The Good Terrorist
Reading Guide by Tonya Krouse
Dr. Tonya Krouse, former President of the Doris Lessing Society, teaches in the English Department at Northern Kentucky University. Her teaching and research interests include Modern and Contemporary British literature, periodization and the canon, literary theory, and the works of Lessing, Woolf and Joyce. In 2008 she published The Opposite of Desire: Sex and Pleasure in the Modernist Novel (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books). She also publishes frequently in the Journal of Modern Literature, the Virginia Woolf Miscellany, and Doris Lessing Studies.
In some ways, this is a novel in which very little happens. Alice Mellings sets up house, she and her “comrades” protest and plot revolution, and finally perpetrate an act of terrorism. The fairly mundane and straightforward plot conceals, however, moments of trauma that make this novel uncomfortable to read and difficult to pin down. In my notes I have focused primary attention on moments of personal and political trauma that drive the narrative. To assist in your reading, I want to provide you with a guide to focus your efforts at interpreting this deceptively simple text.
Setting up House (pages 1-42)
- The novel opens with a dilapidated house, a squat that is in danger of being torn down as uninhabitable. For an overview of squatting in the United Kingdom, you can start with this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squatting#United_Kingdom
- What do you make of the buckets of shit in the house and how does it relate to Jim’s status? Consider the juxtaposition with this practical problem and Alice’s phone conversations with her mother and father. See especially p. 14-17.
- Consider the sleeping arrangements in the squat and Alice’s attitude to sex. What is the nature of Alice’s relationship with Jasper, and how do you interpret that relationship? See especially p. 40-42.
Practical Necessities vs. Revolutionary Ambitions (pages 42-100)
- What are the ironies of what Alice is trying to do with the squat? What is her attitude to domestic space, money, and communal living?
- Consider the significance of how Alice decides to handle the buckets of shit. Consider the relationship between Alice’s repeated concerns about her own cleanliness in relation to her attempts to clean up the squat. See especially p. 64-68.
- What is the significance of the scene in which Pat destroys the bird’s nest and the eggs with the chick embryos crack open? Why does Alice sob in response? How do you compare her with Pat? See p. 85-86.
Childhood Trauma as Source for Adult Behavior (pages 100-152)
- Attend to the characterization of Faye, and consider her unpredictable behavior and her resistance to Alice’s attempts to domesticate the squat. See especially p. 104-106; 120-122.
- What do you make of Alice throwing the rock through the window of her father’s house? Why does she do it? What does it signify? Can we see this scene as linking Alice’s personal problems with her politics? What do we make of the repetition with a difference of this scene just pages later? See p. 130-131; 135.
- Consider Jasper’s sexuality and how Alice accounts for herself in that context. See p. 148-152.
Domestic Terrorist Plotting (pages 152-207)
- Think about Alice’s meeting with Comrade Andrew and her attitude to what he reveals. What is the significance of her physical encounter with Comrade Andrew? How are political and personal traumas linked? See especially p. 165-170.
- What is the significance of Alice’s relationship with her parents, and how did their marriage and divorce shape her identity? See especially p. 202-207.
Disputes in the Squat and the Advancement of a Terrorist Agenda (pages 207-281)
- Examine the differences between Dorothy and Alice. To what extent is the mother-daughter relationship analogous to the relationship between country and dispossessed political groups? See esp. p. 235.
- What is the significance of Jocelin’s study of terrorism and bomb-making? Consider the juxtaposition of this with Faye’s suicide attempt. See p. 262-267.
Personal and Political “Home Rule”(pages 282-375)
- Evaluate Alice’s final showdown with Dorothy and its juxtaposition with the test of the explosives. See p. 327-343
- Consider the event of the terrorist attack and Faye’s suicide. How does the novel collapse personal and political trauma? What does the novel tell us about the possibility of putting trauma into representation? What do we make of the novel’s end? 358-375
Most Central Characters to a Discussion of Trauma in The Good Terrorist:
- Alice Mellings
- Dorothy Mellings