The Optimists

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Clem Glass was a successful photojournalist, firm in the belief that photographs could capture truth and beauty. Until he went to Africa and witnessed the aftermath of a genocidal massacre.
Clem returns to London with his faith in human nature shattered and his life derailed. Nothing-work, love, sex- can rouse his interest and no other outlook can restore his faith. The one person Clem is able to connect with is his sister, who has made her own sudden retreat from reality into the shadows of mental illness, and he finds some peace nursing her back to health in rural Somerset. Then news arrives that offers him the chance to confront the source of his nightmares.

From the celebrated author of Ingenious Pain and Oxygen, this is a masterfully rendered novel that explores the perilously thin line between self-delusion and optimism.

Curriculet Details
63 Questions
77 Annotations
3 Quizzes

This free digital curriculum for high school students contains interactive videos exploring themes, motifs, flashbacks, tone and mood, literal versus figurative language, and conflict, as well as annotations clarifying allusions and references, analyzing key moments, and providing useful background information. Students will explore the themes of isolation and ways of coping with trauma. The Common Core aligned questions, answers and quizzes in this free online unit will increase student engagement in the book while supporting reading comprehension. Teachers, please be aware that this novel contains explicit sexual language and adult themes.

The curriculet is being added to your library


Fergal Keane is an Irish journalist who won an Orwell Prize for his political book, Season of Blood, about the one-hundred-day genocide in Rwanda in 1994 which left up to a million people dead. Andrew Miller states in his "Author's Note" at the end of this book that The Optimists is not about the Rwandan genocide, though it is based on the event. (This annotation contains an image)


We soon learn that the massacre mentioned in the novel's first sentence has had a profound effect on Clem. Why might the author choose to begin his novel with Clem's return to London and his experiences then, rather than with an explanation of the massacre itself? How would it change the book if he began with a description of the massacre instead? 
Did you know that you can easily find the definition of any word in the text that you need help with? Simply select the word and choose the "Define" feature. Try this with one of the words on this page. 
Nikon and Leica are high-end camera brands. Some Leica cameras are worth over five thousand dollars. (As we will soon find out, Clem Glass is a photojournalist). (This annotation contains an image)
William Henry Fox Talbot was a British inventor of the 1800's who created the calotype, an early precursor to modern photography. Below is the calotype Miller may be referring to. (This annotation contains an image)


The place in Africa where the massacre occurs is called "N---" throughout the book. What effect might Miller's choice not to name the specific place have on the story? 
"Bourgmestre" is a French word meaning "mayor" or "leader of a town." 
Based on these first two chapters, what type of experience do you think Clem has recently had in Africa? What effect has the experience had on him? Please respond in 3-5 sentences, and use at least one quotation (from either of the first two chapters) that supports your answer. 


"Et puis" is French for "and then," suggesting that the girl was telling a chronological story of what had happened to her. 


Based on what you read in the first four chapters, how and why do you think Clem lies about how long he has been back in London? 
This is a fictional collection. Interestingly, Miller mixes "real" references to artists and public figures with ones that are invented. 
What is the most likely reason why the author has chosen to describe Clem's three sexual encounters with Zara before presenting his choice to call for a prostitute? 
The "thorn in his eye" metaphor suggests that something is causing him pain and perhaps even blurring his vision -- something that he knows is there but is not sure how to remove. This expression may be a biblical reference. Joshua 23:13 reads, "Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out [any of] these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you." 
Please watch the following short video on emerging themes in preparation for the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
An emerging theme is the role of Christianity in peoples' lives. In the instance described here, why might Clem experience an "irrational rage" when he sees the marble Christ figure above the door of the church in N---? 


Clem is headed to see his father and then his sister Clare, but Miller seems to be deliberately vague about the exact locations to which Clem is headed. Clem's father calls him from "the island," presumably an island off the coast of Northumberland in northern England near the Scottish border (you can see Berwick on the map below, which is the train station that Clem soon says he normally arrives at). Perhaps the island you see near the top of the map below is the one Miller is referring to.  (This annotation contains an image)
What is Clare's predicament? 
"The old trouble" (a quote from Clem's father) is presumably referring to Clare's struggle with mental illness many years before (the exact diagnosis has not been stated). Clare's last episode occurred in Paris, and people thus blamed it on some sort of "romantic" trigger. When Clem says, "What would people blame this time? What did Dundee suggest?," he is asking what is it about Dundee (presumably where Clare is now living) that has triggered the illness again? Below you will see a map that shows Dundee, which is in Scotland, relatively close to the English border. (This annotation contains an image)


