1. The Finishing School begins, "Last night I dreamed
of Ursula DeVane," which is reminiscent of the beginning of Daphne
du Maurier's novel Rebecca: "Last night I dreamed of
Manderley." Is a dream a good starting point for a story? Imagine
one of your own dreams. How would you develop it? How does Godwin
proceed? (I count nine different tacks she takes in the first six
pages before preparing herself for the mantra "Fourteen. Be
2. On page 3, the narrator admits, "I won't hire a detective to
go in search of a real seventy-year old woman . . . But I will
attend to what her image, playing its role in last night's dream,
came to tell me." real person-has its function." Can you imagine
any characters with whomJustin might have engaged but whom Godwin
weeded out? Are there any characters she included whom she could
have left out?
3. When Aunt Mona dives to pick up a piece of food that Jem,
Justin's brother, had dropped at dinner, Justin gives her mother a
look to distinguish "Our Way of Life" from "Theirs." You can gain
insight into the way of life represented in a novel's universe by
asking yourself what the book or its characters have to say about a
variety of key topics: religion, politics, the arts and literature,
mass media, social class, race, gender, aging, the natural world,
human nature, sex, current events, community, crime and punishment,
4. Adolescents do not write many great novels, so we have to
trust adults to create adolescent states of mind retrospectively.
How accurately does Godwin do it? What aspects of adolescence would
an Justin's awareness of and involvement with sexuality, starting
with the Cristiana poltroon farm.
5. When Justin receives her grandmother's pearl necklace,
initiating her into womanhood, she muses, "There was a lonely,
mysterious side of myself I was just beginning to know, a side
neither masculine nor feminine but quivering with intimations of
mental and spiritual things." Does the focus on sex stunt other
developmental needs in teenagers?
6. There are some good passages for studying the nature of
Justin's confusion. On page 79, you read that Justin goes up to the
old farmhouse and paints an Ursula-like figure whom she then
consults as an oracle. Upon returning home and being swallowed by
circumstances there, her painted figure begins to look like one of
the mindless milkmaids on her wallpaper-her newly forming self, she
thinks. Can a person see his or her fate? How clearly does Justin
7. Also, look at page 99. Justin senses the magic of her visit
to the DeVanes draining from her as Aunt Mona defends her. How many
people are fighting for Justin's allegiance? Who is Justin if she
is not any of the people others think she is? On page 105, Justin
thinks she might be a monster manipulating others in order to get
her mother to move back to Virginia. Could she be a monster? Where
does her goodnesslie? This is a question that the grown-up Justin
asks on page 106 as she looks back at her fourteen-year-old
8. Make a list of the music cited in the novel, get the
recordings, and play them. How do they affect your experience of
reading and remembering the novel, if at all?
9. Satire lovers, how much satire can you take? How much satire
is there in The Finishing School? Does it serve its role
well? Would you want more? If there were more, how would that
change the novel? Can you think of a novel that has a lot more
satire in it? What is that novel missing that The Finishing
School has? Look at the first instance of satire in The
Finishing School, on pages 23 through 35. (Also, see other
satiric passages on pages 146, 200-201, 213-16, 265, and 269-70.)
Notice how Godwin introduces Aunt Mona's household-with a seemingly
banal conversation that, nonetheless, introduces a lot of
information and thematic notes.
10. We know that when Godwin introduces a subplot or anecdote,
it has a double edge. For example, late in the book, Ursula makes
Justin question the admirability of her grandfather's statement
about his wife-"the only woman . . . who would behave exactly the
same way if nobody were looking." Note the subplots in the novel
and puzzle over their double meaning. You can start with the story
of how Justin's mother had eloped (pages 32-33).
11. If you were to write a story in the manner of Gail Godwin,
what would be the features you would include? In the preceding
interview, Godwin says that one of her major motivations for
writing is to understand what goes on in others' minds. In what
ways is empathy an active attribute of Godwin's characters as well
as of herself as narrator?
