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Pearl Reader’s Guide

By Mary Gordon

Pearl by Mary Gordon


“Enthralling. . . . A demanding and rewarding brainy-brawny novel that complicates our understanding of the world instead of coarsening it.” –The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Mary Gordon’s Pearl, an extraordinary novel about the power of language and the tragic limitations of love.


It is Christmas night, 1998, when Maria Meyers receives a bizarre phone call from the State Department: her daughter, Pearl, studying abroad in Dublin, has chained herself to the flagpole outside the American embassy and has not eaten in six weeks. So begins this devastating, richly layered story of hope, betrayal, and responsibility. Scrambling to understand her daughter’s terrifying behavior and hell-bent on preventing her death, Maria rushes to Dublin–only to be told by a hospital authority that Pearl will not see her. Meanwhile, Joseph, Maria’s best friend and Pearl’s surrogate father, arrives in Ireland to help and discovers that he understands Pearl’s motives better than any of them could have imagined. As Pearl’s life hangs in the balance, all three of them must confront their pasts, exhume old tragedies, and take the measure of their power to forgive.

Pearl’s riveting, ingeniously detailed plot, set against the backdrop of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, explores the failure of faith, the role of political engagement in our lives, and the singular, sometimes excruciating bond between parent and child. Unflinching and profoundly moving, Pearl poses the critical question: why, in a world of sorrow and injustice, should we choose to live at all?

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. How does Maria’s Catholic background inform her thought processes, despite her adamant rejection of the Church? What specific childhood event initiated the erosion of her love affair with Catholicism? How does the narrator explain Maria’s sudden flashback to “the terms of her childhood . . . fast, abstinence, sin, virtue” [p. 259] after she is chastised by Joseph? Is Maria able to identify her reaction with the same clarity?

2. The concept of naming looms large throughout the novel. Maria “insists on not being misnamed” even during an emergency [p. 6]; the narrator refers to him/herself as “present at the naming” [p. 13]; Bobby Sands starves himself to death over Thatcher’s refusal to classify him as a political prisoner, “a name she thought incorrect” [p. 29]; Breeda is thought of by the boys as “someone’s sister, someone’s mother, a body without a name” [p. 146]; Pearl feels she has been “misnamed” when a doctor refers to her as a suicide [p. 202]. What does the author suggest about the power inherent in the act of naming–or misnaming–another human being? Is this a particularly Judeo-Christian concept, or does it transcend cultural boundaries? What is the significance of Pearl’s name and of the novel being named for her?

3. Pearl’s strike is distinct from previous hunger strikes in Ireland in that “the hunger strikers hoped against hope that they would be stopped. . . . Pearl doesn’t want to stop; she wants her death for its own sake, as a release from being overwhelmed” [p. 20]. In this light, does Pearl’s action read as self-absorbed? How is the reader’s view of Pearl affected by the opinions of characters like the medical resident who comments, “This kind of anorexia is always a disease of the affluent” [p. 224], and Mick who remarks, “As theater what [Pearl] did was very potent” [p. 292]? What does Stevie mean when he tells Maria that Pearl “deliberately misled us” [p. 282]?

4. Joseph thinks of himself as a failure, a weakling, and a generally ineffectual, disappointed human being. Yet Maria feels that “she has only to be near him to be safe” [p. 204]. What is the source of this disconnect?

5. Pearl is enchanted by Ireland because, unlike the United States, she sees it as a place “where things were serious and people knew what was important and would say it. In Ireland, Pearl felt for the first time that she was a part of history. In America, history had no meaning for her. She could never see herself as part of American history” [p. 27]. Is this a common perception among young people in America? What cultural forces, or lack thereof, might contribute to this attitude? What Irish social mores encourage engagement in a sense of place and history?

6. What does Ya-Katey mean when he states, “I fear purity; I fear it very much; it is a dangerous idea. . . . The mess is our only hope against the tyranny of the pure” [p. 95]? To Maria, the word purity connotes the “wonderful feeling . . . of being whole, of being entirely one thing, and that thing only” [p. 96] that she achieved as a child on the day of her First Communion. Why does she keep this memory secret from Ya-Katey? What sort of purity does Maria seek as an adult? What does purity mean to Pearl and to Joseph?

7. What sort of backdrop does the Tara Arms Hotel form for Maria and Joseph’s excruciating waiting game? What social or cultural information is conveyed by the physical details of the place? Why does it affect Joseph to the extent that “seeing those carpets, and the dingy wallpaper with its pattern of olive-colored reeds, he feels despair for the world. And more: a sense of deep estrangement” [p. 205]?