This translates to "Lord, have mercy upon us." 
When Clem visits his father's "brotherhood," the theme of the role of Christianity in peoples' lives arises again. The highlighted dialogue suggests that 
A "stylite" is one of a class of solitary Christian ascetics who lived unsheltered on the top of high pillars or columns. Most lived in ancient or medieval Syria, Turkey, or Greece. Below is a representation of Saint Simeon the Stylite.  (This annotation contains an image)
Pay attention to the names of characters in the novel. Simon Truelove's name, for example, recalls the apostle Simon Peter in the bible and also obviously suggests the concept of "true love" (perhaps love for God or for all humanity). Consider: what might the name Clem Glass suggest? Consider especially different possible meanings and associations of the word "glass." Why might Miller have named his main character this? Please respond in 3-5 sentences. 
Clare's letter brings up the ideas of sin, judgment, and punishment. As you read on, consider: does the book suggest that humans are responsible for the bad things that happen to them?  
A theme of isolation is emerging in the novel. Which of the following is an example of this theme so far? 


A plimsoll shoe is a type of athletic shoe with a canvas upper and rubber sole developed as beachwear in the 1830s by the Liverpool Rubber Company. Below is a traditional pair. (This annotation contains an image)
Please watch the video below on literal versus figurative language in preparation for the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
In the highlighted section, you see a simile, an example of figurative language. Overall, would you say the book contains a lot of figurative language? What effect does this choice have on the book? Think about why Miller might have chosen to write this way for this particular story. 
T'ai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition originally developed as a martial art that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing. If you aren't familiar with t'ai chi, watch a bit of the video below to get a better idea of what it looks like. (This annotation contains a video)
Note that even though Clem says he is "just visiting," there is more to the story than this; he has been experiencing some symptoms of mental illness himself since he returned from N---. 
Is it true that Clem is currently unreachable because of work? 
Glaucoma refers to a group of eye conditions that lead to damage of the optic nerve. Glaucoma tends to be inherited but may not show up until later in life. The condition usually worsens over time, and if left untreated, will result in blindness within a few years. As you continue reading, look for other mentions of sight, seeing, eyes, or blindness. You might see a pattern begin to emerge. 


Clem says he wouldn't have minded a "row" (fight) with Fiacc. What do you think he is upset with her about? Please respond in 3-5 sentences, using one quotation from this chapter to support your answer. 
What does this section suggest about Clare's relationship with Fiacc? 
Below is the painting, "The Raft of the Medusa," painted by Théodore Géricault between 1818 and 1819. (This annotation contains an image)
Grappa is an alcoholic beverage. More specifically, it is an Italian, grape-based brandy. (This annotation contains an image)
Clem's recollections of the men in his father's brotherhood suggest that 
Please watch the video below on motifs. Pay special attention to how motifs differ from themes. (This annotation contains a video)
In Clem's dream, the night sky is "blind" with snow. This is another (small) example of the motif of sight/blindness that is emerging in the novel. As you continue to notice more examples of this motif, consider: what theme (or themes) might the motif of sight be related to in the novel? 
Quiz Part One 


After considering this epigraph carefully, please explain what you think it means, using your own words. Pay particular attention to the sentence, "All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no." What might this mean? Can you find any ways to relate this epigraph to what you have read so far? Please respond in 4-6 sentences. 


A biro is a ballpoint pen. (This annotation contains an image)


What does the highlighted section suggest about Clem's work as a photojournalist? 
A catafalque is a raised box or platform, often movable, that is used to support the casket, coffin, or body of the deceased during a funeral or memorial service. It is also sometimes used during Roman Catholic mass. Notice how with this one description of a bar, Miller brings up the ideas of both death and religion. (This annotation contains an image)
From what we have learned so far, how has Silverman responded to the trauma of the massacre in N---, and how is he dealing with it? How is his way of dealing with it similar to or different from Clem's? Please respond in 3-5 sentences. 
By "head-doctors," Silverman seems to mean a psychologist or psychiatrist. "Hysterical paralysis" is muscle weakness with an emotional/mental rather than physical cause. Electric-shock therapy (pictured below in its modern form) is a controversial treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in patients in an attempt to relieve them of symptoms of psychiatric illness. (This annotation contains an image)
John Berryman is a well known American poet of the twentieth century. (This annotation contains an image)
Please watch the video below on flashbacks in preparation for the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
How has Miller made use of flashbacks so far in The Optimists? 
Notice how this conversation centers around sight. Clem is certain of what he saw; he has the "pictures" to prove it. Silverman, however, seems to be heading in a different direction, reinterpreting what he has seen in a way that helps him to "sleep at night." 
The highlighted section 
Chișinău is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Moldova. Below is a map showing the location of Moldova. (This annotation contains an image)
This translates to "they're mine." 
Silverman tells Clem that he has learned a "truth about people" he didn't know before. Of the dark, crowded space he and Clem just visited, he says, "This is what I wanted you to see." What do you think it is that Silverman has learned about people? What larger idea or truth is he trying to communicate to Clem? Please think carefully and respond in 3-5 sentences. 


