Elizabeth Gilbert was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1969, and grew up on a small family Christmas tree farm. She attended New York University, where she studied political science by day and worked on her short stories by night. After college, she spent several years traveling around the country, working in bars, diners and ranches, collecting experiences to transform into fiction.
These explorations eventually formed the basis of her first book – a short story collection called PILGRIMS, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award, and which moved Annie Proulx to call her “a young writer of incandescent talent”…[Read More]
‘The Signature of All Things’ Promo Trailer
Buy this book. Not on Kindle. Hardcover. You will want to read it more than once. You won’t want to deny yourself the sensory pleasure and elegant design of Elizabeth Gilbert’s brilliantly written The Signature of All Things. It is one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever read. I savored every word so much that I’m having a hard time sharing the intimately decadent experience of reading it. ~ ANNE CAROLINE DRAKE
By BARBARA KINGSOLVER
Published: September 26, 2013 | The New York Times
Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us into adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act. [Read More]
None of this will make sense until you can read the novel…but here are some lovely images to stir the imagination. [See More]
Director (1865-1885) Kew Royal Botanic Gardens
1. The Signature of All Things takes as its first focus not the book’s heroine, Alma Whittaker, but her rough-and-tumble father, Henry. Why do you think Elizabeth Gilbert made this choice in her narration, and why are the first fifty pages essential to the rest of the novel?
2. Alma Whittaker grows up in the richest family in Philadelphia. In what ways does her father’s fortune set her free? In what ways is it a prison?
3. How does Alma resemble her father? In what crucial ways do they differ?
4. What role is played in the novel by the Whittakers’ servant Hanneke de Groot? In what ways is her perspective essential to the story?
5. Alma postulates that there exist a variety of times, ranging from Human Time to Divine Time, with Geological Time and Moss Time as points in between (pp. 170–71). How might these different notions of time help to relate the world of science to the world of miracles? Is the miracle of creation just a natural process that took a very long time?
6. Gilbert plays with perspective, not only as it relates to time, but also as it relates to space. During the course of the novel, Alma must adapt to dealing with microscopic space as well as global space. At one point, when she plays the part of a comet in a tableau of the solar system, she even becomes figuratively a part of outer space. How do Gilbert’s manipulations of space enrich the experience of reading the novel?
7. Instead of representing Prudence’s abolitionist husband, Arthur Dixon, as an unambiguous hero, Gilbert presents him as a somewhat cracked fanatic, who impoverishes and even endangers his family in the name of an idea. What do you think of Gilbert’s decision to place the cause of abolitionism, which modern thinkers usually find almost impossible to criticize, in the hands of an asocial, self-denying oddball?
8. One of the more unsettling themes of The Signature of All Things is Alma’s habitual masturbation. How does her autoeroticism fit into the rest of the novel, and is the book strengthened or weakened by its presence?
9. Alma’s decision to devote her life to studying mosses is compared to a “religious conversion” (p. 163). In The Signature of All Things, science and religion often intertwine. Are they ever finally reconciled? If so, how? If not, why not?
10. Alma’s husband, Ambrose Pike, offers her a marriage filled with deep respect, spiritual love, intellectual adventure— and positively no sex. Should she have been contented with this arrangement?
11. On pages 319–20, Alma takes “an honest accounting” of her life thus far. At this point in her life, is she a success or a failure? What are the arguments on either side of the question? What are your own criteria for a life well lived?
12. As Alma sails toward Tahiti, the whaler that carries her is nearly sunk by a storm. She feels that this brush with violent death was “the happiest experience of her life” (p. 336). Why might she think this, and what does it tell us about her character?
13. Ambrose’s spirituality eventually destroys him, whereas that of the Reverend Welles, the Tahitian missionary, enables him to cope with isolation and professional failure. What is the difference between the two men’s spiritual understandings? Why is one vision destructive and the other saving?
14. Alma claims at the end of the novel, “I have never felt a need to invent a world beyond this world. . . . All I ever wanted to know was this world” (p. 497). How has this limitation to her curiosity helped her? Has it harmed her?
The Signature of All Things blends sweeping family history with authentic 19th-century historical detail in an epic tale of the life, loves, and scientific discoveries of Alma Whittaker.
The following questions and answers are intended to spark discussion of this book, but are not “the final word” on it. Readers will bring differing viewpoints to the story’s characters, its events, and what it all means; sharing those insights is part of what makes book groups so rewarding. Enjoy your discussion — starting with these ideas.
