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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.

  1. 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?

  2. 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?

  3. 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 triangle?

  4. 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?

  5. 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?

  6. 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?

  7. 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

  8. 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?

  9. 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?

  10. 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 masterpiece?

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