At the age of five, Grania–the daughter of hardworking hoteliers in small-town Ontario–emerges from a bout of scarlet fever profoundly deaf and is suddenly sealed off from the world that was just beginning to open for her. Her guilt-plagued mother cannot accept her daughter’s deafness, so Grania’s saving grace is Mamo, her indefatigable grandmother who tries to teach her language. But when it becomes clear that Grania can no longer thrive in the world of the hearing, her family sends her to live at the Ontario School for the Deaf, where, protected from the often-unforgiving hearing world outside, she learns sign language and speech.
After graduation Grania stays on to work at the school, and it is there that she meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man.
In wonderment the two begin to create a new emotional vocabulary that encompasses both sound and silence. But two weeks after their wedding, Jim must leave home to serve as a stretcher-bearer on the blood-soaked battlefields of Flanders. During this long and brutal war of attrition, Jim’s and Grania’s letters back and forth–both real and imagined–attempt to sustain the intimacy they discovered in Canada, even while they are both pulled into disturbing and devastating events.
A magnificent tale of love and war, Deafening is also an ode to language–how it can console, imprison, and liberate, and how it alone can bridge vast chasms of geography and experience.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
1. How well does Itani’s novel convey the world of the deaf, specifically that of Grania? Are we persuaded that we are inside Grania’s silent world?
2. In drawing a character who is profoundly deaf, an author might be tempted to overstate her virtues and triumphs. Is this so in Deafening? How is Grania depicted realistically? Do you find her subject to anger, resentment, and brooding? In other words, isn’t she human? We learn about Grania’s deafness primarily from the narrator, with Grania herself as a prism. But we also learn about it from other sources. What are they? Does Grania’s deafness serve as a litmus test for other characters’ humanity?
3. What makes Deafening a work of consequence? Certainly it teaches us about both the limitations of deafness and the possibilities open to a person of inner strength and determination. What are other concerns of the novel? Is it clear that enormous research has informed the book? Do you find that references to public events like the sinking of the Lusitania or Alexander Graham Bell’s research into deafness connect the story to a larger context?
4. Are there advantages to deafness? Consider the pleasure of a fireworks display without the racket: “a display of Roman candles, fire balloons and skyrockets, pin-wheels and fountain wheels. The night exploded silently before their eyes while, tired and excited, they leaned into each other’s warmth, their skirts tucked beneath them as they sat on the grass of the school lawns that were lighted all around with electric lights hidden inside Japanese lanterns. All of this, she tries to convey to Tress’ (p. 96).
5. Are there times when you have experienced a remarkable quiet? Think of a deep snowstorm in the city when the noise is absent. Do you sympathize with people who buy earphones, not for music but to block sound? Is there a special pleasure about silent movies? Even though we have elaborate technology for sound, isn’t it often abused? Would a film like Winged Migration be more effective without its sound track?
‘she stood at her bedroom window and peered out. In all of the winter whiteness, perhaps silence was everywhere. She would ask Mamo. Beneath the window she saw undisturbed snow in the street, and a glistening over the new layer of ice. When snow covered the earth, did it also absorb sound? She felt safe during snowstorms, although this was something she could not have explained. Perhaps hearing and deaf people were joined in the same way for a brief time in a silent world” (pp. 282–283). Is Grania’s speculative turn of mind a major component of her learning language?
5. From the time Grania insists on earless paper dolls, she asserts her will as well as the reality of her deafness. (In contrast one thinks of the black child in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye who despaired because she didn’t look like her blond doll.) Grania dreams with decision: her earless girl will go to the C-shore and play safely in the waves (p. 47). Can you think of other times when Grania uses her deafness for her own purposes? With the odious Cora, for example?
An ironic footnote is that later in her life when Grania and others are living “inside a feeling of terrible necessity” (endless war, loss, crumbling business because of temperance) Grania “pressed her hands to her ears as if, by doing so, she would silence the flow of her own thoughts’ (p. 265).
6. How can we trace Grania’s learning process? We know she retains a few random shreds from actual pre-deaf experience, and she has a phenomenal memory. How does she accumulate the information and skills she needs to become a fully functioning person? What is the role of Tress? Of Mamo (“. . . the gift of pictures and words, learned and remembered and stored” –p. 44)? Other characters who contribute to her growth? How do Itani’s images help us enter Grania’s thinking? C-shore. ‘she says “C” and ‘shore” over and over again. She twists the word into yellow rope and stores it in her memory” (p. 45).
