Thursday, May 1, 2014

Course Suggestion for HEAVEN'S MY DESTINATION by Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder's fourth novel Heaven's My Destination is the story of a pious young man, whose faith is tested on a cross-country journey. George Marvin Brush is a traveling textbook salesman, determined to lead a righteous life during the Great Depression. George's effort to lead a good life leave a path of comic consternation in its wake, making him one of Wilder's most memorial characters.

Most of the debate centered around Wilder's Heaven's My Destination is whether the novel can be categorized as a coming-of-age story, in which the character evolves from beginning to end, or a picaresque novel, in which the character does not evolve but instead serves as a device for satire. Does George Brush learn from his experiences, or is he a mere tool used for Wilder to comment on American society during the Depression and the corrupted Christian ideals of his time?

To consider this question, students should read and discuss examples of both novel forms. The characters and themes in the coming-of-age stories of Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye offer unique comparisons to Wilder's main character George. Likewise, the picaros of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, Miguel de Cervante's Don Quixote, and even Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne offer interesting parallels to Wilder's Heaven's My Destination.

Sample Discussion Questions
  • In what ways do you believe Wilder's story is a coming-of-age tale? As George's journey through the Midwest progresses, does anything in his interactions with others or his outlook change?
  • How does George relate to Holden in The Catcher in the Rye?
  • How do the stages of spiritual life of George Brush and Don from Blue Like Jazz relate to one another?
  • Ask students to respond to George's question, "Isn't the principle of a thing more important than the people living under that principle?"
  • In what ways do you believe Heaven's My Destination is a picaresque novel?
  • What similarities do George and Nick from Youth in Revolt have in terms of a classic picaro?
  • How does Wilder use his worldview to create satire in Heaven's My Destination? You may want to ask students to read this Thornton Wilder interview in The Paris Review, in which he says, "The comic spirit is given to us in order that we may analyze, weigh, and clarify things in us that nettle us, or that we are outgrowing, or trying to reshape. That is a very autobiographical book."
  • How does George Brush compare to Don Quixote? How does each character's perception of reality impact their lives and the people they encounter? Are they idealistc heroes or fools?
 Additional Resources

Book Review: Thornton Wilder’s “Gandhian” novel, Heaven’s My Destination by William J. Jackson


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