The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the acclaimed novel by Richard Flanagan.
August, 1943: Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. His life, in a brutal Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, is a daily struggle to save the men under his command. Until he receives a letter that will change him forever.
A savagely beautiful novel about the many forms of good and evil, of truth and transcendence, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What is the significance of the name of the novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North? Why might Flanagan have chosen to name his book after Basho’s well-known travelogue by the same name?
2. Consider the structure of the novel. How does the division and organization of the passages help to underscore the themes of time and memory that are revisited throughout the book? Likewise, consider how the structure allows the author to present a variety of points of view. What common themes does this help to uncover and what does it reveal about the common experiences of the characters? Does this form allow us to make any generalizations about the common human experience? Alternatively, how does the structure of the novel help to inform us about the difficulties and loneliness of the personal human experience?
3. How does the author’s “visual” portrait of the characters and the places they inhabit inform us about the state of the characters and shape our reaction to their story? Evaluate Flanagan’s choice of imagery and language. What type of imagery and language is most prevalent in the book? Does Flanagan employ much symbolism? How does this ultimately shape our experience of the book and our understanding of the major themes addressed therein?
4. The POWs are put to work—often to their deaths—as slaves building a railway for the Japanese emperor. What does this railway represent to the Japanese people and their leader? Why are they so devoted to its construction that they can be driven to violence and murder to ensure its completion? Nakamura says that the English also utilized “non-freedom” in order to ensure progress in their own country. What does this seem to indicate about the nature of progress and how do his comments change our perception of both the European and the Asian characters and what is happening on the Line?
5. Which of the characters believe that they are “good men”? How do they each define “goodness”? Does their self-analysis remain consistent throughout the story? If not, what seems to affect this? Is their self-perception in line with how we, as readers, perceive them? Does Flanagan provide us with a clear sense of who is “right” and who is “wrong” in the story—or who is “good” and who is “evil”? What does this seem to reveal about ethics and the matter of good and evil? Can we draw any conclusions at the book’s end about what it ultimately means to be a “good” person?
6. Evaluate Flanagan’s depiction of the dual nature of man. Consider representations of good and evil, of man as philosopher-poet and man as animal, of the public and private self. Does it seem to be possible for man to resist this dual nature? Does the novel indicate whether man can choose which side of his dual nature prevails over the other or is this beyond man’s control?
7. Early in the novel, Dorrigo in his old age recalls a saying: “A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else”. What does this saying mean? What message does the book ultimately seem to impart about memory and remembrance? Upon deciding whether to keep Rabbit’s illustrations of the war, Bonox Baker says that “memory is the true justice” while Dorrigo, at this point in the story, believes it can be “the creator of new horrors”. Is it better to remember and even speak about one’s past or to remain silent and try to forget? What examples of this from the novel support your point of view?
8. The passages that feature Nakamura after the war reveal his struggle to understand himself and his past actions. Does he believe that the violence he committed or ordered was justified? What conclusion does he come to at the end of his life? How does his viewpoint evolve over the course of his lifetime and what influences this thought process and his understanding of himself and his actions during the war? Do any other characters also submit themselves to this process of self-analysis and philosophical inquisition? Are their experiences very similar?
9. Does The Narrow Road to the Deep North ultimately answer the question “What is a hero?” Who in the novel can be defined as a hero and what are some of the heroic actions depicted in the book? Are some of the characters more naturally suited to be leaders or is the role of leader or hero one they assume only because it is demanded of them? What proof do we find of this throughout the novel?
10. Flanagan writes: “Horror can be contained within a book, given form and meaning. But in life horror has no more form than it does meaning”. Does Flanagan’s novel give form and meaning to horror and suffering or does he resist this in his own work? Consider the places in the text where the themes of futility and the meaninglessness of suffering and horror surface. What does the description of the death of Darky Gardiner seem to contribute to this dialogue? Do the Europeans and the Japanese share similar views of death and suffering? If not, how do they differ and what seems to cause these differences in philosophy?
11. Evaluate the relationship between Dorrigo Evans and Amy Mulvaney. Why do they initially seem to be drawn to each other? What obstacles do they face as a couple? Could any of these obstacles have been overcome? While they are playing cards, one of Amy’s friends says, “Love is public . . . or it’s not love”. Do you agree with this statement? Can Dorrigo and Amy’s relationship be defined as love? If not, how would you categorize their relationship? When Dorrigo and Amy see each other on the bridge many years after their affair, why do they walk past each other?
12. Consider the many representations and definitions of love in the novel: love as duty, as romance, as magnetism, as friendship, as devotion, as annihilation, etc. Does one form of love seem to prevail over all of the others in the book? What can readers learn about love through their understanding of the characters’ varied experiences with love or its lack?
13. Are there any representations of faith in the novel? If so, to what are the characters faithful? There are also many examples of faithlessness and unfaithfulness to be found in the book. What causes the characters to lose their faith or to be unfaithful?
14. Many of the characters in the book share a love of poetry and literature. How does our knowledge of their love of literature alter our perception of their character? What might their interest in the arts reveal about the common human experience? Flanagan also chose to incorporate poetry by Basho, Issa, Tennyson, and others throughout the text in epigraphs and excerpts. Why might he have chosen to utilize poetry in this way?
15. Evaluate Dorrigo’s relationship with Ella. Why does Dorrigo choose to marry Ella? How does their relationship evolve—or not—over the course of the story? What does their relationship seem to indicate about love and family? Can we conclude whether or not Dorrigo truly loved Ella?
16. Keith and Ella both choose to lie to their partners. Why? How do these lies affect their lives thereafter? Do you believe that their actions were justified? Is anything gained by their dishonesty?
17. What messages does the novel impart about war and its aftermath? How do the former POWs respond to their new lives after the war is over? What are the lives of the Japanese soldiers like after the war? How has the war changed them and how has it changed life at home in each of their countries? What does this seem to imply about war and what the various characters endured throughout the war?
18. The Narrow Road to the Deep North begins with Dorrigo’s recollection of a church hall flooded with light. This image is recalled again at the story’s conclusion. Do you believe that this imagery is meant to represent some prevalent positive force—hope, faith, or optimism, for example?—or is it simply meant to provide a stark contrast to the dark material that fills the book?
19. What is the significance of Charon’s circle death poem at the start and the conclusion of the story? What does the circle represent and how does Dorrigo come to understand its meaning?
20. At the conclusion of the story, Flanagan presents us with the image of Dorrigo opening a book only to find out that the final pages have been torn out. Why do you think that the author chooses to employ this image at the story’s end?
About this Author
Richard Flanagan is the author of five previous novels—Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould’s Book of Fish, The Unknown Terrorist,
—which have received numerous honors and have been published in twenty-six countries. He lives in Tasmania.
Akutagawa, Ryunosuke. Rashomon and Other Stories;
Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North;
Boyd, Martin. Outbreak of Love;
Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain;
Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars;
Hastings, Max. Retribution;
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises;
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day;
Jin, Ha. War Trash;
Johnston, George. My Brother Jack;
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Lowland;
Mailer, Norman. The Naked and the Dead;
McEwan, Ian. Atonement;
Percy, Jennifer. Demon Camp;
Salter, James. All That Is