Book Discussion Guidelines
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1. What is your impression of Alice at the beginning of the novel, when we meet her as an invalid in Leamington, England? How does this impression change over time, as we learn her history?
2. What do we know about Alice’s relationship with her famous brothers? How is her relationship with Henry different from that with William? Which brother is she closer to? Which one is more like her?
3. What effect do “Father’s Ideas” have on the James family? How might they have confused young Alice, especially in conjunction with the more pedestrian worldview of her mother and aunt?
4. What role does incest—psychological or otherwise–play in Alice in Bed? Which relationships are incestuous? What are the consequences?
5. How is Alice affected by her romance with Sara? Why do you think Sara disowns their intimacy, in contrast to Katherine? What does Katherine, even in absentia, provide for Alice? What do you think Henry and William think of Katherine?
6. Imagine that you are Alice James in 1889. You have grown up in a fascinating family, surrounded by the crème de la crème of Harvard intelligentsia. You sail to England, fall ill and find yourself in a town where you know no one, and you are unable to walk or take care of yourself. Doctors are no help. There are no telephones, radios, televisions, cars, et cetera. Your sole company consists of your nurse and landlady, who don’t understand half the things you say. Have you ever had a similar experience of loneliness or alienation that drove you more deeply into yourself? Are there any benefits to extreme solitude?
7. What do you think, based on this novel, is wrong with Alice? Are her difficulties mainly physical or psychological? What factors that come into play?
8. What does the diary provide for Alice? Why do you think she kept it secret from her brothers? Why do you think it rattled Henry and William four years after her death, and inspired horror in William’s children thirty years later?
9. Why was William James drawn irresistibly to the first medical explorations of the unconscious (Pierre Janet, the British psychical researchers, the young Sigmund Freud). How does Alice feel about this inquiry? How does William’s search relate to her plight?
10. What do we learn about late Victorian ideals of womanhood? How did Alice react to these cultural norms? What do you think Alice might have been like, if she had been born in 1965, say, or 1985?