"Lugubriously" means gloomily or mournfully. 
"Here's mud in your eye" is an expression used as a toast when people are drinking together (similar to "Cheers!" or "Bottoms up"). Why might the author have chosen this particular expression? 
Silverman's response (highlighted) suggests that 
Do you remember the scene early in the novel when Clem is approached by a woman who has just been attacked and he abandons her before the police arrive? This is another incident in which a woman has been harmed in some way, and here Clem acts much differently -- with less thought and more passion. 


The way the author orders events suggests that which of the following events takes away Clem's headache and gives him the courage to look again at the film negatives from Africa? 
The name "Ruzindana" is a Rwandan name. One man with this last name, Obed Ruzindana (pictured below), was indicted in relation to the 1994 massacres in Rwanda and is serving twenty-five years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. (This annotation contains an image)
How do you interpret the highlighted section of text? What importance do these photographs have to Clem, and what does this section tell you about his character or mindset? Please respond in 3-5 sentences. 


When read closely, this short scene of Clem pulling into a dark, forested location to rest touches on the theme(s) of 


You might notice that this is the second time that Clem has taken a wrong turn on his way to Ithaca. Consider: why might Miller include these details? Perhaps he is suggesting that Clem is still somewhat aimless or confused as to exactly where he is headed and why. Can you think of another possible interpretation? 
The highlighted dialogue between Clem and Pauline suggests that 
Here we have another interesting example of the motif of sight/blindness. It seems Clare has already learned not to trust her sense of sight, perhaps because of the symptom of her mental illness that causes her to imagine things that are not really there. Interestingly, though, Clem has experienced this as well (to a lesser extent), such as when he imagined he saw/heard a person or predator near his car the night he slept in the woods. 
Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropus are the names of the three "Fates" in Greek Mythology. Please visit the website below in preparation for the question that follows. (This annotation contains a link)
Are the three women in cardigans really named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropus? 


What is Clem's tone (attitude) toward Theophilus House in the highlighted section? 
A Garibaldi biscuit consists of currants (similar to raisins) squashed and baked between two thin pieces of biscuit dough, sort of like a currant sandwich. (This annotation contains an image)
The highlighted sentence suggests that 
In the UK, a Tory is a member or supporter of the Conservative party. 
How has Clem's character changed since he arrived in Somerset with Clare? Give specific examples of things he has done or said that seem different from how he acted earlier in the novel. What do you attribute these changes to? Please respond in 3-5 sentences. 
This is somewhat vague. Does Laura just mean that she can tell Clem is sleepy too? Or is she referring to some type of mental distress that she can detect in him? 


The highlighted sentence contains a 
Please watch this video on simile versus metaphor in preparation for the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
Lassitude is a lack of energy: fatigue. The whole town seems to be as lethargic as Clem and Clare's sinking cottage. 
What photograph is Clem referring to in the highlighted section? 
Remember this painting, "The Raft of the Medusa"? It has now been mentioned a few times. It is the one that Clare kept a print of in Ithaca. Clare is an art historian, and Clem seems to assume that this is the last painting she was working on analyzing. (This annotation contains an image)
With whom has Clem candidly discussed his experiences in N---? 
A benediction is a short invocation for divine help, blessing, and guidance, usually completed at the end of a worship service. The use of this word by the author seems to suggest a new faith or spirituality that has taken root in Clem. 
What are these "pages" about? 
Interestingly, this description of the scene in N--- sounds a great deal like what Clare is experiencing (the sense of "someone being very close to you but unseen and unseeable"). Notice also how the motif of sight enters here: the source of danger is somehow "unseeable," and thus difficult to fight against. 
This is a very, very disturbing account, and it explains why Clem has been so affected by his time in N---. But why do you think the author waited until this late in the novel to reveal the details of what happened in N---? What effect does it have on the book (e.g. on characters, on the plot, on themes) to describe this scene now rather than at the beginning of the novel? Please think carefully and respond in 3-5 sentences. 
The Author's Note at the end of the book explains that this excerpt is indeed from one of Berryman's poems, "Dream Song 29." Click the link below to view the full poem and consider how it relates to the massacre in N---. (This annotation contains a link)
This last sentence suggests an emerging theme in the novel of 


