Questions for Discussion
- What was the basis of Shakerism’s appeal to converts like James Chapman? What do you think attracted him to the Shaker religion and way of life, and why did these draws not have the same affect on his wife?
- James claimed that Shakerism made him a “better man.” Do you believe this is true and why?
- An early visitor to the Shakers once remarked that the society seemed ideal for “all those who in one way or the other seem left out of the game or the battle of life….” Do you agree with this assessment? Can you imagine joining a society like the Shakers? What would be most attractive to you? What do you think would be most difficult for you to accept or give up?
- Jesus once said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Do these words, as the Shakers believed, give support for their lifestyle? If not, what is the difference?
- Why was it so hard for Eunice and James Chapman to be divorced? Compare views towards marriage and divorce, then and now.
- Compare the competing visions of motherhood offered by Eunice and the Shakers—and compare Eunice Chapman, Ann Lee, and Lucy Wright as Mothers. In what ways did the Shakers challenge traditional women’s roles? In what ways did they reinforce them?
- Look carefully at the correspondence between Eunice and Mother Lucy in Part II Chapter 8, “Mother Against Mother.” Who is the savvier mother?
- Eunice was called an “ornament to her sex,” a “modern enchantress,” and a “hussy” by various people in the book. Which description, if any, do you think is most accurate and why? What made her such a controversial figure?
- What are the pressures Eunice faced in the limelight? How are these challenges like or unlike those that female celebrities, politicians, and other public figures face now?
- Thomas Jefferson denounced one version of Eunice’s act “bigoted and barbaric.” Do you agree? What was at stake in the passage of her law?
- Eunice won rights to custody and divorce that were unprecedented in New York State. Do you think that she deserved what she got?
- Each part of the book begins with a spiritual reference. How does each epigraph relate to its part? Examples:
Part I: How did a “broken heart” prove to be a blessing for characters such as Eunice, Mother Ann, and Mother Lucy?
Part II: The Shakers are known for their straightforwardness and honesty, but Eunice denounced them as imposters. Is there a way to reconcile their behavior in the Chapman case with the virtues for which they are famed?
Part III: Many outsiders denounced the Shakers for “breaking up families” and giving up natural relations; the Shakers, meanwhile, claimed support for their beliefs in Biblical passages such as Mark 10:29-30. Can the two sets of views be reconciled?
- Thousands of Americans have called themselves Shakers at various points in time (20,000 by one scholar’s estimate); the society is now down to three members. Why do you think the society does not have the same pull that it did in years past?
- If The Great Divorce were a movie, who would you cast in the various roles, beginning with Eunice and James Chapman?