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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

Altered States

1. What do the narrative tone and vocabulary on the first page of the novel imply about Alan Sherwood, the narrator? What sort of initial impression do you get of him, and do you find that impression to be borne out or refuted as you read the book?

2. Alan presents himself as unemotional, speaking of "my temperament, which is stolid, and my history, which is not" [p. 8]. Later he says, "I knew myself to be fairly dull, fairly unremarkable" [p. 34]. What is Alan's real nature? Why does he describe himself as being "entirely in character" when he speaks to Sarah on page 46? Does Sarah bring out his real nature, or does she bring out an aberrant version of Alan? What kind of a life might Alan have lived had he never met Sarah?

3. How does Brian's attitude toward Sarah differ from Alan's from the very outset? Why has he chosen Felicity as a partner? What makes their marriage successful?

4. After meeting Sarah at Humphrey and Jenny's wedding, Alan says, "Already I knew that there would be an affair, and that it would not lead to possession" [p. 36]. Why does he decide to pursue her despite the odds? What conclusions is Alan drawing when he says, "The one lesson I learnt from the whole affair was that one is responsible not only for what one does but for what is done to one" [p. 56-57]?

5. Why does Alan compare his feelings toward Sarah with the ideal of "courtly love" [p. 52)] and say that his behavior "had more in common with the Middle Ages, or even the Dark Ages, than with the twentieth century" [p. 53]?

6. How does Sarah affect Angela and Alan's decision to marry? What are Angela's feelings towards Sarah, and does her choice of Alan as a potential partner have anything to do with those feelings? Would Alan have married Angela had he never known Sarah?

7. Why is Alan initially so appalled by his mother's marriage? What are the reasons for her marriage? Is the relationship between Alan and his mother as simple as he makes it out to be? How does the reality differ from his version of it?

8. What do Jenny, Angela, and Alan's mother have in common as wives? Why did each of them decide to marry, and how much did love have to do with their decisions? Alan claims to believe that women have reached a point where they can be equal to, and independent of, men. Does his behavior uphold this claim? How does he see, and treat, women?

9. Why is Alan so quick to see the disaster that occurred at home while he was in Paris as a punishment to himself? Do others agree with him?

10. What does Sarah want, from life and from Alan? Alan is convinced that he meant something special to her; is he right, or was he simply one of many interchangeable men in Sarah's life? Is Sarah a contented person, or an unhappy one?

11. While Jenny is caring for Angela, Alan sees her presence as "malign" [p. 147]. Is she in fact malign, or is she simply a well-meaning woman who has had a hard life? Do you think that Jenny brings some of her troubles upon herself?

12. "I shan't marry again" [p. 207], Alan says to Brian. Why not? Why has he decided that his emotional life is essentially over?

Altered States
by Anita Brookner

  • Publication Date: January 12, 1998
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0679773258
  • ISBN-13: 9780679773252