may this have been the case? Do you think both are acting in equally good faith? What do you think might have happened had Rhoda accepted Everard's formal proposal after so long an absence?
Is there an inconsistency between Rhoda and Everard's contempt for "most women" and their profession of advanced ideas? (Rhoda, 317) The novel's emphasis falls less on legal restrictions and discrimination than on stupidity and incompetence caused by lack of training.
In the context of the novel, do we assume that Everard will have a happy marriage with Agnes Brissenden? Will Rhoda marry?
Is pregnancy realistically treated in this novel? (realistic portrayal of either pregnancy or sexual desire unusual in novel of period) Notice the pain all the characters feel in speaking of it, even Rhoda. What do you make of the notion of a nine month convalescence?
What is the significance of the novel's conclusion, in which Monica dies in childbirth and her and Widdowson's child will be raised by Alice? Has Widdowson learned from his experience, and does he seem likely to be a good father? (won't raise his daughter)
How has Rhoda's life been affected by her experience with Everard? Has she learned from this experience? Is Gissing sympathetic toward her ideals at this point?
What is the significance of Rhoda's final statement concerning Monica's daughter? Will she be reared in a better world?
Do you think Gissing accepted the Victorian dichotomy between marriage and career for women? What do you think are his views of marriage?
He seems to hold something of Everard's view that legal forms quench "true love," and the experience of cohabitation is drastically altered by the presence or absence of marital status.
How does the novel link the issues of "free love" and feminism? Is this an appropriate association? Is Rhoda presented as making a "free" choice?
(Everard offers her a life of travel and leisure, that is, one without social purpose. The idea that Rhoda could have been a married teacher doesn't seem to occur to Everard or even to her--yet surely a family with more than 1500 pounds a year could afford to pay for child care to free her to continue teaching.)
The novel also arguably fails to present the issue of "free love" realistically. This was not really a strictly feminist issue in 1893, since men would have benefited at least as much as women. The matter of children also would have been immensely important--at the very least the lovers would have had to discuss contraception.)
Is the character of Monica consistently presented throughout? Does she develop and mature as the novel progresses, and if so, what influences her development? What views does she come to hold on "free unions" vs. legal ties, and does this suprise you?
Are there parallels between the relationship/non-relationship of Monica and Bevis and that of Rhoda and Everard, and of Monica and Widdowson?
Are you dramatically satisfied with Monica's death in childbirth? (seems too convenient) Until Esther Waters, virtually no heroine of a major British novel bears an illegitimate child and lives, and few survive adultery in good health.
What, if anything, does Widdowson learn from the failure of his marriage? What does he conclude would have been necessary for him to have had a satisfactory marriage?
What social circumstances underlie Gissing's plot? To what extent had employment opportunities and expectations shifted during the Victorian period?
Can you think of other Victorian novels/prose works which present similar conflicts? (Mona Caird, Daughters of Danaeus, Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, George Meredith, Diana of the Crossways, Olive Schreiner, The Story of An African Farm)
What final views does the novel seem to suggest regarding sex/gender relationships? Marriage? The possibilities for human happiness in and outside of marriage?
To what extent may this novel be autobiographical? (Gissing made two unhappy marriages with uneducated, poor women, and his two unmarried sisters kept a school.)
Is this a good novel? What are its merits? (Gissing shows an unusual ability to present complexity of motives in several characters--Barfoot, Rhoda, Everard)
Page numbers are from the Norton Library Edition, 1971.