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As I've already heard from a couple of you who have powered through the book (!) it's time for the book club questions. I said last week that I'd host an online discussion of the book club questions for people who wanted to chat about them but didn't have a book club. Remember, there are no right and wrong answers! This is a discussion.

So without further ado,

Early in the novel, Elza leaves her cruel husband and their two sons in Holland. What did you think of her decision to leave her sons behind? Do you think it was the right decision? Did this choice make her less sympathetic? Or more?


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 25th, 2012 02:19 pm (UTC)
I finished it last night!

When Elza left her sons with so little thought, it did give me pause, but I thought what a symptom it was of her situation, that she was barely allowed to have a relationship with them. It was also a reminder of how young she was and how different a mother's relationship with her children is now assumed to be. I think it's a hard place in the story for that decision to fall, since my opinion of Elza and sympathy for her was only just forming, but I also think that it coming so early made it easier for my curiosity to move me past that point and continue to engage with her.
Oct. 26th, 2012 04:29 pm (UTC)
I think you're hitting two different and important things, yep. One I think is the expected relationship of a young upper class woman with her children in that era -- it really is possible for her to see very little of them, raised entirely by nannies and other servants. A lot of people expressed later in life that they saw their parents perhaps a couple of hours a week, trotted out before dinner to say hello and then back to the nursery. This is right on the very beginning of "natural" motherhood as an ideal, the rebellion against wet nurses as opposed to breast feeding and saying that women should see to the education of their children themselves rather than leaving them to nannies. (Everything old is new again!) I don't think Elza has encountered those ideas at all yet.

And of course she's very young. She's barely in her teens when her oldest is born, and only nineteen when she leaves. I think that's a factor too.
Oct. 26th, 2012 05:13 am (UTC)
One of the things I enjoy about Elza is that she does have that strong core of pragmatism. Her husband would possibly give up on her, he wouldn't give up on sons. Beyond that, she was going into a pretty risky situation with no promises that she'd make it, I can see refusing to drag an infant and a toddler along into that kind of danger. So on pragmatism, since she knew they would not be hurt with her husband but wouldn't have that assurance with her, I can see her leaving them.

On the more emotional level, it gave me pause for a bit because it's pretty engrained in me to take care of the kids first, the adult second. But then I started thinking about some of the girls I was working with this past year, who had children as young as Elza, and with as little consideration and support from the children's fathers. Some of them threw themselves into their children, but a great deal of them cut themselves off emotionally from the children completely. When I start thinking of Elza as a nineteen-year-old girl who has been pretty badly neglected and abused emotionally, her emotional decisions start making a lot of sense. She's not really making rational decisions at this point in the novel, aside from believing that if she doesn't leave, her life will destroy all that she is eventually. She isn't yet an adult, and as far as I can tell in the book, doesn't really become a full-fledged adult as far as thinking through her decisions until after she's left Moreau.
Oct. 26th, 2012 05:28 pm (UTC)
She is really young, nineteen when the book starts and twenty four at the end. I don't think, at nineteen, she can save anyone else. She can barely save herself.

I see what you mean about two reactions -- either throwing themselves into the role of protector, or not bonding at all. I don't think Elza has bonded at all with her sons. I think that's something she bitterly regrets later. Like a lot of people in their teens, she makes some really bad decisions that later in life she wishes she hadn't.
Oct. 26th, 2012 05:42 pm (UTC)
The moment in the book when she learns that her sons think she died was, I believe, one of the points where she starts realizing that her choices have consequences and that she will not like all those consequences. She is deeply hurt by that loss, even if she doesn't fully feel it then.

I think because she's doing all these big, fantastic things, and because we know she's been married for several years, it's hard to immediately remember that she is so young. She thinks she's an adult and very mature, even when she really isn't.
Oct. 27th, 2012 10:31 am (UTC)
I agree -- I think that's a big turning point. And it hurts, but you're right that she doesn't feel it fully then, not as much as she will. And it is hard to remember that she's very young. As Michel says, "So young to be so cynical." In a way, her journey and coming to maturity is a journey from cynicism to belief.
Oct. 26th, 2012 05:44 pm (UTC)
I found it startling, not in the sense of "this puts me off the character", but "it's rare we get that without the novel meaning us to condemn the character for it". (One of the reasons why the film version of Gone With The Wind cuts Scarlett's first two children is imo because Selznick must have been afraid her emotional indifference towards them - beyond keeping them alive and safe, which she does - would have been far more unforgivable to the audience than a marriage out of spite and one to save the plantation.) I thought it made sense given that Elza was herself a child when she married, had an emotionally abusive marriage, lived in a society where her children as babies and toddlers were cared for by servants and had a strong pragmatic core and sense of survival.

All this being said: this is seen from an outside position. If I was one of those two boys I'd have a hard time forgiving her, especially given she knowingly leaves them with a despicable man as the sole remaining parent. (Her own mother is an interesting alternative, because while she technically remained with Elza, she completely withdrew emotionally after Charles' death and saddled the girl with survivor's guilt to boot. Better or worse?)

I think it was a brave and honest choice, narrative wise. Survivors and pragmatists sometimes make decisions that genuinenly hurt other people who do not deserve it. Especially if their starting position is more or less a trap.

Edited at 2012-10-26 05:46 pm (UTC)
Oct. 27th, 2012 10:35 am (UTC)
Oh yes, all of that! I agree that's why Wade and Ella were written out of the movie script. And yes, Elza is still very much a child herself. Some teen mothers do brilliantly, and some just don't bond. I think part of that with Elza is not being allowed to bond, not to spend time with them as infants and being discouraged from too much closeness, because of what's proper to her class. And part of that is her age. She's only too happy to hand the kids off to a competent nurse and go do things she enjoys.

Survivors and pragmatists sometimes make decisions that genuinenly hurt other people who do not deserve it. Especially if their starting position is more or less a trap.

That's a story I keep telling, isn't it, since that first story with Raven? :)
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