The Alfa Romeo Spider is an Italian sports car. (This annotation contains an image)
The AGA cooker is a heat-storage stove and cooker first imported to Britain in 1929. Below is a modern-day version. (This annotation contains an image)
The second part of this sentence suggests that when Frankie says, "It's going to be a terrible bore," 
A vicar is a priest in the Church of England who is in charge of a particular church and the area around it. Frankie will be meeting with him, presumably concerning something to do with her upcoming wedding. 


There is a lot hidden "in between the lines" of this exchange between Clare and Clem. Do you think Clare is blaming Clem for not being there for her at the beginning of her illness? Why or why not? Please respond in 3-5 sentences. In your answer, please include one quote from the highlighted section, and explain how you interpret it (how it supports your answer). 
Clem seems to be going back and forth on whether it would be better to remember what happened in N--- or to forget it. Clearly there are compelling "pros and cons" to each possible outcome. 
As readers, we are not privy to what takes place in this appointment because 
This section touches on questions which have been in the background of this novel. Why do bad things happen to people? Why do good things happen? Do people get what they "deserve," or is there no order or reason behind what happens to whom? 
Why was the sunrise that Clem is recalling so baffling to him? How does this relate to one of the novel's themes? Choose any theme and explain how it relates to this short scene. Please respond in 3-5 sentences. 
Polio is a viral, infectious disease that can cause partial or full paralysis. In the U.S., polio was eradicated in 1979 thanks to a vaccine, but some cases still appear around the world in areas where people don't have access to vaccination. 
What is Ray doing with the cards, and what kinds of things do the cards say? What seems to be Ray's purpose in distributing the cards, and what does this tell you about his character? 
Does this suggest that Ray was loved by people who were unable to express it to him? Or by people who were somehow ignorant? Clem responds that the people who loved him were "articulate" but "busy," suggesting that they were intelligent and well-spoken but too caught up in their work to give him the attention and affection he craved. 
What is the mood of the highlighted section? 
Please watch the video below on tone and mood in preparation for the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
Clem's highlighted response to Clare's question is an example of  


In Greek mythology, Lethe and Acheron are two of the five rivers of Hades. Lethe is known as the river of forgetfulness, Acheron is known as the river of woe. Consider how these associations relate to themes in the novel. Below is a drawing by Gustave Dore of the mythical Lethe river.  (This annotation contains an image)
The recent reactions of Boswell and Clare to Clem suggest that 
"Table talk" is a literary genre, a type of memoir. A collector (biographer, colleague, friend, etc.) records impromptu comments made by some famous person (generally at the dining table or in small get-togethers) in anticipation of their lasting value. These are then collected and published in a book. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (pictured below) was an English poet, literary critic, and philosopher who lived from 1772-1834. (This annotation contains an image)
Again, this painting is mentioned. This time, Clem seems to consider it more closely than he has before. (This annotation contains an image)
What does this painting have to do with the themes of the novel or the events of Clem's life? (Consider the story the painting is based on). Why do you think the painting makes such an impression on Clem? Please think carefully and respond in 4-6 sentences. 
Please go to the website below and read the commentary on the painting in preparation for the question that follows. (This annotation contains a link)
Who is the man who has been detained? 
Quiz Part Two 


This is an interesting epigraph that Miller chooses. It is not clear at this point whether it is the story of Theseus that interests Miller, or the fact that what exactly happened in the story is "much disputed"; the full meaning of the epigraph should become more clear as you read on. Here is some background on Theseus: In Greek mythology, Theseus volunteers to slay a monster called the Minotaur, who lives in Crete. On his arrival in Crete, Ariadne, King Minos's daughter, falls in love with Theseus and gives him a ball of thread so he can find his way out of the Labyrinth of the Minotaur. That night, Ariadne escorts Theseus to the Labyrinth, and Theseus promises that if he returns from the Labyrinth he will take Ariadne with him. As soon as Theseus enters the Labyrinth, he ties one end of the ball of string to the door post and brandishes his sword which he had kept hidden from the guards inside his tunic. Theseus comes to the heart of the Labyrinth and also upon the sleeping Minotaur. The beast awakens, and a tremendous fight occurs. Theseus overpowers the Minotaur with his strength and stabs the beast in the throat with his sword (according to another account, Theseus strangles it). Below is a statue of Theseus and the Minotaur.  (This annotation contains an image)


The setting has shifted again. Where is Clem now? 
Clem answers Karamera's question in a strange way. Consider: what does his answer suggest about his reasons for looking for Ruzindana? Is he acting more for personal reasons than for professional ones? 