12. How do characters who are good at empathy fare and how do
ones who are not? Look at Aunt Mona and the wallpaper and curtains
she puts in Justin's room as an act of empathy. Look at Justin's
mother and judge whether she is indeed to be condemned for not
knowing her daughter's mind. Look at Ursula and her uses of
empathy. Rate characters on their levels of empathy. See if you
agree with your fellow readers.
13. In representing characters' states of mind, Godwin does not
stick to linear narrative. How would you represent a character's
mental activity? (Try tracking your own.) Find a passage in which
Godwin uses flashbacks, reflections, wishes, and actions to
dramatize a character. Do you find this exciting? Pleasing? If you
take out everything but the drama, with what do you end up, greater
or lesser suspense?
14. Justin moves from a Virginia town to an upstate New York
one. Godwin lives in New York State, but grew up in the South. Is
she a Southern writer? Does her writing have Southern qualities, or
does she represent the South in her work? (See page 65.)
15. How would you interpret the dream about the magician and the
grass-overgrown house on page 43?
16. Look at a passage of dialogue-pages 53 through 56, for
instance. What are the dynamics? Godwin lets you examine how people
jockey for position through their conversation, no matter how light
it is. How do they do so in this passage? Justin's mother tells the
story about Justin's experience at a riding stable. The owner
advises Justin to let the horse know who's boss, and Justin
replies, "Oh, he already knows, sir." As with horses, so with
17. Somehow, you're going to have to deal with the character of
Abel Cristiana. Try to remember as many things as you can about
him. Is he a bully? (See page 205.) Why is Ursula attracted to him?
What do you make of his World War II experiences (page 66)?
18. Godwin says that she keeps track of her characters so that
no major character ends up sitting offstage too long. After a
while, a character has to assert him- or herself. When and how does
Justin's mother assert herself? Does she assert herself enough? See
Chapter IV, for instance.
19. Would you call The Finishing School a symbolic
novel? For instance, there are the birthday presents Justin
gets-the blue bottle (from Ursula) and her grandmother's pearl
necklace (from her mother). These are intentionally symbolic items.
What about dream symbolism? Finally, what about the symbolism of
actual things, such as the demolished farmhouse and the murky pond?
Don't be literary, be real. Does symbolism have an effect on
20. What's the deal with Ursula's first lover, the European with
the same family name? Does the DeVane family have a condition,
inflicted by history? What does Justin mean, on page 198, when she
says that dining with the DeVanes was like "being abducted into a
community of ghosts"? How does this aspect of the story compare to
Edgar Allan Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher"?
21. Mr. Mott, as a character, comes to life late in the book.
Did you dismiss him as an uninteresting character at first? Do you
believe that any character-or person-can make an interesting
subject for a story? What might be interesting about Joan
22. Chapter VII is a good chapter to look at to see how Godwin
uses foreshadowing (see pages 166 and 171). Grown-up Justin returns
to the scene of the "crime" and gives hints about things to come.
Why does Godwin leave the big revelation until the end-for just
dramatic reasons? Is it so terrible that Justin can't admit it?
What might be the parts that Justin can't bring herself to
23. Have you ever known a brilliantly manipulative person? What
techniques did he or she use? Does Ursula use those tricks? Can you
be attracted to such a person and hold your own?
24. Writing experts say that the most important element in a
story is voice, and that the most important element in voice is
authority. You've got to believe and trust your main speaker. But
what if there is more than one main speaker? Do any voices compete
with Justin's for authority? What other voices made an impression
on you in The Finishing School? Ursula takes over the
first-person voice for a good portion of Chapters IX and X. How
would it be if she had narrated the novel? Where do you think she
25. Do you agree with Ursula's need for perpetual youth and her
motto, "As long as you yearn, you can't congeal"?
26. On page 245, Ursula confesses to Justin that her mother
haunts her and she feels condemned to relive her mother's life. Is
this a common condition, being haunted and falling into a fateful
pattern? Can you see it in yourself? Does The Finishing
School give us warnings about what may happen to us, or models
on how people break away from such influences?
27. Does Godwin draw special significance from the double
meaning of the word "finishing" in "the finishing school"?
28. Starting on page 289, when Justin considers how she might
have responded differently than she did to Julian's despairing
talk, do you see any paths for her other than the one that the plot