7. Do you see an identifiable moral sense in Deafening? If so, what would it be? What behavior is condemned, what is extolled, and what merely condoned or tolerated? What do Cora (who seems to resent Grania’s very existence) and her daughter, Jewel, represent? You recall it is Jewel who pins the white feather on Bernard. When we enter the world of the war, the moral senses are both sharpened and made ambiguous. One moment that is clear is the sinking of the Lusitania: “The drowning of those women and babies was a cowardly act. A brutal act by cowardly men” (p. 107). How is history made vivid and relevant? For Grania it is “150 dead babies floating in the sea off the coast of Ireland” (p. 117).
8. What are we to make of Grania’s mother? She prays for miracles, makes pilgrimages, including to the doctor in America and the shrine in Quebec, hoping to cure her daughter’s deafness, to no avail. Guilt assails her. Why? Even when Grania wants to share sign language, her mother resists. “I have too much work to do’ (p. 98). Is the work a pretext? What is the result in their relationship? Grania “felt the hard wall that was Mother’s will, Mother’s intent. Three years after she finished school . . . she could still feel Mother’s will” (p. 124). Is there ever a time that things change for them? Consider Mother’s startling act when Kenan is injured (p. 268).
When Jim enters Grania’s life, how does Mother respond? Remember “No announcements’? In clinging to her guilt and prayers, is Mother dismissing Grania? Does her intransigence further distance her husband? Would it shake Mother’s reality to think Grania might be not only independent but also perhaps happy?
9. The love story: Are there times when the necessity for a private language turns into a delight? “They had begun to create a language of their own. It arose as naturally as the love between them, an invented code no one would ever break” (pp. 131–132). Is it partly their challenges that keep them from taking their love for granted? “He brushed a fingertip over his lips and signalled across the room. . . . Grania’s cheeks reddened furiously when he made this public-private display. . . . He had never known a language that so thoroughly encompassed love. She had never felt so safe” (p. 132). When are other times that the special language links between Jim and Grania become almost enviable?
10. How do Grania and Jim survive their years-long separation and the fear that attends it? As he leaves for war, “he took her hand and held it firmly inside his own and she felt only the pressure of his skin on hers. Don’t let go. The war is close. The war is closing in. Against her will, a part of her was shutting down. It was happening to him, too. He is leaving before it’s time to go. And though she hated what was happening to both of them, she knew that in the same way he was pulling away, she was pulling back, searching for the safe place inside herself. If she could find it, she would stay there until he returned” (p. 149).
Do we regard this pragmatism as somehow counterromantic? Could it be that part of their strength as a couple is based on their strong sense of survival as individuals? These are not immature young people, either one. Jim has been orphaned, twice really, counting his grandparents.
11. If deafness in the novel becomes a world of possibility, a triumph of human ingenuity, then can war be seen as a thematic opposite? At first the war is seen by leaders and soldiers alike as a theater for grand achievements: patriotism, courage, adventure, manhood, and brotherhood. What happens to these dreams of glory on both the large scale and the personal? What do you think is Itani’s purpose in writing the war scenes? It was Irish who said, “These are the sights the mind gorges on in horror forever, Jimmy” (p. 230).
The destruction is made vivid in this scene: “It was one of the horrors of the war–the terrible waste of living creatures. Thousands upon thousands of horses and mules were buried and unburied across the scarred landscape in these corners of Belgium and France” (p. 231). And then the human toll.
One scene in particular is memorable, powerful in its understatement, when Jim meets his German double, also assigned to help the injured. What does Jim take away from the encounter? In this case it is a German who gives first aid to a wounded Canadian and helps load him onto a stretcher. No words are exchanged. Jim tries to hate his enemy “but there was only coldness, no other feeling. Coldness, and the hatred of war” (p. 233). Do we deduce that the young German, same age as Jim, same filthy uniform, feels the same?
12. Jim’s need to communicate with Grania is so strong that he writes letters in his head he will never be able to send: “. . . the fear in the eyes of the horses. . . . My own jostling comrades, as tightly packed as the horses. . . . The stench of being close together . . . The feeling of stagnation. We are ready to go but we are squashed onto a cattle boat that keeps us in England and brings us no closer to the shores of France. A monoplane appears out of nowhere. The buzz in the sky hovers overhead like a portent. It is a wonderful machine to see. I try to imagine the thrill of freedom a man unknown to me must feel up there, sailing through the sky, looking down on us, a luckless clump of men trapped within the confines of an old cattle boat” (p. 166).
