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|The questions that
follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of
THE INTERPRETER by Alice Kaplan
1. For French writer Louis Guilloux, being an interpreter was much
more than just a wartime profession. What did serving as an interpreter
mean to him, and how did he embrace this role both during the
courts-martial and throughout his life?
2. At their core, both the James Hendricks case and the George
Whittington case are about two "trigger-happy drunken soldiers" (132).
The two men, however, experience wildly different fates. Do you think
the American authorities acted with good intentions in both trials, of
Hendricks and Whittington? Was there any bad faith involved, or is this
a story of good intentions gone awry?
3. In an Army that was only 8.5% black, an astounding 79% of the
enlisted men executed for capital crimes during World War II were black
(7). What conditions in the Army -- and in the world -- at that time
help us account for that appalling statistic? Do you think that those
conditions influenced the behavior of James Hendricks on that disastrous
night? Were you aware before reading The Interpreter that the soldiers
fighting in World War II were segregated by race? With all the attention
given to the civil rights movement in the American South, why is so
little known about segregation in the Armed Forces?
4. In the Army's handbook for interacting with civilians, U.S. soldiers
were informed that French women were "naturally erotic" (21). Where did
that kind of misinformation originate? What do you think the effect of
that teaching was on the soldiers' subsequent dealings with French
5. Kaplan refers us to philosopher Thomas Nagel's essay, "Moral Luck,"
which describes three kinds of luck: "luck in our upbringing or personal
attributes, luck in our life circumstances, luck in the outcomes of our
actions" (28). Discuss these three kinds of luck as they apply to James
Hendricks and George Whittington.
6. Of the men who served on the Court Martial in Morlaix, who was most
vivid to you: Joe Greene? Ralph Fogarty? James Craighill? Juan Sedillo?
Louis Guilloux himself? Whom did you identify with, and whom did you
7. What does it mean that "the U.S. Army was both visionary and
reactionary in its sensitivity to rape" (154)? More than fifty years
later, where does the U.S. Army stand on the issue? Have things changed
for the better?
8. Why was the issue of national identity such an important factor in
the Whittington case? Do you think that if Francis Morand's nationality
had been more certain Whittington would still have been exonerated?
9. One of Guilloux's more sensitive assignments was soliciting explicit
details from Noémie Bignon about her attempted rape. Why did this task
in particular make it difficult for Guilloux to remain impartial?
10. The image of James Hendricks as a sexual predator was repeatedly
introduced in his trial. Do you think that if Hendricks had shot Victor
Bignon through the door but had not assaulted his wife that he still
would have been sentenced to death? Numerous scholars have argued that
enforcing the death penalty for the crime of rape was "a form of racial
control" (85). How do you explain that argument?
11. American soldiers sentenced for crimes of rape and murder of French
civilians during the Liberation were hanged in public, in the
communities where their crimes had taken place -- this was ten years
after public executions had been outlawed in the States. Why did the
Army believe it was important to punish criminal soldiers with French
witnesses on hand? Do you agree or disagree with the policy? Even today,
does the military need different standards of sentencing and punishment
than civilian courts?
12. Guilloux wrote his novel about the trials, OK, Joe, in 1964, a
tumultuous time and the height of the civil rights movement in the
States. How do you think this time period, as well as the events of
Guilloux's life after the war, helped shape the novel?
13. In his novel, Guilloux omitted several key elements of the Hendricks
case, including the attempted rape and the fact that Hendricks served
under a black commander. Why do you think he left these details out? How
would their omission affect the story?
14. Why do you think that Guilloux ultimately decided to shape his
experiences into a novel instead of a memoir? Why do you think Louis
Guilloux gave his novel the title OK, Joe (a strange choice for a book
written in French)? What did the way Americans talked to one another
tell him about the American character?
About the Author
Alice Kaplan was born in 1954 in Minneapolis, the youngest of three
children. She studied as an undergraduate at Vassar College and at the
University of California at Berkeley, and received her Ph.D. from Yale
University in 1981. Her thesis was published in 1986 as Reproductions
of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life in
the prestigious “History and Theory of Literature" collection at the
University of Minnesota Press. In 1988, Kaplan published a French
book-length critique of Céline’s first anti-Semitic pamphlet,
Bagatelles pour un massacre. The 1993 French Lessons, an
autobiographic account of her passion for the French language, became a
best-seller for the University of Chicago Press. The book was chosen as
"Notable Book of the Year" by the New York Times and was a finalist for
the National Book Critics Circle Award. Written on a Guggenheim
Foundation grant, Kaplan’s next book, The Collaborator: The Trial and
Execution of Robert Brasillach (2000), was a finalist for the
National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los
Angeles Times Book Award. The Collaborator was chosen as a "Notable Book
of 2000" both by the New York Times and the American Library Association
and ultimately won the 2000 Los Angeles Times Book Award in History.
A Professor of Romance Studies and Literature at Duke University, Kaplan
founded Duke’s Center for French and Francophone Studies and served as
its first director. She has been a member of the usage panel of the
American Heritage Dictionary since 1997 and serves on the editorial
board of the South Atlantic Quarterly journal. In addition to her
original writing and scholarship, she is also a translator, most notably
of the French writer Roger Grenier, of whom she has translated three
books: Le Pierrot noir, Les Larmes d’Ulysse, and Partita.
Currently, Kaplan divides her time between Durham, North Carolina, and
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