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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

Swimming Toward the Ocean

1. In reconstructing her parents' lives, Devorah describes feelings and events of which she has no direct knowledge. Do her assumptions and interpretations undermine her reliability as a narrator? Are life stories, whether fictional, biographical, or autobiographical, ever completely "objective"?

2. Images of and references to water recur throughout Swimming Toward the Ocean. Does water serve as a metaphor in the novel? If so, for what?

3. In what ways do the Arnows represent the universal experience of immigrants in this country? How do their individual expectations affect their behavior toward one another? What goals, if any, do Chenia and Ruben share?

4. How do Chenia's superstitions and traditional beliefs influence the way she rears her children? What is the significance of the statement, "My mother's heart is bursting with affection for her son, but this she doesn't say" [p. 31]? In what ways are Mimi and Sheldon shaped by their mother's remoteness and lack of outward affection? Does Chenia treat Devorah differently, and if so, why?

5. Does Chenia provide Devorah and her siblings with the moral or ethical guidance we normally expect from parents? What values does she teach them? What role does Ruben play in the children's lives? How do the choices Devorah and Mimi make as grown, married women reflect their reactions to their parents' marriage and their own childhood experiences?

6. Despite her old-fashioned upbringing and her strong notions of sin and punishment, Chenia is irresistibly drawn to Harry. What makes her so vulnerable to him? How do the emotions and feelings he elicits transform the way she thinks about herself?

7. How would Chenia's life have been different if she had not met Harry? To what extent did the affair rescue her? In what ways did it make her life more difficult?

8. How do Devorah's descriptions of her mother's affair with Harry differ from her accounts of Ruben's infidelities with Trudy and Bertha? How do the specific events she recounts, as well as her tone, influence your impressions of their motivations and the depth of their feelings? Does she judge one parent more harshly than the other? Do you think she recognizes and understands her father's need to be with other women?

9. The setting plays an important role in Swimming Toward the Ocean. What physical details does Glickfeld use to evoke the period? Which cultural, social, and political references are most effective in illuminating the particular milieu of the Arnows, their friends, and extended family?

10. From Devorah's birth to Chenia's first encounter with Harry and Mimi's unlikely friendship with Sofie, the concepts of fate and coincidence are integral to the plot development of the novel. Does the author make these events credible? To what extent are the characters responsible for their own destinies and to what extent are their lives shaped by chance?

11. How does the life the Arnows have constructed for themselves differ from the other lives depicted in the novel? What do Glickfeld's portraits of Harry, Chenia's sister Ruchel and her husband, Trudy and Barney Fleisch, and Bertha Landau reveal about the process of assimilation? What factors, both practical and psychological, influence the various characters' ability to make a place for themselves in American society?

12. Does Chenia's story represent an experience that is typical of women of her generation? In what ways does she conform to society's rules and expectations? Other than her affair with Harry, what examples are there of her refusal to follow the rules? Do Ruben's behavior and attitude, as well as the limited options available to Chenia, justify acts which might otherwise seem selfish or immoral?

13. In imagining Chenia's reaction to seeing Harry at the theater years after she has made another life for herself, Devorah writes, "What is she thinking, that Harry will call her up and it will be as before? Even if she could love this man again, she thinks, she can never stop hating him" [p. 332]. In light of this, why does Chenia agree to meet with him? What does she hope will happen?

14. Chenia has three very different relationships in the course of the novel: her marriage to Ruben, her affair with Harry, and her marriage to Sol. How do each of these relationships illuminate Chenia's personality and her needs at different times in her life? Which relationship do you think best reflects the woman Chenia really is? The woman she wants to be?

15. Is the ending consistent with the spirit of the novel? Does it bring the relationship between Devorah and Chenia to an appropriate close? Does Devorah see similarities between her mother and herself? Does she fully forgive Chenia for the hurt she has caused?

16. What literary traditions (or genres) might you use to classify Swimming Toward the Ocean? Would you characterize it as a family saga? A love story? A coming-of-age novel?

Swimming Toward the Ocean
by Carole L. Glickfeld

  • Publication Date: February 26, 2002
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0385721765
  • ISBN-13: 9780385721769