Reading Questions for Parrot and Olivier in America
2. In what ways are Parrot and Olivier uniquely positioned to represent the huge social changes that were sweeping across Europe and America during the late-18th and early-19th centuries?
3. As he arrives in America, Olivier remarks that "the coast of Connecticut was the most shocking monument to avarice one could have ever witnessed, its ancient forests gone, smashed down and carted off for profit" (page 144). What other instances of American greed does he observe? What is the irony of a French aristocrat being appalled by the greed given free rein by American democracy?
4. Carey's prose style in Parrot and Olivier in America is vivid, richly metaphoric, and often extravagantly sensuous. When Parrot and Mathilde make up after a fight, for example, Parrot writes that her "hands were dragging at my clothes and her upturned face was filled with cooey dove and tiger rage. Her mouth was washed with tears. I ate her, drank her, boiled her, stroked her till she was like a lovely flapping fish and her hair was drenched and our eyes held and our skins slid off each other and we smelled like farm animals, seaweed, the tanneries upriver" (page 148). What are the pleasures of such writing? Where else in the novel does the writing reach this pitch of overflowing metaphor?
5. What does Olivier find to be the most appealing characteristics of America's fledgling democracy? What does he find most baffling?
6. Olivier is loosely based on Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat and author of the classic Democracy in America. In what ways does Olivier resemble Tocqueville? In what ways does Carey depart from the historical figure to create his own character?
7. How do Parrot and Olivier initially regard each other? What are the major turning points that lead to their unlikely friendship? Why is their friendship possible only in America?
8. At the end of the novel, Olivier argues that America's young democracy "will not ripen well," that it will suffer the "tyranny of the majority" (page 378), and that the American people prefer their leaders to be just as undereducated as they are. He goes on to tell Parrot: "You will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals..." (page 380). Parrot attributes Olivier's harsh judgment to being heartbroken and having suffered as "a child of the awful guillotine" (page 380). But to what extent have Olivier's predictions come true? In what ways can this passage be read as a sly commentary on recent presidents and the sorry state of the press in America?
9. How are Olivier and Parrot differently affected by the leveling of class distinctions in America? Does Parrot benefit from being in America?
10. Why does Amelia break off her engagement to Olivier? Does she make the right decision? Is Olivier better off without her?
11. Of the banker Peek's mortgage loan to Mathilde, Parrot says: "For Peek had played Shylock with her, himself lending her the capital and loading her to breaking point with every type of extra fee, compulsory insurance, brokerage, advance payments on taxes I am still sure that he invented" (page 272). How surprising is it to see this version of today's housing boondoggles played out in in the 1830s? What is the significance of these schemes having such a long history?
12. After he discovers that Mathilde, Eckerd, and Watkins have burned down their house for insurance money, Parrot exclaims: "You are scoundrels, all of you." To which Mathilde replies: "We are artists. We have a right to live" (page 314). Is Parrot right to call them scoundrels? Or is Mathilde's point of view the more sympathetic one?
13. What are some of the funniest moments in Parrot and Olivier in America? What makes Carey's writing so humorous?
14. What does the novel add to our knowledge of the early period of American democracy by seeing it through the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier? In what ways does the era described in the novel mirror our own?
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