Iris Dupont is a young reporter who communes with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. Jonah Kaplan is a failed microbiologist–turned–biology teacher who is haunted by the ghosts of his past. In The Year of the Gadfly, each embarks on a private investigation to uncover a secret society in their remote New England town. As Iris and Jonah’s paths intersect, they are drawn into the darker corners of their town, their school, and their own minds.
1. In the beginning of the novel the author uses phrases like, “The seat belt held me like a straitjacket” (p. 5), and “The place screamed asylum more than school” (p. 8). She also describes the houses in Nye as “in various stages of decay and abandonment” (p. 5). What kind of mood did these images create for the opening scenes? How did this influence your reading experience?
2. In addition to speaking to the specter of Murrow, Iris spends time imagining the lives of Lily, the schoolgirl whose room she uses, and her deceased friend, Dalia. What do you think this focus tells us about her worldview? What does it tell you about Iris as a character and her development over the course of the novel?
3. Jonah Kaplan, the biology teacher, wants to teach students to be “extremophiles.” What inspiration does Iris find in this teacher? What does it mean to be an extremophile? How are Iris and some of the other characters extremophiles—and how are they not? And what is the significance of the book Iris discovers, Marvelous Species? Do extremophiles tell us anything particularly interesting about the setting of the novel?
4. Hazel, the Nye Historical Society’s curator, talks with Iris about Socrates and his role as a gadfly (p. 90). Iris considers herself a gadfly. What does she mean? What were Hazel’s motivations in bringing it up? Discuss the significance of the title in light of their conversation.
5. When Lily and Justin go on their first date, they begin to watch and discuss the film Dead Poets Society (p. 121). What were Justin’s premonitions about the movie? Compare and contrast the secret society in the movie with the one in the book.
6. Iris is kidnapped by four students in pig masks. One tells porn cartoons her, “Just because something looks sinister doesn’t mean it is” (p. 137). How does Iris relate this to Kaplan’s theories and to the Marvelous Species manuscript on microorganisms? How does she relate this concept to life itself?
7. Lily finds kinship in the character of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter. Why do you think she is able to relate to this character? Are there any other characters in Gadfly you can imagine relating to the character of Prynne?
8. Iris recalls Mr. Kaplan saying, “With all the dead skin cells and falling leaves, the world is dying as much as it’s living” (p. 145). Do you think this idea fits with Iris’s world view? Is there a positive and negative way to view this kind of process?
9. On page 201, Jonah Kaplan says, “We all desired what we could not have. Justin, Lily, and myself. Even Hazel.” How does each character desire what could not be attained? Does that apply to Iris as well? Why or why not? Is unrequited and unquenched desire something that seems especially true in adolescence?
10. What role does ambition play in this novel? Which characters are ambitious and in what ways? Is there a price to pay for achieving one’s ambition, and is that price equal regardless of who is paying it?
11. Look at the bullying that went on between various groups and students over the different time periods depicted in the book. How is it representative of our current climate and, perhaps, the bullying you witnessed when you were younger? What tactics did Prisom’s Party employ versus the treatment the art girls leveled at Lily, or Hazel’s behavior toward Lily? What types of bullying have you witnessed in your own life and what have been the repercussions?
12. At one point the imaginary Ed Murrow says to Iris, “There is no Edward R. Murrow. There’s only the myth of him” (p. 285). What did he mean by this? How does this change Iris? Why do you think Iris has Edward Murrow as an imaginary friend and role model? What might have prompted the author to choose him for this role?
13. There were a number of twists, turns, and surprises in the climax of this book. Was there one that shocked you most? Discuss which one it was, and why it had a particularly strong effect on you.
14. At the end of the novel, Jonah Kaplan muses, “the idea of prep school flouts evolution itself” (p. 362). What does he mean by this? Is he referring to more than prep school?
15. The author uses a number of narrative devices to relay the story: multiple points of view, switching from first to third person, and moving back and forth from one decade to another. What does the author accomplish by switching points of view throughout the novel? How are the three narrators connected through their experiences? Do you think the novel’s themes or messages benefit from these variations? Did you have a favorite point of view or era, or was each equally compelling?
16. “Most good things in life come prepackaged with nostalgia; otherwise nobody would appreciate anything” (p. 275). Why do you think Jonah feels this way? Do you agree or disagree? In what ways does nostalgia pervade this novel? How do we overcome our pasts, or, why and how do the characters in this book struggle to shed their pasts? Do they succeed? Can anyone? Would you want to succeed at such a goal?
Discussion questions written by Ally Peltier.
© 2011 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt