Elizabeth Hay''s highly acclaimed, national bestseller now in a
deluxe paperback edition.
Hay''s runaway bestseller novel crosses generations and cuts to the
bone of universal truth about love and our relationship with the
past. In 1930, a school principal in Saskatchewan is suspected of
abusing a student. Seven years later, on the other side of the
country, a girl picking wild cherries meets a violent end. These
are only two of the mysteries in the life of the narrator''s
charismatic aunt, Connie Flood.
As the narrator Anne pieces together her aunt''s lifelong
attachment to her former student Michael Graves, and her obsession
with Parley Burns, the inscrutable principal implicated in the
assault of Michael''s younger sister, her own story becomes
connected with that of the past, and the triangle of principal,
teacher, student opens out into other emotional triangles -- aunt,
niece, lover; mother, daughter, granddaughter -- until a sudden,
capsizing love changes Anne''s life. Alone in the
Classroom is Elizabeth Hay''s most tense,
intricate, and seductive novel yet.
1. Most of the main characters in Alone in the
Classroom are teachers, from Connie Flood and Syd Goodwin,
who are gifted teachers, to Anne Flood, who doubts her teaching
skills, to Parley Burns, a magnetic but troubling presence in the
classroom. They frequently ruminate about education, as when the
young Connie asks, "What if education is the catastrophe?" or when
Syd, thinking about the rise of Hitler, says, "I used to think
education helped." Syd also points to the "real difference" between
education and schooling. Discuss the ways in which education and
the experience of school inform the plot and the ideas in the
2. Fire is an important symbol in the novel. Susan Graves dies
in a fire. Parley Burns (whose last name also suggests fire)
re-writes that story into a play in which a character who resembles
Susan's brother Michael sets fire to the school and a nearby house.
Connie wonders whether there was a deeper truth behind that idea,
perhaps about Michael's destructive or seductive power. Michael
shows Anne's children how to light a fire, so that it never runs
away with itself. Sexual attraction, often described in terms of
fire, is something else that can run away with itself, and this
happens more than once in the novel. Talk about the different kinds
of fires - their dangers and attractions - in Alone in the
3. Michael Graves refers to schoolchildren as "Brave and
trusting ... poor little suckers." Connie watches "all the brave
children come back to school." Why do schoolchildren require
bravery? And why is the novel called Alone in the
4. Connie believes in reading, as she says, and will not disturb
a pupil with a lesson while they are reading. Literature figures
prominently in the novel, from Dickens' novel Nicholas
Nickleby to a poem by Seamus Heaney, but the predominant
author is "pessimistic, erotic Thomas Hardy," as Anne describes
him, especially his novels Tess of the
D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. How
does Elizabeth Hay use Hardy's novels to advance her own themes?
Does the connection with Hardy enrich the novel for you even if you
are not familiar with Hardy's works?
5. Parley Burns is a fascinating character. Hay doesn't wait for
the reader to assess him: early in the novel we are told that he
moved through the school "like mustard gas in subtle form. You were
aware afterwards that you'd been poisoned." Undeniably, he does
some terrible things, but his complexity is also undeniable.
Thinking about the lights and shadows in his nature, Anne feels
that "his personality widened a little, a door in the house
opened." What exactly is Connie drawn to, against her will, in him?
What are Parley's strengths and (more obviously) his weaknesses? Do
you ever feel warmth or admiration or pity for him?
6. The sexual incompatibility of Syd Goodwin and Connie is
described in terms of fruit: "She was an orchard ready to be picked
and Syd could not find the fruit." Elizabeth Hay uses fruit,
especially berries, at other crucial moments in the novel. What are
they, and what do they suggest? Discuss the connection these images
and symbols have with the central importance of nature in the
7. There are frequent instances of cruelty and even sadism in
the novel, from small examples - like the Italian painting of a man
being scourged that Connie finds unforgettable or the mention of
the mistreatment of children in Nicholas Nickleby
- to much larger ones. Hay's treatment of it can be unexpected.
When Connie uses the strap on one of her pupils, she is horrified
by the pleasure it gives her, but at the same time, it seemed "that
she had gained ground. All day the children worked hard to please
her." What are some other examples of cruelty in the novel, and
what does Hay seem to be saying about it?
8. The aunt/niece relationship is an unusual one around which to
build a novel. Narrated by Anne, the story centres around her aunt
Connie for the first half of the book, and Anne only emerges as a
leading character in the second half. At one point, Anne thinks
that she is "Connie in diluted form." How does Anne's relationship
to her aunt affect the way she feels about Michael Graves and even
Parley Burns? How does it knit into other major themes in the
9. Alone in the Classroom does not proceed in a
straightforward way. It involves four generations, and the story is
not told chronologically. Also, the plot often advances in a
deliberately unemphatic way, with important information imparted
almost casually, in an aside. An example is the trial of Johnny
Coyle for the murder of Ethel Weir. After Johnny has been convicted
and sentenced to hang, Hay lets us know that Coyle has later been
acquitted almost as an afterthought, while dating a long walk
Connie makes to Wakefield, Quebec. Similarly, we learn in an
understated sentence that Anne "lost a husband and half lost an
aunt" during her affair with Michael. Why do you think Hay chooses
to tell her story in this circuitous, quiet way? How does this
technique heighten the effectiveness of the storytelling?
10. Connie Flood has charisma, in the sense that it's hard to
define exactly what makes her appealing. As her niece describes her
effect on her brother, "Her methods were invisible. She didn't make
overt efforts to question him or include him in conversation, but
he said more in an hour with her than in a month with anyone else."
Connie is both glamorous and the embodiment of many of the
important values in the book. Some of this is suggested by her
name, Constance. To what is she constant or faithful (and to what
or whom is she not?) What are the ways and moments in which Hay
communicates Connie's attractiveness?
11. Parley believes that after his grandmother hanged herself,
his sister was born with a strangle mark around her neck. Connie
also believes that we carry the past forward into future
generations. Anne rejects her aunt's idea that her own birthmarks
indicated that Susan Graves, who died in a fire, had come back as
Anne. But the novel is shot through with examples of the ways in
which past generations influence later ones. Discuss these
intersections between past and present.
12. The epigraph of the novel is from the poet Theodore
"Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath."
How do these lines comment on or connect with the main themes of
Alone in the Classroom?