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?

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