8. What is the significance of “the form of the chronicle” that the narrator adopts on page 39? What point does the author/narrator make about the ramifications of familial history and the act of storytelling? Could the novel succeed without this extensive background information?

9. Of Breeda and the peace agreement vote, the narrator says, “We forget that there are moments, public moments, what could be called moments in history that change a life. By we I mean those of us who have been brought up, as Pearl had been, in safety and prosperity, whose lives have been shaped by private moments, private acts” [p. 157]. What is implied about the reader by the narrator’s use of the words we and those of us? What effect is achieved through the narrator’s assumption of solidarity with the reader? What particular biases does the narrator weave into the stories of Maria, Pearl, and Joseph? Does this narrator play favorites among the characters?

10. Joseph is keenly aware of the fact that his mother was a servant to Maria’s father and seems to believe that this truth forms an inevitable barrier between him and Maria. Is he right, or is he paranoid? Is Maria’s memory equally ingrained with this dichotomy?

11. Maria’s reaction to the possibility of Pearl’s death reads like an angry mother-goddess mantra: “I will consume your wish to die. You cannot resist me. You won’t win. Having once come from my body, you will bend to my superior, my far more ancient will–not only mine but every mother’s throughout history. You will succumb and once again be more mine than your own” [p. 192]. What lesson does Pearl suggest about this kind of mother love?

12. Is Pearl responsible for Stevie’s death?

13. How does the narrator build tension into the dinner scene after Maria and Joseph meet with Hazel Morrisey? What is the real content behind Joseph’s enigmatic rebuff, “You’ve had enough butter. . . . You’ve had more than enough” [p. 258]? How does Maria’s decision to continue eating–“It’s simple, she says to herself. I should eat. Food brings strength. I require strength. Therefore food” [p. 260]–highlight and contrast with Pearl’s thoughts about eating? Is this episode intended to turn the reader against Maria?

14. Is it useful to read Pearl as a reflection of the Christ story, with Maria in the role of Mary, Joseph as the eponymous surrogate father, Ya-Katey the progenitor who makes a brief visitation, and Pearl as the sacrificial lamb who accepts death in a gesture of atonement, only to be later resurrected? In this scheme, the phrase, “[Pearl] has worked at emptying herself” [p. 102], reflects Philippians 2:7 in which Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” And when Pearl decides to witness Stevie’s death, “The stone slab that had pressed her down . . . was thrown up with the force of her new rising” [p. 174], hints at Easter. What other references support this reading of the novel? What point could the author be making in alluding to the New Testament story?

15. What does it reveal about Joseph that “he believed that a poem about a garden or a painting of a garden was greater than a garden itself” [p. 123]?

16. Pearl’s goal is “to make a sentence of herself, to make of her life one sentence that she knows to be true” [p. 84]. What does Pearl suggest about both the inadequacy of words amidst violence and the power of words to redeem?

17. Why does Joseph see the vision of Maria and Pearl holding hands as “a misleading beauty” [p. 310]?

18. Pearl asks big questions: “What is knowing? What can be known, really known? . . . What is living? How do you understand a life?” [p. 231]; “What is the relation between love and appetite?” [p. 261]; “If you were forgiven, could you still be unforgivable?” [p. 326]; “What did it mean, to face life? What was the face?” [p. 338]; “When the sufferer is suffering, isn’t it an eternal present, like the mind of God?” [p. 218]; “Why do we want life?” [p. 340] What do these heady topics contribute to the story? Does the novel provide answers to any of these questions?

19. What happens to Devorah’s passion for singing? How does Devorah’s story shed light on the three central characters?

About this Author

Mary Gordon is the author of the novels Spending, The Company of Women, The Other Side, and Final Payments; a collection of novellas entitled The Rest of Life; two books of essays; and a biography of Joan of Arc. She has also written a critically acclaimed memoir, The Shadow Man (available in paperback from Vintage Books). Winner of the Lila Wallace—Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 1997 O. Henry Award for best short story. Gordon teaches at Barnard College and lives in New York City.

Suggested Reading

Bebe Moore Campbell, 72 Hour Hold; Janet Fitch, White Oleander; Gish Jen, The Love Wife; Eoin McNamee, Resurrection Man; Toni Morrison, Beloved; Jodi Picoult, Keeping Faith; Nancy Reisman, The First Desire; Mona Simpson, Anywhere but Here.
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