Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Mitchell) - Discussion Questions

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 help get a discussion started for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:
1. What is the purpose of Dejima? Why do the Japanese wish to isolate European traders from their society, walling them off on a man-made island?

2. How do the Europeans and the Japanese view one another in this novel? What stereotypes do the Europeans have toward the Japanese? Why are Europeans determined to break through the barriers errected by the Shoguns—are their motives humanistic or mercenary...principled or unprincipled?

3. In an interview with a Japanese newspaper, David Mitchell said his intention was to "write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives." Do you think Mitchell succeeded in being even-handed to both cultures?

4. This book also explores the clash between science and superstition; or the European enlightenment and intuition. How do those two different ways of knowing play out in The Thousand Autumns?

5. Jacob is a devout Christian. Are his religious ideals challenged or altered in any way? How do the Japanese view the religion of the Europeans?

6. Jacob is referred to as "an honest soul in a human swamp of crocodiles, a sharp quill among blunt nibs." How well does this passage describe his character? How else would you describe Jacob; what other personality/character traits does he possess?

7. Is Jacob naive to see right and wrong as "moral bookkeeping" and to believe "all that matters is truth"? How difficult is it in this book to define, or discern, or prove what is true?

8. Mitchell is interested in language. How powerful are the story's translators? What role do translators play in protecting—or distorting—meaning and truth through the use of language? Can translation ever penetrate the meaning of another language?

9. Talk about the numerous moral dilemmas faced by Ogawa Uzaemon? Does he make the right choices...with regards to his parents, his wife, Orito, and Jacob?

10. Discuss Japanese society: especially the highly stratified social order, including the role and of women and the restrictions placed on them. Is Japanese society more, or less, hierarchical than European society?

11. How would you describe Orito Aibagawa? What is her role in Japanese society—in what ways does Japanese culture restrict, even debase Orito. What makes Jacob fall in love with her when he is already committed to Anna back home?

12. Why does Orito decide to return to the shrine? Would you have returned?

13. Discuss John Penhaligon and the pivotal decisions he makes in the novel. Why does the Phoebus turn away from Dejima?

14. Who wins the game of Go—the magistrate or the abbot?

15. Which of the book's three sections do you find most engaging...or least engaging?

16. How would you classify this novel—as a suspense-thriller, mystery, melodrama, cultural study, or historical novel? How would you describe it to someone?

17. Was the book's ending satisfying? How else might it have ended? Does Jacob die a happy or fulfilled man? Where do you think he would have preferred to end his days?

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

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