The Civilized World by Suzi Wyss
Warning: May contain spoilers
Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The main characters in The Civilized World are all women. What common bonds do these women share? What divides them?

2. Ophelia discusses the power of names with Philip, telling him that a name "can leave a psychological imprint." Do you believe that's true? Adjoa lists for Janice the qualities associated with her name—do you think her name fits her personality? Do you think it's possible that she is who she is because of her name? What about the names of some of the other characters, such as Comfort?

3. What do you make of the mysterious pain Adjoa feels in her right arm? When does the pain seem to flare up most frequently? How does the loss of Kojo affect Adjoa?

4. Certainly there are some major cultural differences between life in the United States and in Africa portrayed in the novel; despite this, there are still also many overarching similarities. Think about Comfort and Linda, and Comfort and her mother-in-law, for instance. Can you think of other examples? What do these similarities seem to indicate about human nature?

5. At one point Janice thinks, "What did it mean to be civilized anyway?" She asks Bruce regarding the Baka women, "How do you know whether their quality of life is better or worse than ours?" What do you think? What does it mean to be civilized? Is any one way better than another? What do you think the novel has to say on this matter?

6. Janice feels most at home in Africa; Ophelia feels uncomfortable and out of place there. To what do you attribute this difference? Are they simply different women with different tastes? Or do you think they have different expectations for their lives in Africa, expectations that are in some ways self-fulfilling? Do you agree with Gifty's assertion that: "Life is like a mirror... if you look at it well, it will return the look"?

7. Watching Philip at one point, Ophelia thinks to herself that she "wanted to reassure him that she would change back into the person she once was... once the baby joined them, she would be the best mother and wife he could wish for, they would be a family, and everything would be fine." Do you think this is a reasonable thought? Does Ophelia truly believe it herself?

8. Think about Janice's relationship with Bruce, and Adjoa's with Kwame. Do you see any similarities between the two? Consider Ophelia and Philip as well. Do you think the women are trying to convince themselves that these relationships are something that they're not? If so, why?

9. Why does Marvin make Linda so uncomfortable? What did you think when Peter assumed that Marvin's friends were black? What does the situation with Marvin reveal about Linda and Peter's relationship?
10. Because the novel is structured the way it is, we are able to see many characters both through their own eyes and through the eyes of the other characters. How did your views of some of these characters change after witnessing them from another perspective? Did you find any of the characters to have particularly incongruous views of either themselves or others? How does the use of this technique further illuminate the characters?

11. Each of the main characters feels fearful at one point or another—this seems less true of the male characters. Do women generally feel more vulnerable to unsafe situations than men? In the final story, Janice vows to help her daughter "grow into a fearless and self-assured young woman, despite the reality of a world that could knock you off your feet when you least expected it." What role does this vow play in Janice's decision at the end of the novel?

12. This novel is made up of nine stories—what does this structure lend to the novel? The final story is the only one told from two perspectives—Adjoa's and Janice's. What do you think the purpose of this is? Do you think the ending is a hopeful one?

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