Engl 730: The New Rise of the American Novel: Readings

Discussion Questions and Talking Points for FALL RIVER

1. This text seems to offer opportunities for discussing genre. What exactly is this book? It's sort of a police procedural, sort of a detective story, sort of a novel? What makes this book like/unlike the others we have read which were also supposed to be based on "true events"?

2. From this text, I think we can deduce a great deal about how people knew things. What constitutes evidence in this book? How does one go about arriving at a conclusion? Have those activities changed since then so that there are conspicuous differences in legal hearings today?

3. Clearly the narrator of the text is writing out of some spite against preachers (Methodists only ??) which would have resulted in banishment or death in the early colonies. How might this text be a measure of how the nation moved from a theocracy to secular institution?

4. What are the narrator's feelings about enthusiasm, church revivals, and other religious practices? Clearly the narrator privileges one sort of religion over another--on what bases? What is a good religion? What is bad?

5. How do you assay the character of Sarah Maria? Given the entire package of evidence presented, what kind of person was she? Is she a thief and loose woman? Is she the innocent dupe of a hypocritical preacher? Williams' moves here seem significant to me because she seems to be positing the forces of society (as opposed to individual moral choice) as partially responsible for Sarah's death. Is this an early version of group responsibility for crimes?

6. Perhaps I'm just hung up on cause and effect in this text, but I wonder how seriously we are to take the discussion on page 69 wherein dresses are what bring Sarah (Maria?) down--she buys a few "articles" which begin her slide downward--"she at length possessed herself of some of them, trifling indeed in amount, but destined to prove her entire destruction in this world as respected character and everything else."

7. At the very end, Williams says that the publication of Sarah's story has brought "great injury and injustice" (p 167) to the class of young women who work in factories. Is this story really about the working class and poverty? What might a Marxist critic have to say about this tale? How does this relate, then, to the ideas and questions about class which we developed in discussions of previous texts, especially the last one?

8. Do you think Avery did the crime?

9. What effects do the letters from Sarah to her family have on the reader? Hypothesize about what Williams' intentions might have been in including them. Are there similar devices she uses for similar or perhaps attendant purposes?

10. Why is the book entitled Fall River? Clearly Williams is interested in place as a factor in the events--how so? One of the causes proffered for Sarah's inability to resist Avery's advances is her rootlessness. What roles do environment, situation play here?