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Everything You Need to Lead the Best Book Club discussion ever of “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett
Background Information for The Dutch House
The Dutch and the Tobacco Industry in Pennsylvania
Northeastern United States has always been a place where fortunes are made and lost. Although many people associate the “Dutch” in Pennsylvania with the “Pennsylvania Dutch”, the latter actually refers to practioners of the Amish faith, who are of German descent, not Dutch, who came from the Netherlands (Holland is actually a part of the Netherlands, not the whole thing).
Dutch immigration is more closely associated with New York, which was originally named “New Amsterdam”, but William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, had a close relationship with the Dutch, and many Dutch people moved there.
Pennsylvania also manufactured tobacco products of all kinds although much of the tobacco they processed was grown further south; however, ironically, the Amish in Lancaster County grew tobacco as a cash crop until 2000.
Real estate development is also a central motif in The Dutch House as it is the passion of both Cyril Conroy and his son, Danny. Naturally, real estate development was important after the end of World War 2 because the G.I.’s returning from war were starting families, and they all needed places to live. Later, urban renewal becomes the focus.
2. The Turn of the Screw, fairy tales, and the Gothic
When Norma and Bright first visit the home they will soon move into, Maeve offers them a selection of Henry James books to read, and she specifically mentions The Turn of the Screw, which is a famous novella about two children who appear to be haunted. Elements one frequently finds in this genre and particularly in The Turn of the Screw resonate with the setting of The Dutch House: There are abandoned siblings, a huge, unusual house with a dark history, and a stepmother with questionable motives.
The Gothic is an offshoot of the Romantic period in literature, in which there was a devotion to feelings and nature. In the Gothic, there is an obsession with the spiritual world.
Of course, it’s hard to miss the symbolism of the stepmother and the two stepsisters found in “Cinderella”, especially when the mother, Elna, resurfaces in a way that makes her seem like a fairy godmother. The Dutch House, with its emphasis on a brother/sister sibling relationship, also echoes with “Hansel and Gretel”.
The motif of the stepmother appears often in folk literature because it was a common situation in reality. Women often died in childbirth, and it was almost logistically impossible for a man to take care of a home and children and work to financially support them alone, meaning that the husband would almost certainly remarry, whether he wanted to or not. And because women were perhaps more likely to die young, because childbirth was so dangerous, men may have had fewer options on the secondary marriage market than women.
3. The Postmodernist sensibility
The Modernist Period in culture and literature is associated with the end of World War 1, and Postmodernism is associated with the end of World War 2. Both periods center on a feeling of meaninglessness and disillusionment with the world as a result of the destruction from the war.
During the Postmodernist period, in the mid 20th century, many people felt cynical about the world after seeing the horrors of both of the World Wars, and the concept of “good” and “evil” lost its meaning, for many.
After the war, people focused on trying to live “normal” lives, and for many people, those years were a prosperous time. There was a focus on the nuclear family and conspicuous consumption.
4. The significance of the “Dutch” House
The Conroy family has prospered from the postwar building boom, in a way that is larger than life. The home they live in is a symbol of that success. Obviously, it’s far more opulent than the typical postwar home for a young family, but the home mirrors, in a refracted way, a common building style, the “picture window” which made the barrier between the family in the home and the street outside literally transparent. In the same way that the entire home is an exaggeration, the picture window is exaggerated so that passersby can see all the way through the ground floor.
On the other hand, the house has mysterious and strange elements, such as a ballroom on the third floor, which would usually be a private space, and unexpected nooks and crannies everywhere.
Although the décor of the home is intended to connote “old” money, the home was built by a family that had earned its money through the tobacco industry…definitely new money…and bought by someone with even newer money. The house has always been a symbol of the excesses of industrial fortunes, and perhaps, it is implied through the deaths of the original family, cursed?
Who is Ann Patchett?
Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles and currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co-owner of Parnassus Books. She worked at Seventeen magazine for nine years. Her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, was published in 1992, and several of her novels have won or been nominated for major awards, including The Dutch House, which was nominated for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize.
The blog at Parnassus’ website, Musing, is excellent, especially Patchett’s page, where she regularly writes about books and authors. You’ll especially want to check out her recent post Notes From Ann: Your Questions About The Dutch House, Answered.
Parnassus is also notable for its pioneering mobile store, that was developed in response to the growing popularity of food trucks. I know I would be excited to see a “book truck” at any event and would put in some time browsing, for sure!
More great reading options from Ann Patchett:
For a list of more books related to The Dutch House, check out our reading list here.
Discussion Questions for The Dutch House
Note: If the discussion falters, ask the group what they didn’t understand or what they “wondered” about. You will find out what the group is interested in.
Don’t rush the group through the questions or try to hit every single question, but don’t allow members to “take over” the discussion either. If time starts to run short, give the group a choice.
Finish on the agreed upon time so there is time for socialization after.
Opening questions for discussion of The Dutch House
(elicit as many responses as possible):
What is the most important memory you have of your childhood home or homes?
How is your relationship with your siblings the same or different from what you thought it would be?
2. Discussion Questions for The Dutch House
1.What, exactly, goes wrong for the Conroy family?
2. At what point, if any, was the situation salvageable?
3. In Gothic literature, such as The Turn of the Screw, the central conflict results from a death, usually of a parent, so there is a sense of no control. In what ways do Danny’s parent have or lack control? How do they use it or abuse it
4. What do the features of the house represent?
3. Closing Questions for The Dutch House
1. What does Ann Patchett want you to understand about families?
2. What will you remember?
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