We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Here are my discussion questions on We Are Completely Beside Ourselves:

What traits does Rosemary seem to have picked up from Fern? What are the consequences of these traits? Rosemary figures out that she likes Harlow because she acts a lot like Fern did. Is this true? Are there any traits that aren’t shared between humans and chimpanzees?

Why did Rosemary need to talk so much as a young child? Did it have anything to do with Fern? What causes her to stop talking? Would she still have turned out like this under different circumstances? Why is it important to the story that she was such a talker and now can’t open up?

The fairy tale of the two sisters comes up multiple times. One daughter’s “words turn to jewels and flowers, the other’s to snakes and toads” (pg. 78). If Fern is the daughter who gets sent away, then that would make her the daughter whose words are snakes and toads. In this metaphor, Rosemary would be the daughter with jewels and flowers, but this doesn’t seem to fit. How could this fairy tale be a metaphor for the family? The term fairy tale is used five times in the story, on pgs. 1, 39, 56, 78, and 224; why is the idea of a fairy tale so important to the story?

Why did Rosemary remember the story of Fern being taken away with so much guilt? Why would she have repressed the parts that exonerated her?

What do memories have to do with our actions? How did Lowell’s memories betray him?

Why might Rosemary have remembered/dreamed her father as having killed the cat instead of Fern? What is Rosemary’s relationship with her father? How do you think her father saw his end of the relationship? What’s the responsibility of the father for how the family turned out? Was his being a psychologist the root of the family problems?

What’s in Rosemary’s views of friendship makes it so hard for her to see her actual friendships?

Umwelt refers to “the specific way each particular organism experiences the world” (pg. 99). What does this mean? How does the novel explore this idea? What traits affect the umwelt the most?  Is character more of a factor than experience? Is memory more of a factor than current situation?

Rosemary still uses those big words she learned as a child in her narration. The tone and use of personality in the narrator makes the story feel like it’s being told to us. Do you feel like Rosemary is writing this story down or telling it to someone? Why might she feel the need to explain her experiences?

Chapters are introduced by a selection from Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy.” Rosemary is told by her professors that the story is a “metaphor for being Jewish and you’ll see how it might work that way, but it’s not the most obvious reading” (pg. 128). Given Rosemary’s life, what metaphor for the ape narrator might she see in that story, and how might she apply that to her own life?

There seems to be a lot of importance placed on finding metaphors and similarities in literature to Rosemary’s own life. Why does she turn to these places? Does she gain any knowledge from stories that help her with her own life?

Theory of mind is presented on page 186. Rosemary explains that children younger than four don’t have this capability. Fern is taken away from the family when she is five. Does that affect Rosemary’s memories of Fern and what happened? What does the state of false belief (found in the same section) have to do with theory of mind. Does Rosemary seem to have any problems with false belief? What does this statement about chimpanzees do for Rosemary’s guilt?

The title is referred to on page 98. The phrase is a happy one, connoting overflowing happiness and excitement. But very little in Rosemary’s current life seems to come close to this feeling. Why is this phrase the title? How does it relate to Rosemary or any part of her life?


One thought on “We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

  1. Pingback: Review of We Are Completely Beside Ourselves – wendy reads books

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