Book Discussion Questions: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop book coverTitle:  Death Comes for the Archbishop
Author:  Willa Cather
Page Count: 297 pages
Genre: Historical FictionClassic, Inspirational Fiction
Tone:  Contemplative, Unassuming, Strong Sense of Place

Summary:
In 1851 French Bishop Latour is dispatched to New Mexico to reawaken its slumbering Catholicism. Moving along the endless prairies, he spreads his faith the only way he knows—gently, although he must contend with the unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness.

 

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2016 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. How would you describe the mood of this book? Did you like it?

2. How does the Prologue set the scene for the story? What attitudes and themes does it foreshadow?

3. Describe the friendship between Jean Latour and Joseph Valliant. How essential is their relationship to the book as a whole?

4. Magdalena’s story is one of the more memorable in their early travels, and she then recurs throughout the book. What impact does her character have on the priests? On the reader?

5. Is this a Catholic book? What does it have to say about the greater theme of faith?

6. Are there aspects of religion (or those who profess to be religious) that are portrayed in a negative light?

7. Was the mission of the priests one of service, conversion, or something else? Did they make a difference?

8. What does Latour have in common with the ideal of the Western hero? What is different?

9. Some readers have trouble with Latour due to his lack of passion and sometimes even coldness. Is this how he struck you?

10. When deciding whom to appoint, it is said

The new vicar must be a young man, of strong constitution, full of zeal, and above all, intelligent. He will have to deal with savagery and ignorance, with dissolute priests and political intrigue. He must be a man to whom order is necessary – as dear as life.

      What do you think of these qualities? Were the Cardinals right? Are there others that proved to be necessary in the position?

11. How would you characterize the ways in which the priests interacted with their communities? With individuals? Was there anything that you think they should have done differently?

12. Did you respond to the vivid descriptions of settings, of landscape, of nature? Were there any that stood out especially?

13. In what ways are art and architecture a theme in the book?

14. What was the prevailing attitude toward Americans? Was this justified?

15. What did you think of Cather’s decision to use several historical names and figures in her story? Does this add credibility? Distract?

16. What instances of humor did you find in the book?

17. How satisfied are you with the title? Why do you think it was chosen?

18. Would you say this is an easy book to read? How difficult is it to describe or summarize?

19. Cather considered this book to be her best and most important. Do you agree? Even if you haven’t read other works, do you see significance?

20. Cather once wrote, “When people ask me if it has been a hard or easy road, I always answer with the quotation, ‘The end is nothing, the road is all.'” What do you think of that statement in general? Is this sentiment effectively illustrated by Death Comes for the Archbishop?

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OTHER RESOURCES:

Death Comes for the Archbishop as one of All-TIME 100 Novels
Willa Cather biography
The Protestant Who Wrote the Greatest Book About American Catholicism
Cather draws attention to New Mexico history
Footsteps: Entering the World of Willa Cather’s Archbishop (via The New York Times)
Discussion questions from the Classics Reading Group of Algonquin Area Public Library

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