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Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children Discussion Questions

1. David Wyatt, in his essay "September 11 and Postmodern Memory," posits that 9/11 marked a "turn toward 'seriousness,'" as authors "turn[ed] away from modern irony and the lightness of the postmodern turn" (140). Does The Emperor's Children represent this turn toward seriousness, or does it present a challenge to Wyatt's claim? Messud's crudely ironic character, Ludo, characterizes Murray as a serious man, a man who is “trying to see it truly” and “chide[s] us for our lack of seriousness” (175-6). Likewise, Murray’s nephew abides by a strict moral code. By contrast, Ludo is mercilessly ironic and lives by a “Napoleonic code”: “This alternative morality, this still—to [Danielle] at least—unreadable code, was Seeley’s means to domination” (177). In interviews, Messud has expressed repugnance at Ludo’s worldview, yet her work is still a satire. How does irony function in the novel? Are there specific scenes in which Messud is especially compassionate towards her characters? Whose worldview is most in line with the stance the novel itself takes toward morality and the nature of the self? What kind of picture does the novel create of the Real and the True and how they relate to one another? What is the Real, if not what the characters imagine it to be (122, 231)?

2. Messud is adamant that her novel is not “about” 9/11—that is, that the novel is not, perhaps, what one would call a “9/11 novel.” While 9/11 does figure into the novel towards the end, what the novel is really about, Messud suggests in various interviews, is what it was like to live during that particular historical moment. I am trying to understand what exactly the difference is between a novel about 9/11 (perhaps, Falling Man and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close?) and a novel in which 9/11 figures merely as a significant event among equally important events (Bleeding Edge?). What are the stakes of making this distinction for the quality of our aesthetic evaluations and interpretations of novels that refer to 9/11?

3. What does the omission of the phrase “Have No Clothes” in the title of Marina’s cultural study of children’s fashion, “The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes,” from the title of Messud’s novel suggest about the differences between Marina’s and Messud’s books? How can Murray’s moral treatise (136, 214-5) and Marina’s cultural study (226-7) inform our reading of the novel itself? After all, it is Ludo who inspires Marina to write her book and understands what she is trying to say intuitively.

4. Bootie desires, even has a crush on, his cousin, Marina. Murray Thwaite and his daughter seem to make a perfect couple. They are even mistaken for a couple. Danielle and Murray have a “father-daughter bond” (93). Undertones of incest pervade the novel and color the lives of the intellectual elite. What is the significance of this?

5. In Messud’s novel, we are temporarily transported outside of American culture when Danielle visits Australia to research a documentary she hopes to produce at the beginning of the novel. In this Australia scene, fairytale, supernatural, and medieval imagery is evoked (“like something salvaged from a medieval castle,” 3; “Reality, or rather, facing it, was Danielle’s great credo; although if she were wholly honest, here and now, she believed a little in magic, too,” 9), but this imagery mostly disappears when the setting shifts to the United States. What does Australia represent, and how does it act as a foil for America?