- Ellen does not believe in the church's version of God. "Chickenshit is what I would say" [p. 96], she says of Nadine's version of Heaven. But she does have her own version of God, and speaks to him on occasion. What sort of relationship does she have with the deity? What kind of deity is he--fair or strict? Accessible or inaccessible? Forgiving or unforgiving? How much of his character derives from the traditional God about whom the church has taught her?
- The society around--particularly her mother's family--tries to make her feel guilty about many of her actions, even, in the case of her mama's mama, about her very existence. To what degree does Ellen share the feeling that she herself is guilty? Are the acts she feels guilty about the same ones she is blamed for by the people around her? She seems deeply concerned with the idea of personal atonement. What are her feelings about atonement and how does she herself atone by the end of the novel?
- Money and the good and bad effects of having it or not having it are a recurring issue in Ellen Foster. Ellen boldly states, "All I really cared about accumulating was money. I saved a bundle." In the book, economic status is often integrated into characters descriptions or included in the rationale for characters' actions. How does Gibbons depict money as a force in people's lives? Is money, in and of itself, deemed to be either good or evil?
- In Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons has chosen not to use quotation marks for dialogue. Look at passages like the ones on pages 32, 47 and 48, and 112. How do you know who is speaking? Are we listening only to Ellen, or listening in on a private question? How does the author's decision not to use quotation marks affect the reading experience?
- "Dora, let me tell you a thing or two," Ellen says. "There is no Santa Claus" (p. 107). Yet, on Christmas Eve, Ellen longs to hear something landing on the roof. Having been deprived of her own childhood illusions, she hates Dora for retaining all of hers, but in spite of Starletta's happy Christmas and her toys, Ellen does not hate Startletta. What is the difference between Dora's and Starletta's innocent belief in Santa Claus? What does the Christmas scene as a whole say about the characters of Dora and Nadine? What does it say about family, childhood, innocence and celebration?
- What does Ellen's encounter with the school physciatrist tell us about Ellen? What does it tell us about the psychiatrist and the kind of therapy he practices? How effective is the therapy as a tool for dealing with children like Ellen? Is it the psychiatrist's personal defects that keep it from working with Ellen, or would it be equally ineffective no matter who the practitioner was?
- Two of the primary metaphors that recur throughout the novel are the magician and the microscope. What do you think each symbolizes? Who is the magician? How do his "appearances" after the deaths of Ellen's mother and father affect her internalization of the events? Why does the novel's diction change so markedly during these passages?
- Why has Gibbons chosen the quotation from Emerson's Self-Reliance to begin her novel? How does the quotation relate to the text, to the character of Ellen, and to Gibbon's stated and implied themes? What has the novel itself to say about the attribute of American literature? What other American novels does Ellen Foster echo? If you have read Mark Twain's Huckelberry Finn, can you compare the two novels? Would it be fair to say that Ellen Foster is a female version of that very masculine story? How does the concept of "self reliance" mold both books?