Study Guide

The Great Brain Themes

By John D. Fitzgerald

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    When we say The Great Brain, we're not talking about a guy who gets straight As in school. In fact, we have no idea how Tom does in class. We just know that he devotes his immense intellect to something far more practical: making money. However, Tom's not the only one who knows what's up when it comes to putting his mind to getting what he wants. Many other characters also put their smarts to work outsmarting and out-talking those around them.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Does Tom fit conventional definitions of "smart"? Why or why not? Give evidence from the text, please.
    2. Who else in the book might be said to have a "great brain"? Why?
    3. Does Tom ever have a moment when he's not so clever? What does this reveal about his character?

    Chew on This

    While Tom's schemes seem self-interested, they also help others.

    While Tom's schemes often help others, they are motivated by self-interest.

  • Admiration

    Love the Great Brain or hate him, we have to admire him. Or do we? J.D. certainly admires his older brother, and so do lots of other people in The Great Brain. Thing is, while his vast intellect is certainly impressive, he often uses it for his own gain instead of truly doing good. And is that actually admirable? We suppose it depends on what you value: If it's raw talent, then yup, Tom's your dude. If you're more interested in what people do for others, though, you just might find him hard to look up to.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Which characters do you admire in this book? Why? How do they compare to Tom?
    2. Does Tom deserve J.D.'s admiration? Why or why not?
    3. Does Tom admire anyone? Who? How can you tell? What does this tell you about his values?

    Chew on This

    Tom totally deserves J.D.'s admiration.

    Tom absolutely does not deserve J.D.'s admiration.

  • Religion

    Religion isn't one of the big in-your-face themes of The Great Brain, but it's always there right under the surface. There's some mild religious conflict between Mormons, who make up eighty percent of the population in Adenville, and Catholics and Protestants, who make up the other twenty percent, but this conflict never goes beyond the occasional verbal altercation. The Fitzgerald boys, in the Catholic minority, have already beaten up all the Mormon boys, so they're pretty much left alone over religion. Abie, however, as the lone Jewish person in the community, offers a glimpse at the damage unconscious religious prejudice can do.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How might the boys' experience in Adenville be different if they were Mormon instead of Catholic? Turn to the text to support your argument.
    2. What influence does religion have on daily life in Adenville? Be specific, please.
    3. Do the citizens of Adenville change in any way after Abie's death? If so, how? Are there ways in which they stay the same? What does this reveal about them?

    Chew on This

    Religion causes no major divisions for the people of Adenville.

    Religious prejudice is a serious problem in Adenville.

  • Community

    The world is no bigger than the small town of Adenville, at least according to The Great Brain. Sure, we hear there's a place called Salt Lake City somewhere, but has anyone ever seen it? Everything begins and ends in Adenville. It's a completely self-sufficient small town, with someone doing any and all work the town might need. Adenvillers are intensely interested in Adenville, with the result being that they often all move as one, following like a herd of sheep to whatever's interesting that day, whether it's a new water closet or a potential tragedy in Skeleton Cave.

    Questions About Community

    1. How might the book be different if it were set in a city? Why?
    2. In what ways does Adenville fulfill or contradict stereotypes about small towns? Be specific.
    3. What causes conflict or inspires cooperation in Adenville? What does this reveal about the town's residents?
    4. What holds the community together?

    Chew on This

    Adenville is a stereotypical small American town, which helps Tom really stand out.

    Despite surface differences, the community supports one another.

  • Courage

    Are you chicken? We hope not, because if so, you won't last a minute among the rough-and-tumble boys of Adenville. In 1896, when The Great Brain is set, no one seems to use their words, and instead fists fly constantly. There's no talking about feelings or anti-bullying initiatives, here—if someone wants the respect of their peers, they're going to have to scrap for it. In this book, there's a lot to be afraid of and a lot of ways for a boy to show his courage. That said, courage isn't particularly nuanced: It's all about putting up your dukes and blending in with the other boys.

    Questions About Courage

    1. What is courage, according to the boys of Adenville? Do you agree or disagree with them? Why?
    2. How can courage be proven? What different kinds of courage do characters exhibit (physical, mental, social)?
    3. Why is courage such an important quality in this setting?

    Chew on This

    In most cases, the people of Adenville demonstrate courage through acts of physical skill.

    Tom's greatest moments as a character occur when he demonstrates mental and social courage rather than physical.

  • Pride

    Tom is basically always proud of himself and his great brain, so that's a given. What's more surprising is how often J.D. is proud of himself in The Great Brain—and for some really strange things, too, like getting the mumps first and telling all to Mom and Dad. He shares Tom's great ego without having the great brain to go along with it. We've heard it said that pride goeth before a fall, but the kind of pride we're looking at here is relatively harmless. It's pride in the small achievements of childhood and in family members and other things like that.

    Questions About Pride

    1. Why do you think Mamma and Papa are often proud of Tom, even when he's scamming them?
    2. What achievement is Tom most proud of? How do you know?
    3. Is pride a force for good or bad in the book? Or is it neutral?
    4. How do prideful moments affect the course of the story?

    Chew on This

    Anyone who nicknames himself "the Great Brain" clearly struggles with pride.

    Pride is presented as neither good nor bad—it's just part of being human in this book.

  • Wealth

    It's all about the Benjamins for Tom in The Great Brain, and he puts his great brain to work only on profitable enterprises, determined to become a millionaire by the time he's grown. He never makes a friend unless he can also make a buck, but instead of hating him, everyone seems to love him for it. Go Tom?

    Setting Tom aside, there's not a lot of money to be had in Adenville. Calvin Whitlock, the banker, is the richest man in town, but the Fitzgeralds are only middle class, and many others are not as well off as they are. In this book, we look at two sides of the wealth coin: the pennies and dimes games of children and the higher stakes that money takes on in adulthood.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. Where do you think Tom's drive to make money comes from? Give evidence from the book, please and thank you.
    2. Is Tom fair and honest in his business dealings, or could he stand to take a course in business ethics?
    3. What does it mean to be wealthy and poor in Adenville?
    4. Will Tom be a millionaire by the time he can vote? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The humorous tone of the book belies the seriousness of wealth or the lack of it felt by the adults in the novel.

    The amount of money he makes is the unit by which Tom measures the strength of his great brain.

  • Dreams, Hopes, Plans

    If you're looking for grand, earth-shattering dreams, hopes, and plans, look elsewhere. The kind of dreams, hopes, and plans you'll find in The Great Brain are the small scale ones of childhood: the far-off prospect of boarding school, summer vacation, and a new puppy. Then there are the small-scale adult dreams, hopes, and plans about buying new appliances and opening a new business. Woven into all this, we also have Tom's dreams, hopes, and plans, which are always about how much cold, hard cash he can put in his pocket. Stay classy, Tom.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, Plans

    1. What kind of dreams, hopes, and plans do the different members of the Fitzgerald family have? What does this tell you about their individual characters?
    2. If you were to plan a future for each of the Fitzgerald brothers, what would those futures look like? Why?
    3. In the novel, do characters usually achieve their plans on their own, or do they have help?
    4. Which plans work out? Which ones fail? What effect does this have on the course of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Tom is better at making plans than any of the adult characters.

    Papa's plans tend to be impractical.