The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Ruth Suckow, Short Stories

“A Part of the Institution”

What effect does the title have on the reader’s response to the events described? What judgments does it seem to imply?

What seems the attitude of the narrative voice toward the protagonist? Is the reader expected to like Hester? To respect her? To agree that her choices are wise?

The school as described in “A Part of the Institution” seems based on Grinnell College, which Suckow attended and which she left before graduating. The college’s website mentions its historical commitment to early twentieth-century social reform ideals and its sponsorship of a Grinnell-in-China program. How are these traits reflected or parodied in Suckow’s account?

What are some ways in which Suckow uses irony throughout? What assumptions of Hester or others are revealed in time to have been erroneous or unrealistic?

What propels the story forward and creates suspense? Are there surprises?

What are some features of Suckow’s style? Would you describe her manner as realist? Ironic? Sympathetic?

What use is made of colloquial and youthful period slang?

What important choices does Hester make? What do we learn about her character? Are there occasions in which she seems to be the object of parody?

Who are the most important men in her life, and why does she reject each? (Joe Forrest, Jay Oeherle, Big Bill Warren) What kind of man does she seem most to admire?

Does the narrator seem to approve of her choices? Why do you think she refuses the offers she receives?

Who are some of Hester’s female friends? Why do you think the narrator includes Jinny? Ellen?

What are some of the campus organizations and activities, and what attitude toward these is conveyed by the narrative? In what kinds of activities do the alumni engage?

What purpose is served by the account of the first, fifth and twentieth reunions? What has happened in the meantime to many of those whom Hester had most admired? To those she had considered misguided?

What points does the narrator make in passing about the politics and administrative choices of a small quasi-religious college? For example, how do the administration and faculty respond to calls for wartime loyalty?

What changes occur in Adams over the years? What kind of president is chosen, and on what is the endowment spent?

Why is Hester chosen as a teacher of high school Latin? What is her salary, and on what grounds is she paid so little? To what does she later contribute a major portion of her administrative salary?

What role is served by Martha Keats in the narrative? What attitudes does she express?

What disappointments does Hester suffer? Is she satisfied with her life? Do you think that, given her values, she should have made other choices?

What is the point of the story’s ending? What does it seem to indicate about the trajectory of Hester’s life?

Is this a good story in aesthetic terms? What does it seem to convey about the nature of small institutions, even relatively good ones? About the effects of the need for social conformity and belonging?

“Susan and the Doctor”

From what point(s) of view is the story told? How much do we come to know of Susan’s inner life?

What do we know of Susan’s character? Her past and her ambitions? Her tastes?

How is the affair described? Is her relationship with the doctor satisfactory from her point of view? What effect does it have on other aspects of her life? 

How do her fellow townspeople react to the affair?

What emotions prevent Susan from ending the relationship?

What do we learn of the doctor’s character? His life situation? In retrospect, how sincere is his claim that he is required to live with his elderly mother and aunt? Would their presence necessarily have prevented his marriage?

What do we learn of his behavior to Susan? His eventual motives for ending the affair?

What happens in the scene in which he tells Susan their affair should end? Why does she not express her point of view?

What attitude toward Susan and the doctor’s marriage is taken by the townspeople? What decisions does she make regarding her future?

Do you find the ending satisfactory? What seems to be the point of the story? (a sexual double standard? the social confines of small towns?)


From what point(s) of view is the story told?

What do we learn of Bessie Gould's past and life, her original family and her husband and children?

Why has she left town, and on what occasion does she return? What seems to be her husband's attitude toward the scenes and people of his wife's past?

How do the townspeople respond to her return?

What had been the childhood relationship between Bessie and Charles? What circumstances/choices had prevented their marriage?

What do we learn about his character from their interactions? What has happened to him in the meantime?

What seems Bessie's attitude toward her past? Does she regret her choices? Why does she want her husband to return?

How do you interpret the ending? What themes are evoked by the protagonist's intense reactions to her return?

"Midwestern Primitive"

What seems the point of this story? It's tone?

On what occasion is Bert serving dinner to guests from town? What causes her anxieties about her role as hostess? What attitudes does she express toward her mother and husband?

What are some of the traits of the guests? Are they polite? Condescending?

What do we learn of Bert's relationship with Mrs. Hohenschuh? What draws the guests toward her?

Was the dinner a "success"? What does this incident reveal about the relationships between country people and outsiders?

Where do the author's sympathies seem to lie? Are some of the themes evoked in this story present in other works by Suckow?

"The Little Girl from Town"

What attitude to the farm children have toward the newcomer, and she toward them? How is Patricia described?

How do the other children treat her? What do we learn about her character and interests?

What attitudes does she express toward animals, and what embarrassments does this cause for the others?

How do they handle the situation?

What seems to have been Suckow's motives in writing this story? What themes does it present?

"The Man of the Family"

What features of the story are emphasized by its title?

Why do you think Suckow began the story with Gerald's arrival for work?

What do we learn about Gerald from his employers' attitude toward him? From his behavior?

What changes occur in his actions and expectations as a result of his employment? What is his relationship to his sisters?

What prompts his strong distaste for the thought that his mother might remarry?

What action does he take to discourage Art Fox's courtship? Do you think this is appropriate?

When she learns what he has done, how does his mother respond? Is she angry?

How do you think the reader is expected to evaluate this incident? Is the ending intended to provide closure, and if not, what does it provide?

What seem some repeated themes in Suckow's stories? How would you compare her work with that of other modernists such as Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Hemingway or Sherwood Anderson?

Since both Suckow and Anderson are regionalist Midwestern writers, how would you compare or contrast their works?

Suckow's writings were very popular in the 1930s and 40s. Why do you think they may have seemed especially relevant to readers of the time?


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