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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

Miss Emily

1. Were you familiar with Emily Dickinson’s work before beginning this novel? Do you read poetry frequently? What drew you to the book?

2. Nuala O’Connor incorporates some of Dickinson’s poems throughout MISS EMILY. Which did you enjoy the most?

3. In 19th-century Amherst, Emily and Ada are both limited by their gender, but Ada is also constrained by class. What examples can you find of each woman’s respective powerlessness?

4. Emily repeatedly describes Ada as her friend, much to the disgust of her brother and sister-in-law. Is it possible to be close friends with an employer, or with someone outside your own class?

5. The novel alternates between Emily’s voice and Ada’s. How would a narrative told only from Ada’s or Emily’s perspective have changed your understanding of the characters and events in the story?

6. What is your family’s history? Did you or your relatives immigrate to the United States, like Ada did? What was your/their experience like?

7. If you were to describe this novel to a friend, what three words would you use?

8. No one knows what caused Emily Dickinson to lead such an intensely cloistered life --- some people have supposed that she suffered from an anxiety disorder or poor health. Based on Emily’s internal monologue in the book, what does O’Connor imply is the root of this behavior? 

9. Is Emily happy with her life? Is Ada? 

10. The closing lines of the book belong to Ada’s musing on hope, seeing it as “small and bald at first, but then it gathers feathers to itself and flies on robust wings” (p. 239). This calls to mind Emily’s famous poem “Hope is the thing with feathers,” which imagines hope as a bird “that perches in the soul.” What is the significance of this image? If possible, find a copy of the poem and compare it to Ada’s description. 

Miss Emily
by Nuala O'Connor

  • Publication Date: July 14, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 014312675X
  • ISBN-13: 9780143126751