Matonge is a part of Brussels (in Belgium) well known for its high population of people of African descent. 
What tone is Clem using in his conversation with Laurencie Karamera? Do you think this tone is likely to get her support? Why or why not? 
"Kirk" is a Scottish word meaning a church, or more specifically, the Church of Scotland. 
The book is titled The Optimists, despite Clem appearing to be very pessimistic about human nature. Which characters in the book are optimistic, and which are not? (Consider Clem, Clare, Frankie, Ray, Laura, Clem's father, Silverman, etc.). Based on what you have read so far, why might Miller title his book The Optimists? Please respond in 4-6 sentences. 
Inviolable means incapable of being corrupted or injured. Invincible means incapable of being defeated, destroyed or killed. The word Clem chooses (inviolable) seems more accurate here. 
Clem's choice to wait in a cafe opposite from the one where he is supposed to meet Laurencie Karamera suggests that  
A genocidaire is a person who is responsible for perpetuating genocide. 
What does Clem mean? What is the difference between "war" and "murder"? Please respond in 2-4 sentences. 
Clem is again referring to paintings by Rene Magritte, which seem to be all over his hotel. Below is one of Magritte's most famous, which you might recognize. (This annotation contains an image)
The postcards that Clem distributes around the city 
The highlighted sentence suggests that part of Clem believes what Laurencie Karamera has said about him. Consider your own opinion: has Clem seemed ignorant or prejudiced in matters of race? 
What does Laurencie Karamera mean when she says she is going to "open" Clem's "eyes"? Why do you think Miller chose to use this exact phrase, and how does it relate to the larger sight/blindness motif in the novel? Please respond in 3-5 sentences. 


In this context, the word "august" means majestic or noble. 
What is Laurencie trying to point out to Clem? 
Please watch the video below on conflict in preparation for the question that follows. (This annotation contains a video)
Based on what you have read so far, what are the main conflicts in this novel? Is the novel more about an internal conflict (within Clem himself) or about an external conflict with another person? Explain the nature of the conflict (or conflicts) you see; have they been resolved yet at this point in the novel? Please think carefully and respond in 4-6 sentences. 
In French, nouns have a variation of the word "the" in front of them, so when native French speakers are learning English, they often put the word "the" in front of nouns, despite this not being customary in English. 
Who does Clem think the bike is really from? 
"Bandes dessinees" is French for "comics." 
Karachi is Pakistan's largest city. Major riots broke out there in 1988, 2007, 2010, 2012, and just recently in 2014. 
What do Clem and Laurencie have in common that perhaps is what attracts them to each other? 
Clem is referring to the smell in the cafe where he first met Laurencie, which suggests that the other person in the apartment is either Ruzindana or Jean. 


Carefully consider this epigraph from Austrian-British philosopher and logician Ludwig Wittgenstein. What does Wittgenstein mean? How do you explain or interpret this quote, and what might it have to do with the content of Miller's novel? Please respond in 3-5 sentences. 


"Incorrigible" means impossible to correct or reform. It is interesting (and somewhat playful) that this word is paired with "optimist," suggesting playfully that Ray's optimism is something that others have tried to correct or change, but to no avail. 
What does Clem likely mean by his response to Jane Crawley's question? 
The Belgian Surete is the Belgian State Security Service, a Belgian intelligence and security agency similar to the CIA and FBI in the U.S. 
Clem's conversation with Silverman causes Clem to 
When Clem refuses this job and lies about the reason (his family commitments are over!), it makes it clear to the reader that he is still troubled and not quite ready to move on. 
This description of the house 
Remember the scene from the very beginning of the novel in which the Spanish girl was attacked and asked Clem for help. Clem called the police but did not wait with her to make sure she was alright. 
Why do you think Clem confesses to a rape he did not commit? How can you possibly explain this? Please consider what you know about his character and his concerns, and respond in 2-4 sentences. 
In the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, Cain is said to commit the first murder by killing his brother, Abel. The motives for the murder are usually interpreted as jealousy and anger. Below is a painting of this story. (This annotation contains an image)
Quiz Parts Three and Four