|Discussion Questions or Topics for Essays
The following questions are intended to promote
discussion on some of the issues raised by Harold Frederic’s The Damnation
of Theron Ware. Questions are geared toward the material
of the web site as well as the links to other sites, such as Methodism,
Catholicism, and Literary Movements.
- Critics are not in agreement on how best to categorize Harold
Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware. It is
the fourth and last of Frederic’s novels set in upstate
New York and possesses characteristics of regionalism and local
color in both its setting and use of dialect. Elements of realism
are evident in the issues the novel addresses and in characterization.
Some critics argue that the ending is optimistic while others
find a more deterministic strain suggestive of naturalism. Finally,
The Damnation of Theron Ware has been compared to several
of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romances, especially The
Scarlet Letter. Based on your understanding of the romance
(as genre), regionalism, local color, realism, and naturalism,
how would you categorize the novel?
- Much has been made of the two titles of this book: The
Damnation of Theron Ware, the title first used in the United
States publication, and Illumination, the title used
in the English publication. These titles suggest very different
themes. Which title do you consider most apt? How might knowing
that one of the working titles for the novel was “Snarl”
(See Jolliff; Garner, 1979.) change your interpretation?
- Religion, science, and art are key elements to understanding
several characters in The Damnation of Theron Ware:
Father Forbes represents both Catholicism and intellectualism,
while Theron Ware represents fundamentalist Methodism and intellectual
naivete; Dr. Ledsmar represents post-Darwinian science and atheism;
and Celia Madden represents art and beauty. Critics argue that
Frederic’s treatment of these elements reflects not only
the spirit of the times, described as the “turbulent”
nineties, but also his own perspectives on Catholicism, Methodism,
Darwinism, and Decadence. How do the elements of religion, science,
and art work together in this novel? How do they work against
each other? Where does Theron Ware fit in the religion-science-art
- The latter half of the nineteenth century experienced a significant
increase of Irish-Catholic immigration into the United States.
During the same period, societies such as the American Protective
Association (APA) and the Know-Nothing Party were formed to
promote anti-Catholicism. How does Frederic portray the Catholics
and the Methodists in The Damnation of Theron Ware?
Which group is presented in a more sympathetic manner?
- William Dean Howells, prominent nineteenth-century critic
and author, wrote the following comments in an 1897 essay entitled
“My Favorite Novelist and His Best Book”:
"I was particularly interested in the book, for when you
get to the end, although you have carried a hazy notion in your
mind of the sort of man Ware was, you fully realize, for the
first time, that the author has never for a moment represented
him anywhere to you as a good or honest man, or as anything
but a very selfish man."
How is Theron Ware portrayed in each of the four parts of The
Damnation of Theron Ware? Is he a different man at the
beginning than he is at the end? If he has changed, how has
he changed? If he remains the same, why do you think so?
- Many critics have blamed Sister Soulsby and/or the trio of
Father Forbes, Dr. Ledsmar, and Celia Madden for Theron Ware’s
fall. To what extent are any of these characters responsible
for either his “damnation” or “illumination”?
To what extent is Ware himself responsible?
- The Damnation of Theron Ware is set during a period
when Protestants were in the majority in the United States.
Theron Ware is a Methodist minister in a small town in which
Protestant and Catholic groups are generally segregated. Carrie
Tirado Bramen, in her essay “The Americanization of Theron
Ware,” observes that the novel is “a modern version
of the captivity narrative, where a member of the dominant culture
is transformed through contact with the alien Other.”
How is Theron Ware transformed? Is he a captive of Father Forbes,
Dr. Ledsmar, or Celia Madden? Do you agree with Bramen’s
assessment? Why or why not?
For background on captivity narratives, see the following:
Early American Captivity Narratives
Forms of Puritan Rhetoric: The Jeremiad and the Conversion Narrative
Indian Captivity Narratives
- Alice Ware is generally viewed as a maligned character in
The Damnation of Theron Ware. Early in the novel, Theron
Ware feels fortunate to have someone so vivacious and intelligent
as his wife. Later, however, he views her as dull and slightly
dim-witted. Since most of the descriptions of Alice Ware come
from Theron Ware’s point of view, how reliable are the
descriptions? Who else comments on Alice Ware? Theron Ware wants
to suspect his wife of having an affair with Levi Gorringe.
Is an affair likely? Why or why not? At the end of the novel,
why does Alice Ware not imagine herself returning to Washington
as the wife of a Senator? How would you characterize Alice Ware?
Does she evolve in the novel?
- Sister Soulsby’s pragmatic “religion” dictates
that the end justifies the means. She tells Theron Ware, “I’ve
got a religion of my own, and it’s got just one plank
in it, and that is that the time to separate the sheep from
the goats in on Judgment Day, and that it can’t be done
a minute before. [. . .] Now I say that Soulsby and I do good,
and that we’re good fellows. [. . .] It’s a fraud—yes;
but it’s a good fraud” (176-79). Do these statements
accord with Sister Soulsby’s actions? Is she non-judgmental?
Can she be a “good fraud” without judging others?
Are her confessions to Theron Ware part of her con game?
- The Damnation of Theron Ware has been described as
both “the great American novel” and an “anti-American”
novel. How might one or both of these labels apply to Frederic’s