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So Long, See You Tomorrow
by William Maxwell

Published: 1996-01-03
Paperback : 144 pages
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In this magically evocative novel, William Maxwell explores the enigmatic gravity of the past, which compels us to keep explaining it even as it makes liars out of us every time we try. On a winter morning in the 1920s, a shot rings out on a farm in rural Illinois. A man named Lloyd Wilson has been ...
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On an Illinois farm in the 1920s, a man is murdered, and in the same moment the tenous friendship between two lonely boys comes to an end. In telling their interconnected stories, American Book Award winner William delivers a masterfully restrained and magically evocative meditation on the past. "A small, perfect novel".--Washington Post Book World.

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Discussion Questions

Understanding the Story

1. How old is the narrator now, as he is writing? What sort of life do you think he leads as an adult?

2. What distinguished the murder of Lloyd Wilson from other violent crimes was the fact that the murderer had cut off the dead man's ear and taken it away. "In that pre-Freudian era people did not ask themselves what the ear might be a substitution for, but merely shuddered" (p. 5). What does Maxwell mean by this?

3. "My father was all but undone by my mother's death" (p. 8). How does the father's reaction to her death differ from that of the narrator himself? Which of the two, in your opinion, is the more profoundly wounded? Which makes the more complete recovery?

4. In fairy tales, the narrator writes, "for the father to remarry is an act of betrayal, not only of the dead mother but of [the children], no matter what the stepmother is like" (p. 16). Do you think that the narrator believes that his own father has betrayed him? Why does he see his father's happiness as a "threat" to him? Does he have any justification for feeling so?

5. How did society change during the 1920s? What does the narrator mean when he says that "so far as good manners are concerned, it was the beginning of the end" (p. 18)? Why did the dancing teacher ask the narrator's father and stepmother to leave the floor when they danced the Toddle?

6. Maxwell quotes Ortega y Gasset as saying that life is "in itself and forever shipwreck" (p. 22). What does this metaphor express? How do the narrator's and Cletus's life illustrate this idea?

7. "I was a character" (p. 29), the narrator says of his young self. What does this word connote to his community? What do the other children's reactions to him tell us about that community and its values? Why are the attitudes of the kids at the city high school (p. 50) different?

8. Why don't Cletus and the narrator tell one another about their troubles? Why doesn't the narrator speak to Cletus when he sees him in the corridor of the city high school? Why do you think Maxwell has chosen their words to one another, "So long, see you tomorrow," as his title?

9. How do the lives of the tenant farmers differ from those of the townspeople, in their daily routine, their mores and religion, their beliefs and assumptions? They "apply the words of the Scriptures to their own lives, insofar as they are able" (p. 57). How do the Smiths and the Wilsons illustrate that fact?

10. What is Fern Smith like? Is she a wholly unsympathetic character, or does the narrator show some compassion for her wish to have a more exciting and fulfilling life than other farm women, women like Marie Wilson? How does Fern perceive herself and her actions?

11. What kind of a person is Cletus? Is he like, or unlike, the narrator? Do you think that the narrator, in inventing Cletus's inner life, gives Cletus some of his own thoughts and characteristics?

12. What is Lloyd Wilson like? In what ways does he differ from Clarence? Why is he so ill-matched with Marie? Do you think that he and Fern would ever be happy together if they were able to marry? "All my life I've been a stranger to myself," he says on p. 77. How does this fact manifest itself in his family life?

13. What is Fern's initial reaction to Lloyd's declaration of love? How does her attitude change?

14. Whose betrayal do you think Clarence resents the most, Fern's or Lloyd's?

15. How does Lloyd's treatment of his little boys compare with that of the narrator's father toward his sons?

16. "Fern Smith wasn't meaning to avoid trouble; she was bent on making it. It was her only hope" (p. 98). Her only hope of what?

17. Why are Fern and Lloyd unable to marry? Why can't they live together without marriage?

18. Why does Clarence call Cletus "You little fucker" and strike him (p. 102)? What boundary has Cletus overstepped in his relationship with his father?

19. How would you describe Clarence Smith's character? Has violence always been evident there, even before his wife's betrayal? What evidence do you see of violent tendencies? With whom, and in what situations, is Clarence at his best, and when is he at his worst?

