The Peppered Moth
About the book:
Nearly a century later Bessie’s granddaughter, Faro Gaulden, is listening to a lecture on genetic inheritance. She has returned to the depressed little town in which Bessie grew up and wonders at the families who never left. Confronted with what would have been her life had her grandmother stayed, she finds herself faced with difficult questions. Is she really so different from the South Yorkshire locals? As she soon learns, the past has a way of reasserting itself-not unlike the peppered moth that was once thought to be nearing extinction but is now enjoying a sudden unexplained resurgence.
The Peppered Moth is a brilliant novel, full of irony, sadness, and humor.
About the author:
Margaret Drabble was born in Sheffield, England, in 1939. Her novels include The Gates of Ivory, The Ice Age, The Realms of Gold, A Summer Bird Cage, and The Waterfall. She is also the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. She lives in London.
Q. What purpose, if any, is served by tracking “the Bawtrys back to prehistory, taking in on the way Bessie herself, and all her descendants and ancestors”? How might such an exercise affect the lives of Bessie, Chrissie, and Faro? How might a similar genealogical search affect you and your family?
Q. Drabble writes of the young Bessie, “Something had set her apart, had implanted in her needs and desires beyond her station, beyond her class.” What is the “something” that sets Bessie apart? What needs and desires does she harbor that are beyond her station and class? How do “station and class” impact Drabble’s principal characters and each of us?
Q. We are told that Bessie “was to despise her mother. That is the way it is with mothers and daughters.” To what degree might every daughter despise her mother–and every son, his father? To what extent do we all ignore our parents’ struggles and note only their shortcomings and defeats? How would you answer the later question, “Were all mothers a burden to their daughters, as fathers were to their sons”?
Q. “The exodus from Breaseborough is part of our plot,” Drabble writes. How important in the novel are patterns of exodus, exile, and return? How would you explain the widespread impetus “to retrace these journeys”?
Q. “Talent cracks the asphalt, talent will not stay underground,” Drabble writes, in reference to Breaseborough Grammar School’s best students. How is this illustrated in the novel? In what ways do individual characters “crack the asphalt” or otherwise rise from “underground,” or not?
Q. What opportunities and prospects for personal advancement and independence are open to the women and men of Bessie’s, Chrissie’s, and Faro’s generations? To what extent are they determined or precluded by class, gender, family, and/or economic status? In what ways is the situation similar or different for adolescents and young adults today?
Q. What are the role and importance of Dr. Robert Hawthorn’s state-of-the-art methods of DNA research? In what ways are the elements of his study relevant to our understanding of the lives of Bessie, Chrissie, and Faro? What is the “grand understanding” to which Hawthorn repeatedly refers? What might be the significance of our ability to trace matrilineal DNA descent and not patrilineal?
Q. Dr. Hawthorn tells the residents of Breaseborough that “one of the most interesting riddles facing humanity lies not in the future but in the past. ” How did we get here from there? Do you agree or disagree with his insistence that “where we come from is the most interesting thing that we can know about ourselves”? To what extent do you think Chrissie and Faro might agree? How does the novel illustrate Dr. Hawthorn’s perspective?
Q. In what ways does Bessie’s “nervous prostration” following the Easter party at Highcross House function as a metamorphosis from one phase of her life to another? To what extent does it represent the shedding of a life-form that has served its purpose and a transformation into a more advanced life-form? What other instances of metamorphosis do Bessie, Chrissie, Faro, and other characters experience?
Q. We are told of Bessie, during her first term at Cambridge, “She seemed to be in control.” How important is it to the principal characters-and to you-to be in control of one’s life? In what ways is such control juxtaposed to determination of character and fate by genes, family history, society, landscape, and/or locale?
Q. Drabble writes of Bessie at Cambridge: “She has escaped. Surely she has escaped.” Later we learn that for the teenaged Chrissie “getting away fast and far was her plan.” How important are the idea and actuality of “escape” to Bessie, Chrissie, Faro, Joe Barron, and others? To what degree can we escape our family, our upbringing, our pasts, and the personal character they shape? How is the desire for personal independence juxtaposed with inescapable aspects of one’s own and one’s family’s past?
Q. In her first conversation with Peter Cudworth, Faro asks, “How could one… believe that everything was genetically or environmentally determined, and at the same time that all mutation was random?” How would you answer Faro”s question? How does Drabble handle the linked themes of determinism and randomness? What is the relevance of each in the lives of the principal characters and in the evolutionary and social histories of Breaseborough and its families?
Q. Drabble writes that Bessie’s illness “stretched back too far for [her children] to know its origins. It stretched back beyond old Ellen Bawtry.. . The infection of habit, from generation to generation. Do these two think they can escape?” What is this “infection of habit”? How and why does it persist “from generation to generation”? To what extent do Chrissie and Robert, and Faro, escape it or succumb to it?
Q. What is the importance of the various kinds and instances of reclamation, recovery, renewal, resurgence, and resurrection in the novel? How are these related to the theme of redemption? What do various characters and organizations try to reclaim or recover? Does Drabble provide an answer to the question: “If land and air may be reclaimed, may the dead live again?”
Q. What methods of studying, attempting to understand, and attempting to recapture the past appear in the novel? With which character or characters is each associated? What results from the application of these methods, and what is revealed about individual, family, social, and cultural pasts?
Q. Drabble refers to Joe Barren”s widening musical interests as “another example of successful adaptive preference formation.” What other instances of “adaptive preference formation” occur in the novel? How does such a process benefit an individual, group, or species? What do this concept and related occurrences have to do with the peppered moth of the title?
Q. In what ways is the peppered moth and its natural history related to life in Breaseborough over the years and to the lives of Bessie, Chrissie, and Faro? Why does Faro’s account of the peppered moth appear three-quarters of the way through the novel? What significance and reverberations does it have here that it would not have had if presented earlier? How does the peppered moth, and the evolutionary processes it illustrates, provide a focus for the novel’s various themes?