A: When Alma is nine, a prominent Italian astronomer, Luca Pontesilli, attends one of her family’s famous dinner parties. In order to accurately portray the scope and layout of the galaxy, Pontesilli places the party’s attendants outside in formation to display the sun and various planets and their moons in orbit As it stood, the makeshift galaxy provided a fairly accurate view of the social caste of Philadelphia: “Henry, the Sun King, stood beaming at the center of it all, his hair the color of flame, while men large and small revolved around him, and women circled around the men” (p. 68). With his wealth and status, Henry Whittaker is a “sun” around which men of intellectual and social status orbit; in turn, women orbit around those men as moons, or exist as distant, unknown galaxies.
This moving, living display of the galaxy fascinates Alma, but she is outside of it until her father orders the astronomer to find a place for her. Pontesilli tells Alma to act as a comet, and gives her as direction the order, “You fly about in all directions!” (p. 68). Alma races through the galaxy, and is given a torch carry to illuminate her random path. “She had never before been entrusted with fire. The torch spit sparks and sent chunks of flaming tar spinning into the air behind her as she bolted across the cosmos — the only body in the heavens who was not held to a strict elliptical path” (p. 69). Alma’s role as comet foreshadows her destiny: due to her family’s unique circumstances, Alma has the freedom to travel in all directions, both physically and within the confines of her mind: she receives far more schooling than normal girls of her time, and becomes a renowned bryologist (scientist of mosses). She travels independently, to both Tahiti and Amsterdam. However, like a comet, Alma must also come to terms with never having a set orbit — or even a stable spouse, as demonstrated by the orbiting moons in Pontesilli’s galaxy. Her love for George Hawkes is never returned, and Ambrose and Alma’s short-lived marriage is marked by disastrous failures in understanding and communication.
A: After Ambrose’s refusal to consummate their marriage, Alma questions him about the nature of their relationship. Ambrose claims that he does not want to copulate because of religious reasons, explaining that his love for her is chaste, not physical: “I had hoped we could be angels of God together. Such a thing would not be possible unless we were freed of the flesh, bound in celestial grace” (p. 279). Alma is heartbroken at Ambrose’s refusal, and soon she sends him on a botanical mission to Tahiti. After Ambrose’s death, Alma discovers suggestive drawings of a young Tahitian man in Ambrose’s valise, and she angrily thinks about Ambrose’s behavior and speech in light of the drawings recovered from his time in Tahiti: “She had been made a fool by Ambrose and his supercelestial thoughts, by his grand dreams, his false innocence, his pretense at godliness, his noble talk of communion with the divine” (p. 304).
When Alma travels to Tahiti and finally meets Tuesday Morning, they talk about Ambrose. Tuesday Morning explains what he believes Ambrose wanted in a partner: “He wanted a companion . . . He wanted a twin. He wanted us to be the same” (p. 421). Ambrose had spoken in similar terms to Alma before their marriage:
“I have always hoped to find somebody with whom I can communicate silently. Since meeting you, I have hoped it even more — for we share, it seems, such a natural and sympathetic understanding of each other, which extends far beyond the crass or the common affections.”(p. 243)
Although Tuesday Morning says that Ambrose’s death was not Alma’s fault (and, in fact, that if blame is assigned, it should be assigned to him), she cannot help feeling guilty. While Ambrose and Alma each have different definitions of love, Ambrose’s description of a companion matches Alma, and confirms that his love for her was genuine, if different than hers for him.
A: Women of the 19th century were expected to either marry and work in the home, or remain unmarried and live as spinsters. Prudence, Alma, and Retta’s husbands each afford them different views of the world, and being married changes each woman. Although Alma and Prudence suffer heartbreak and are unable to be with the men they love, they exert their independence and make conscious choices about the course of their lives.
Prudence marries schoolteacher and abolitionist Arthur Dixon. Although she does not love him, she supports the abolitionist cause. Marriage to Arthur suits Prudence’s purposes overall: marrying him accords with her moral beliefs, provides acceptable social advantages, and successfully deters George Hawkes from further pursuing her, which she hopes will be to Alma’s advantage. Prudence’s marriage is based on respect rather than love: “[Arthur] had introduced her to those abolitionist ideas of hers . . . and those ideas affected her conscience greatly — as they still do. So she respected Mr. Dixon, but she did not love him, and she does not love him today.” (p. 316). Prudence chooses the most moral, and chaste path available to her by marrying Arthur Dixon.
