Study Guide

Cutting for Stone Themes

  • Suffering

    One of the major themes in Cutting for Stone is that life is full of pain and suffering. Oof.

    Well, the good news is that it manages to be a pretty uplifting story, anyway. No, suffering can't be avoided, but the characters in this novel just find a way to live with it. The key is in compassion: in fact, a number of characters say that they believe that relieving others' suffering is their purpose in life.

    There's plenty of suffering to relieve, too, considering that the novel takes place in a hospital.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why do you think that the author spends such an enormous chunk of the book telling about Sister Mary Joseph Praise's suffering and death?
    2. What does suffering have to do with medicine in the novel? Can suffering and medicine be separated?
    3. Is there a difference between the suffering depicted in Ethiopia and the suffering depicted in the U.S.?

    Chew on This

    In Cutting for Stone, suffering is a part of the human condition and should be embraced.

    The characters in Cutting for Stone dedicate their lives to fighting suffering.

  • Strength and Skill

    The surgeons who populate Cutting for Stone might not be competing for title of World's Strongest Man, and they may not be looking to topple Usain Bolt—but all the same, they're dedicated, trained, and super skilled. Even in an underfunded hospital like Missing, they manage to conduct cutting-edge research, develop new theories, and save lots and lots of lives.

    The theme of strength and skill drives the plot as well as the ambitious characters, and the lesson it teaches us is that skill is all well and good, but we can't forget to live while we're dedicating ourselves to our lives' work. Not a bad reminder, right?

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Who's the better surgeon, Marion or Shiva?
    2. Why do you think all of the characters in the novel are attracted to the medical profession?
    3. Why does Dr. Thomas Stone's skill fail him just when he needs it most, to save Sister Mary Joseph Praise?

    Chew on This

    The characters in Cutting for Stone mistake technical skill for being valuable as human beings.

    In Cutting for Stone, the characters hone their medical skills as a way to distract themselves from the suffering around them.

  • Mortality

    Don't get too attached to any of the characters in Cutting for Stone. Spoiler alert—everyone dies. Well, okay, not everyone—but almost everyone. It's not like there's some bloodbath, but the novel spans half a century and, well, that's pretty close to a human lifespan.

    The novel begins with Marion's mother's death, just after he and his twin have been born. Maybe it's that early loss the leads Marion to an obsession with medicine. Unfortunately, mortality goes with the territory when it comes to medicine, and the hospital setting pretty much makes this book an automatic candidate for a meditation on mortality.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Whose death affected you the most as you read?
    2. How does Shiva live on even after he dies?
    3. What is the significance of Sister Mary Joseph Praise's death for her sons?

    Chew on This

    Cutting for Stone gives us alternative ways of looking at death, letting us see that it isn't necessarily final.

    Death is a natural and necessary part of life in Cutting for Stone.

  • Memory and the Past

    Cutting for Stone is one of those come-full-circle novels: it begins where it ends, and it ends where it begins. It's about a man returning to the exact room where he was born and sitting down a desk there to write the story of his life, even beginning it long before he was actually born. You gotta have mad memory skills to undertake something like that.

    The past works like an anchor in the novel. It hangs around everyone's neck so that they can't escape it, wherever they go—though that doesn't stop anyone from trying. Characters are running from their past left and right, but the narrator's memory—along with some help from fate—drags the past right back to the page.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Which images or symbols does the author use to signify the past in Cutting for Stone?
    2. Why does the narrator feel the need to write the story?
    3. How do you think Marion learned so much about things that happened before he was born?

    Chew on This

    In Cutting for Stone, the past has a tight hold on the present.

    The novel shows how our memories can go back beyond our own lives to encompass our parents' lives as well.

  • Identity

    It's hard enough trying to figure out who you are as an individual, making it in the world. But when you're born as a set of twins, you might find that you're always defining yourself up against your identical sibling. If your sibling is quiet, you might be loud, and so on.

    Now imagine that you're born with an identical twin—and that you're attached at the head. That's what happens to the narrator of Cutting for Stone, Marion Stone. He and his brother Shiva are defined by their birth circumstances, and that makes it difficult for them to separate and form their own identities.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How are the twins different? How are they alike?
    2. Why do you think that Marion is the narrator and not Shiva?
    3. Why does Hema give the boys their father's name and then forbid that anyone talk about him?

    Chew on This

    Shiva and Marion are parts of a whole, incomplete on their own.

    Even though Shiva and Marion are born together, they are two separate people.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Let's be real: a lot of mega-depressing stuff goes down in this novel: suffering, death, abandonment, violence. All that pain and chaos could cause the characters to become embittered, expecting the worst of others and taking what's theirs.

    But that's not what happens. In fact, it's just the opposite: Cutting for Stone's characters look inside themselves at every turn and find a way to identify with the people around them. They are compassionate toward those who are hurting as well as toward those who hurt others. It even seems to be the secret to these characters' success.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Do you think that Dr. Thomas Stone ever forgives himself for his role in Sister Mary Joseph Praise's death?
    2. What makes Marion finally forgive his father?
    3. How do the Missing doctors show compassion toward their patients?

    Chew on This

    The novel is about forgiving the unforgiveable.

    Cutting for Stone shows that it is more important to care about others than oneself.

  • Abandonment

    An undercurrent of being left behind fills almost every page of Abraham Verghese's novel Cutting for Stone. That's partly because Marion and Shiva are abandoned by their father on the very day they're born. The rest of the story is basically Marion's quest to figure out who this mysterious walkaway dad is—and why he abandoned his sons.

    As Marion learns more about the circumstances of his birth and is compelled to make decisions as an adult himself, he begins to understand his father and even—dare we say it—find it in his heart to forgive him.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Do you think Stone realizes he is the father of the twins? How could he not know?
    2. Why does Stone leave and never come back?
    3. Do you think it's fate that Marion runs into Stone in New York? Or chance?

    Chew on This

    Dr. Thomas Stone abandons his children because he is a coward.

    The boys' true abandonment is by their mother, who never comes back.

  • Sex

    Yeah, Cutting for Stone is full of sex.

    Unfortunately, it's usually not great sex, and it usually ends in disaster. From a deathly pregnancy to sexually transmitted infections and even ultimate betrayals, doing it is not all it's cracked up to be in this novel. Sex is the uncontrollable part of all these scientific characters, and they don't necessarily understand cutting loose.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Why do you think that Marion and Shiva have such different attitudes about sex?
    2. Are there any sexual relationships in the novel that have good consequences?
    3. How are male and female characters' attitudes towards sex different? How are they alike?

    Chew on This

    Cutting for Stone portrays sex as nothing but trouble.

    Sex is the animal side of the human being in the novel, as opposed to the rational side.