While I Was Gone
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- In the novel's first scene Jo describes the movement of her boat upon the waters: "In the air above us swallows darted - dark, quick silhouettes - and once a cedar waxwing moved smoothly though them. Layers of life above me. Below, I could hear the lap of the deep water through the wall of the boat." How does this reflect the book's epigraph? How do this passage, and the epigraph, work together to express the novel's themes? In what sense are the "trout" in the book's epigraph, and the "deep water" in this passage, metaphors for a universal experience? What do you think they are meant to represent, and how do they foreshadow the novel's events?
- One of the notions Miller returns to throughout the novel is the fracturing of identity, and the disparity between past and future selves. On page 11 she notes, "The impossibility of accepting new versions of oneself that life kept offering. The impossibility of the old version's vanishing." What does she mean by this? How does this relate to Jo's experience in Cambridge? How does it contribute later to her attraction for Eli?
- The first lie Jo tells about herself when she moves into the house on Lyman Street is her name -- she calls herself Felicia Stead. Is this an important lie? What about the stories Jo makes up about her background? How did you feel about this section of the novel, and about Jo/Felicia during this period? Do you think the liberties she takes with these and other details about her previous life enable her to be more herself -- more honest, in a way, because this reinvention of herself is truer to her heart that the life and the identity she fled -- or do they engage her in falsehoods and deceptions that undermine the possibility of truth, and of true friendship?
- Discuss Jo's feelings after Daniel's sermon. She has not seen him since their disagreement the night before; yet as she leaves the church she feels "such a wild reckless joy and excitement that I wanted to yell, to dance under the pelting rain. Daniel! I wanted to shout... Daniel, my husband!" What's changed?
- Discuss the sermon itself - in particular, this notion of "memory as a God-given gift." How do themes of memory and forgetfulness reverberate in the novel as a whole? What relationship, if any, does memory have to morality? How and on what levels do you think Jo was moved by Daniel's sermon? How were you moved by it as a reader?
- After Eli's confession Jo has to make a series of difficult choices. She could have shielded Daniel from the knowledge that she had been prepared to commit adultery, but to do so she would also have had to shield Eli. Should she have turned Eli in to the authorities? Should she have confessed her romantic intentions with Eli to Daniel? What should Jo have done? What do you think the author believes Jo should have done? What would you have done?
- After he confesses to the murder. Eli makes the argument that his scientific achievements counterbalance he crime. "I've worked the rest of my life to assure that who I am has some meaning, some value beyond their part of my past... And I have lived my life that way: making sure every day of its usefulness, of its meaning. I wrecked one life, yes. Dana's life... but I've give, I'm giving now, to thousands, to hundreds of thousands, of other lives." Has Eli redeemed himself? How is your response to this shaped by the fact that - financially, in stature, in his notion of his own self-worth, in the pleasure that he derives form it--Eli has benefited from this work? Can a person who has committed a murder ever be redeemed? What do you think to the author believes, and why?