20. What does Clarence and Fern's divorce trial tell us about the legal system? Which of the two is tougher and more capable, Fern or Clarence? Which, in your opinion, is the nicer person?

21. Why does Clarence stop going to church? In what ways is the religion preached by his church inadequate to the real circumstances of his life? How do his ideas of cause and effect change?

22. Why did Fern marry Clarence? Did she ever love him?

23. Why do you think that Maxwell writes from the dog's point of view toward the end of the book?

24. Cletus "seemed so indifferent these days. About everything" (p. 125), Fern thinks. Why does he seem indifferent? Why has he decided that this is the best way to act?

In-depth Discussion

1. "This memoir-if that's the right name for it-is a roundabout, futile way of making amends" (p. 6). Amends for what? The narrator admits to feeling guilty about the way he dealt with Cletus (p. 135). Do you believe his guilt is justified?

2. After reading of the close friendship that once existed between Lloyd and Clarence, and the hatred that came to follow it, why do you think Clarence cut off Lloyd's ear? What might such an act symbolize, and what instincts would have prompted Clarence to carry it out?

3. How would you describe the character of the narrator's father? What sort of relationship do the father and son have? Does the son feel trust in his father, or is he suspicious of him? If so, why? "We were both creatures of the period," the narrator writes (p. 13). What does he mean by this?

4. How are the social classes structured in Lincoln and the surrounding farmland? At what points do they intersect, and in what ways are they segregated? How does the class stratification Maxwell describes compare with the class structure of your own community? If you live in a big town or city, do you find that you are more exposed to other social classes than the people of Lincoln, or less so?

5. The nature of the society described by Maxwell is one of a profound reticence, markedly noticeable in the narrator's family and in Cletus's. The narrator's father doesn't discuss the mother's death with him; Cletus never mentions his parents' problems; Clarence is unable to talk of his heartache to anyone, not even his own parents. Is it this habit of reticence that keeps the narrator from talking to Cletus after the murder? Does Maxwell imply that such reticence is destructive? Do you find that an unwillingness to talk about emotions is characteristic of American society today?

6. In what ways does the character of the adult narrator differ from the person he was as a young boy?

7. Why does the Giacometti sculpture described on pp. 25-26 make such an impression on the narrator? In what ways does it recall his own youth to him? How does the architectural shape of the sculpture symbolize his emotional state?

8. What characteristics do Grace and her family display? What is the narrator's attitude toward the McGraths, both as a boy and as an older man? Do the McGraths ever succeed in melting his reserve?

9. Lloyd and Clarence "look enough alike to be taken for brothers. No doubt Cain and Abel loved each other, in their way, quite as much as, or even more than, David and Jonathan" (p. 38). The biblical David and Jonathan are the ultimate models for male friendship, and after Jonathan's death David cries out "thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." What does this imply about the friendship between Lloyd and Clarence? Which of the two feels more intense love for the other, and how is that love expressed?

10. Lloyd says to Clarence, "A good wife is a woman who is always tired, suffers from backache and headaches, and moves away from her husband in bed because she doesn't want any more children" (p. 75). What does this sentence suggest about marriage, the relations between men and women, and the quality of daily life in a rural community of Illinois during the period (from about 1916 to 1925) that Maxwell describes?

11. One of the prominent themes of this book is that of innocence betrayed. What is the process by which Cletus forcibly loses his innocence? Who else in the novel is innocent? Is innocence presented by Maxwell as the converse of knowledge, or is it possible to be both innocent and knowledgeable?

12. Compare the way the three fathers in the book, Clarence, Lloyd, and the narrator's father, deal with their children. How honest are they with them? How much do they respect their intelligence or their integrity? How much, or how little, do they confide in them? How far can these children trust their fathers? Do you think that in portraying these families Maxwell is implying that children cannot depend on their parents for too much emotional support and sustenance?

13. As an adult, the narrator finds himself weeping on his analyst's couch, saying of his mother's death, "I can't bear it" (p. 131). Do you think that Cletus's story, too, is an example of something that can't be borne, that is too much to be borne? What parallels exist between the two stories, Cletus's and the narrator's? Why does the narrator mentally "find Cletus Smith" in the Palace at four a.m. (p. 132)?

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