The perils of war, the fears, courage, brutality, brotherhood, and waste of war are perhaps universal from Troy to the Somme to Vietnam. How does Itani create simultaneously a specific time, World War I, and the timelessness of all wars?
13. War takes center stage for much of the novel. But the issues at the front and those at home often echo one another. Think of isolation, fear, friendship, and the need for communication. How does Itani create a counterpoint between home and “over there”?
14. How would you compare or contrast Deafening with other war books you have read. Think of some titles. Did those works glorify or at least justify war? Do any of them seem like out-and-out antiwar books? How would you characterize Itani’s novel?
15. How would you describe Itani’s narrative method? How does she structure the novel? Would you say the device of interweaving memories and the Sunday book throughout is a fair evocation of Grania’s thinking process? Of anyone’s?
16. It stands to reason that some things will always be difficult for Grania. What are some of these inevitables? “As always, in a group, words jumped the circle quickly and could not be read. When Mamo and Tress were with her, Grania was included. She had only to cast a sideways glance at either to follow their familiar lips–lips that formed words without creating so much as a whisper, lips that supplied silent commentary as they had been doing since she was five years old. Keeping her inside the circle of information” (p. 244). Do you sense that she will always need dependable allies to help her navigate?
We recall the poignancy of her instinct that “for her, alone is best” and yet her need to reach out to children in the hearing school. She succumbs to the hope of playing their game unaware that she is the game, the butt. She watches and tries to capture their words, but fails. “Whatever it is bounces from one child to another, erupting the way mayflies erupt on the surface of the water, quick, impossible to catch. . . . The children keep it in front, overhead, behind, to the side. But behind does not exist. Not for her. Behind is the darkness outside of thought. It’s the place where sound gathers, sound that she is not meant to hear” (p. 57). Do you find language like this, imagery close to poetry, effective in capturing Grania’s world?
17. Memory translates into smell for Grania often. As she leaves school in June, “Grania sniffs carbolic when she thinks of the trunk; her own and everyone else’s will be fumigated, clothes and all, when they return in the fall” (p. 93). What other smells are particularly important for her? Think of Mamo and her scent, one that comforts Grania after her grandmother’s death. In a parallel way, how is Grania’s understanding of the world heightened in a visual way?
18. Are secrets important in the book? Think of Tress, Aunt Maggie, Mrs. Brant, Mamo, Kenan, Grew, and Father. In this book discuss how secrets are used for connection or exclusion or simply to maintain privacy.
19. Someone has sprung the question: “Can the deaf think?” Why not ask a few more: “Can the deaf eat?” “Can the deaf sleep?” “Can the deaf breathe?” It strikes us that the fool-killer misses a good many possible swats with his club. The Canadian (p. 362).
The absurdity of the passage is blatant to us after reading Deafening. Are there other ‘differences’ that distance us from people until we get to know them? What are some of these? Ethnic, religious, sexual, social, racial? We think of Shakespeare’s Shylock saying, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands . . . affections, passions? . . . If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (Merchant of Venice). In your experience can you remember getting over a moment of similar ignorance? Do you believe that literature can help us in this regard?
20. Do you identify with Grania in some ways? Isn’t the worldview of any person necessarily limited, cobbled together from bits and pieces learned and observed? Relating ideas, thinking, may be as instinctive as the senses, but the raw data to some degree remains random and partial. Do you agree? Discuss examples in your own life or those of others.
21. How does Canada assume importance in Deafening? How does Itani establish a sense of place? Is it a frontier, a place of fresh starts, of self-creation? Is it hard for Americans to comprehend “We are coming, Mother Britain, / we are coming to your aid. / There’s a debt we owe our fathers, / and we mean to see it paid” (poem in The Canadian, p. 128).
Are there ambiguous feelings about the war in Grania’s community? At one point, Grania, observing the piano player for a recruitment concert, wonders “with his son in France, what Grew thought of tonight’s show of patriotism” (p. 144). On the other hand, “the thrill of being part of this moment could not be denied. Jim and all of these men were leaving to serve their country” (p. 149). Do you see analogies in recent days in America, conflicting ideas about patriotism?
It is just as pleasant and grand a thing to die for Canada and the British Empire today as it was for Rome in the brave days of old. The Canadian (p. 262).
“Was she the only one who was angry?” wonders Grania. It is worth recalling Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori . . . ” from 1920. Does Itani create the same tone of bitter irony?