After George is assured that Prudence will not have him, he proposes to Retta. She gladly accepts, knowing nothing Prudence’s (or Alma’s) true feelings about him; in fact, she seems to accept his proposal primarily out of a regard for George’s friendship with Alma. Retta, however, is unable to find a balance between her own personality and George’s. Marriage diminishes Retta in a way that does not happen to Prudence or Alma; Retta eventually loses her hold on sanity, and George has her committed to an asylum: “Retta was dressed neatly and her hair was clean and braided, but she looked apparitional. . . . She was still a pretty thing, but mostly, by now, she was just a thing” (p. 226). Retta is merely whisked along in George’s life, where her inability to communicate with him, or be the wife he’d intended, precedes her downfall.
Alma has no suitors until Ambrose arrives late in her life. As the wealthy mistress of White Acre, Alma has no economic need to marry. By marrying so late in life, Alma is spared traditional marital obligations like child-rearing. Moreover, Ambrose shares her passion for botany. Unlike Retta’s more conventional (ultimately disastrous) marriage to George, Alma’s marriage to Ambrose actually affirms her individual worth and personal goals — until she learns how Ambrose’s sexual intentions differ from hers. Although sexual satisfaction is the only constraint of marriage for Alma, it is a denial she cannot bear.
A: From a very early age, Alma proves to be both clever and curious about the world: “She wanted to understand the world, and she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance” (p. 51). Alma’s need to understand how — and why — things work remains constant throughout her life. However, her focus changes as she grows older. As a girl, she is focused mainly on discovering the world around her, and her pursuits are confined to exploring White Acre. When Alma discovers a strange shade-loving plant called Monotropa hypopitys, she investigates it and reasons that the plant is likely a parasite (p. 102). Only later, when Alma looks at the bigger picture — and the mosses in which the plant grows — does she discover her calling: to study mosses, the humblest plants so often overlooked by the rest of the world.
A major turning point for Alma occurs when she learns about the truth of Prudence’s sacrifice. Alma realizes that all her curiosity has been directed inward; in her pursuit of scientific discovery, she has failed to accurately observe the people in her life.
“[Alma] had always thought herself to be a woman of dignity and worldly knowledge, but really she was a petulant and aging princess . . . who had never risked anything of worth, and who had never traveled farther away from Philadelphia than a hospital for the insane in Trenton, New Jersey.” (p. 320)
Tahiti provides Alma with some closure. On one of her last days on the island, she plays a violent game of ball with the other women and nearly drowns, choosing at the last second to fight for herself. In the process, she discovers an explanation she had been searching for:
“Lastly, she knew one other thing . . . that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. . . . This fact was the very mechanism of nature — the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation — and it was the explanation for the entire world.” (p. 434)
A: Alma’s great work is her “theory of competitive alteration,” a theory of evolution created prior to Darwin’s. Alma resists publishing her ideas because she cannot reconcile Prudence’s actions with her theory:
“For here was the hole in Alma’s theory: she could not, for the life of her, understand the evolutionary advantages of altruism and self-sacrifice. If the natural world was indeed the sphere of amoral and constant struggle for survival that it appeared to be, and if outcompeting one’s rivals was the key to dominance, adaptation, an endurance, then what was one supposed to make . . . of someone like her sister, Prudence?” (p. 464)
Alma tries to figure out an advantage to Prudence’s great sacrifice of turning down George Hawkes, whom she loved, to marry Arthur Dixon. She is utterly puzzled about why altruistic behavior should exist, in evolutionary terms. In Alma’s opinion, Prudence’s act is self-defeating — putting someone else’s needs above one’s own is rarely advantageous and sometimes fatal:
“Alma could make a fairly persuasive argument as to why mothers, for instance, made sacrifices on behalf of their children (because it was advantageous to continue the family line), but she could not explain why a soldier would run straight into a line of bayonets to protect an injured comrade. How did that action bolster or benefit the brave soldier or his family? It simply did not: through self-sacrifice, the now-dead soldier had negated not only his own future, but the continuation of his bloodline, as well.” (p 465)
Uncle Dees posits that Prudence acts selflessly out of devotion to her religion. However, Alma doesn’t think that fully explains it. Assuming that the rest of Alma’s theory is correct, she should be able to find a way to rationalize altruism and self-sacrifice in the evolution of humans. That the traits seem to only exist in humans may explain some of the mystery; while Alma does note that animals will occasionally die for the good of their hive or colony, sacrifice does not happen among animals the way it sometimes does among humans. In the end, the problem remains unsolved because there is no science to explain it. The only explanation close to solving the problem is a spiritual one, which Alma claims is not “science — though I might call it poetry” (p. 494).