Accursed (Oates)

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to get a discussion started for The Accursed:

1. How would you define The Accursed? Is it a vampire story, social commentary, satire, fictional history, gothic tale? What elements of those different genres can you identify in this book?

2. M.W. van Dyck, II is The Accursed's intrusive narrator—interjecting frequently, inserting digressive footnotes, and passing judgment. Is he a reliable narrator—are we to take his word for events in the book? Or are we meant to be skeptical? How would you describe him?

3. How are we to view the events that take place in this novel? Are we to suppose that they "happen" to the fictional characters in the course of the story? Or are we to gather they are the result of the characters' subconscious? Are they dreams? In other words, is this realistic fiction...or fantasy?

4. What is the Curse? What is its foundation? What, metaphorically, is Oates suggesting by the Curse? Who is cursed...and why?

5. The Accursed asks us to ponder the nature of evil? What is "evil" in the scope of the novel? Which of the book's characters are evil? What do you consider evil? Who or what are our real life demons? Are they personal demons or collective (societal)?

6. Follow-up to Questions 5 & 6: Talk about Winslow Slade. What did you think of him initially...and what did you come to understand about him by the novel's end, particularly in light of his final sermon?

7. Discuss the era's attitudes toward—and treatment of—women, African Americans, Jews, workers, and immigrants? Were you shocked at those private and public utterances—views held at the turn of the 20th-century (not so terribly distant from our own time), even by prominent people, whom we admire to this day?

8. Socialism, much "accursed" in American history, even in this day, is a prominent subject in The Accursed. What does it have to do with events of the novel? In other words, why does Oates spend so much ink writing about the socialist movement? Is she sympathetic or opposed to it? What is your understanding of socialism and its vilification?

9. Is there a hero in The Accursed? Are there more than one? Whom do you find admirable? What characters, male or female, if any, do you come to care about in this book?

10. Talk about the women—in particular Adelaide Burr, Annabel Slade, Wilhelmina Burr, Mrs. Peck. What do you think of them?

11. Speaking of Mrs. Peck—what do you think of her offer to Woodrow Wilson—and his refusal? Why does he refuse her help? Who is Mrs. Peck?

12. How are the various historical figures presented in this book—Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London, and Teddy Roosevelt? Is Oates's treatment of them at variance with what you might have expected?

13. Reviewers cite the book's frequent humor. What parts of this book do you find funny?

14. This is a very "literary" book, with references and parallels to literature: Emily Dickinson, Sherlock Holmes, Grimms Brothers fairly tales, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker, to name a few. Can you identify some of them? Why might the author incorporate so many allusions into her work?

15. In the chapter "Ratiocination Our Salvation," Josiah Slade and Pearce van Dyck debate the use of Sherlock Holmes's method of observation and logic to solve the mystery of the Crosswick Curse. For van Dyck, Holmes's ratiocination is "the solution to our human folly; for young Slade, Holmes is merely fiction...and the so-called "puzzles [come] with ready-made solutions" from Conan Doyle. "They're not true mysteries," Slade argues. Van Dyck counters, "But I think they are. They are the distillations of the sprawling, messy, impenetrable mysteries that surround us." Later in the novel, however, Slade begins to think more seriously about van Dyck's approach.

     Here's the discussion question: Do life's mysteries have logical solutions—does Joyce Carol Oates believe they do? What does her novel suggest? What do you think? Is all of life open to reason and logic? Or are there life events too mysterious to be explained by human understanding? (See our LitCourse 2 on the history of the novel and realistic fiction. It includes a Holmes short story for it's course reading.)

16. Could this book have used a tougher editor?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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