22. In the novel music assumes definite importance. What are some examples? Think of Mamo and Grania, and Grania sitting on the step singing to Carlow. For Jim music is bred in the bone; he plays the piano, the harmonica, and he sings. How does music begin to make sense to Grania? “Grania believed that music and song were everywhere. Not only in clouds but in flights of birds, in oak leaves that brushed the dorm window, in the children’s legs as they raced across the lawns. “It’s silly, isn’t it,” she signed. ‘my memory of sound is gone for all those years–fourteen years–but I feel as if my brain remembers music” (p. 123). Does music, paradoxically, become a bond for Grania and Jim? How do they make this bond?
23. Sound and silence knit the disparate elements of the book together. Can you think of examples? Some of the severely wounded stop speaking: Kenan, for example. Others become deaf without evident cause. Jim, as a musician, has a keen sensitivity to sound, and the relentless clamor of war makes it a circle of Dante’s hell for him. Sound bombards them, terrifies them, blocks out thought. When it’s not the bombs and guns, it is the screams of pain and constant complaining. Do you find that Itani is as effective in describing the horrors of war noise as she is the silent world of the deaf? ‘sound was always more important to the hearing,” said Grania (p. 136). How does Grania later communicate to Jim the joys of Armistice (p. 352)? Do you find it ironic that it is the hearing administrators who dictate the Canadian‘s description? Is it Grania’s love for Jim, her understanding of his sensitivity to sound and music that lead her to share details denied to her?
What does it mean when Grania opens the floodgates of memory to Kenan, her sharp observations of their shared childhood? What is the significance for Grania? For Kenan? He, too, can finally break through with war memories. “It was so dark. So much noise. There was no silence in that place. The boys went mad from the sound. Some tried to dig their own graves’ (p. 305).
24. How is teaching a major force in the novel? Consider the teaching that works and that which doesn’t, such as Grania’s first experience in hearing school where the teacher turns her head away or otherwise ignores her. When does Grania show her remarkable talents for teaching? How does the teaching work both ways with Tress, Mamo, and Jim? Mamo at one point puts down the Sunday book, that breakthrough miracle book for Grania. “Grania begins to teach Mamo the hand alphabet–which the old arthritic hands delight in learning. M-a-m-o, Grania spells, and she creates a name-sign, tapping a three-fingered ‘m” against her cheek” (p. 97). Think about the extraordinary bonds that are created between students and teachers when it really works. After reading Deafening, what do you think are the relative merits of signing versus “oral method”? Do you think either should be used to the exclusion of the other? We recall Fry’s saying, “As long as we permit hearing teachers to disapprove of our language, we will always be made to feel ashamed” (p. 364). Do you find a persuasive picture of some of these issues in the play or film Children of a Lesser God?
25. How does illness figure as a major motif? Consider Grania’s two serious diseases, as well as the results of the epidemic of influenza. As we read daily of SARS, AIDS, and other new infectious diseases, do we feel we have made progress since 1918? As debates rage about civil liberties versus draconian measures to protect against a Typhoid Mary threat, what are your thoughts?
26. How is Mamo crucial in giving Grania a strong sense of herself? As Mamo relates Grania’s own history, she underscores the momentous day of her birth. What happened on that day in Deseronto? ‘mamo falls silent and contemplates the miracle of new life in the midst of destruction” (p. 33). Indeed it is Mamo who serves as midwife to help deliver her granddaughter, a lifelong sustaining connection between them. In what other ways does Mamo provide lifelines for Grania?
27. Frances Itani sees this novel as being about love and hope–despite loss and sickness, war and devastation. She has worked thematically with “emptiness as source.” Do you think she has achieved this, even partially? Discuss.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING:
The Miracle Worker by William Gibson; Wired for Sound by Beverly Biderman; Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks; A Loss for Words by Lou Ann Walker; The First Man by Albert Camus; Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language by Nora Ellen Groce; Good-bye to All That by Robert Graves; Ghosts Have Warm Hands by Will R. Bird; Influenza 1918 by Lynette Iezzoni; The Roses of No Man’s Land by Lyn MacDonald; The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, Vol. II: 1910–1921. Ed. by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston; Letters of Agar Adamson, 1914–1919, Ed. by N. M. Christie; The Great War as I Saw It by Canon Frederick G. Scott; Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker; Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks; Selected Poems by Siegfried Sassoon; The Mask of Benevolence by Harlan Lane; The Wars by Timothy Findley