Discussion Questions for Nocturne for a Widow

Warn­ing: Here be spoil­ers! If you haven’t yet read Noc­turne for a Wid­ow and don’t want to know what hap­pens, stop read­ing now.

1. A major theme in Noc­turne for a Wid­ow is iden­ti­ty. As an actress, Sybil has worn many fic­ti­tious iden­ti­ties, but here we see her try­ing to shape new per­sonas for her­self. What are the iden­ti­ties Sybil tries to attain? Does she have a clear sense of who she is by the end of the book? To what extent is Rod­er­ick also con­fronting a change in his own iden­ti­ty? How do the two of them help each oth­er find them­selves?

2. Noc­turne for a Wid­ow is strong­ly influ­enced by the goth­ic romance genre, as exem­pli­fied in nov­els like Jane Eyre, Rebec­ca, and Mis­tress of Mel­lyn. What are some of the goth­ic tropes and con­ven­tions used here? Are any of them sub­vert­ed or used in an unusu­al or tongue-in-cheek fash­ion? How does the book diverge from the goth­ic tra­di­tion?

3. Sybil’s deci­sion to mar­ry Alcott Lamm­le may seem strange to mod­ern read­ers. Today we are accus­tomed to the idea that mar­riage is based on roman­tic love, but this was not always the case in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, when more prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions often car­ried more weight. What are the rea­sons that Sybil decides to mar­ry Lamm­le? If he had not died, do you think their mar­riage would have been a con­tent­ed one? Why or why not?

4. Roderick’s dis­trust of Sybil com­pli­cates their rela­tion­ship from the begin­ning. What rea­sons does he have to dis­trust women in gen­er­al and Sybil in par­tic­u­lar? How does get­ting to know Sybil help him over­come his prej­u­dices?

5. Lies and decep­tion form a promi­nent theme in the book. How do Sybil and Rod­er­ick, as well as the oth­er char­ac­ters, dif­fer in their feel­ings about decep­tion? Does the sto­ry offer sup­port for the notion of some decep­tion being neu­tral or even ben­e­fi­cial? How does Roderick’s his­to­ry with a decep­tive woman col­or his behav­ior with Sybil?

6. The nine­teenth cen­tu­ry was a time when a woman’s life was often shaped by mar­riage, and thus her phys­i­cal beau­ty or lack there­of could be cru­cial to her future hap­pi­ness as it affect­ed her abil­i­ty to attract a hus­band. To what extent do the opin­ions of Dr. Car­fax and Mrs. Dove on beau­ty reflect the era? How does Sybil feel about her own beau­ty? How do Sybil’s and Mrs. Dove’s phys­i­cal appear­ances affect their rela­tion­ships with oth­ers?

7. The past has great pow­er over some char­ac­ters, includ­ing Rod­er­ick and Ara­bel. In what ways are they held back from liv­ing in the present by their pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the past? How do they learn to let go of the past and move for­ward? Do oth­er char­ac­ters share this pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with bygone events?

8. Sybil has an actress’s under­stand­ing of clothes as part of a per­for­mance, rec­og­niz­ing that they can both make a state­ment about the char­ac­ter of the wear­er and even alter the wearer’s own sense of self. With this in mind, she wears the magen­ta gown to Mrs. Dove’s musi­cale to make her­self feel strong and con­fi­dent. What does this dress demon­strate about how she fits in with her new social sphere? What oth­er clothes in the sto­ry are sig­nif­i­cant? What clues do they pro­vide about the wear­ers’ inner nature?