Study Guide

The House of the Scorpion Themes

By Nancy Farmer

  • Identity

    No one likes it when someone copies them, or wears the same outfit, or has the same shoes. We all want to have our own identity, our own sense of self, right? Okay, so imagine, then, that you are an exact genetic copy of someone else. How in the world are you supposed to be original, when you are literally identical to someone else, right down to your very genes? It's a problem that Matt deals with all throughout The House of the Scorpion, and his identity issues are further complicated by the fact that he's cloned from a Very Bad Man. That's right, Matt's the exact genetic copy of El Patrón, a ruthless dictator and drug lord. As he grows into manhood, Matt has to fight not to follow in El Patrón's footsteps. He struggles to be his own person and make his own decisions. And he's not the only one. Everyone in Opium is under El Patrón's control, and it's hard to be yourself when you have a man like that watching over you. In the end, Matt discovers that he can create his own identity by making choices – decisions that are his and his alone.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Matt see himself after he discovers that he is a clone? Do you think at any point that he really believes he might be less-than-human, as others seem to think he is?
    2. Matt may be El Patrón's clone, but they don't share identical personalities. In what ways are they similar? Different?
    3. Who do you think plays a bigger role in shaping Matt's identity – Celia or Tam Lin? What roles do they play, exactly? And what do those roles tell you about their identities?
    4. What character did you identify with most in the book and why?

    Chew on This

    For Matt, creating an identity that has nothing to do with El Patrón is a very important task.

    Matt becomes a nice version of El Patrón at the end of the novel, which is how Matt remains his own person while acknowledging his connection to the former dictator.

  • Choices

    The classic hero tale always features heroes who have to make tough decisions, and The House of the Scorpion is no different. Just as Frodo decides to take the one ring to Mount Doom rather than try to, say, sell it on eBay, so our Matt must face his own struggles and return home to take control of Opium. Matt doesn't go to battle in any kind of traditional way. There's no sword in a stone or magic wand he pulls out to duke it out with El Patrón. Matt might be a hero on a grand scale (he does take over an entire country by the novel's end), but he's also a young boy with no special gifts. Instead, Matt makes choices of a more realistic variety. He fights El Patrón by growing up to be a good, strong person. He's come into his own and out from under El Patrón's shadow, all by calling his own shots in life.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Matt has to make a lot of tough choices throughout the novel. What are some bad decisions that Matt makes, and how does he fix things when he makes a mistake?
    2. Why do you think Tam Lin made the decisions he did at the novel's end?
    3. Do we ever fully understand what drove El Patrón to do the awful things he did? Do you think he had good intentions, or was he just evil through and through?
    4. Do you think Matt made the right decision to take over Opium at the end? Do you think he'll make the right choices when he finally is in charge?

    Chew on This

    One of the major lessons that Matt learns is this: just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should choose to do it.

    Based on whether or not they choose help Matt, you can tell whether characters are good or bad.

  • Power

    In the world of The House of the Scorpion, one man has all the power. And that man is El Patrón. Literally everyone in Opium is at the mercy of his will. Though El Patrón may have the power, other characters find ways to have a little bit of control over their lives. We're thinking of Celia's quiet rebellion, and Matt's unwillingness to be defined by his genetic twin. Or María's defiance of her family and willingness to hitch her star to Matt's uncertain wagon. Ultimately, with the death of El Patrón, power in Opium is up for grabs. But we're hopeful that Matt will seize that power and use it for good. All his choices in life have led him up to this point, and we think he's up to the challenge. Do you think so, too?

    Questions About Power

    1. Do you think María has any power and influence over Matt? If so, in what ways?
    2. What are some of the ways that El Patrón uses his power to control people? Does he always do negative things to control them, or does he sometimes do positive things?
    3. Does anyone, or anything, have power over El Patrón?
    4. If you had the power to create clones, would you?

    Chew on This

    A British guy named Lord Acton once said that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," which means that the more power a person gets, the more corrupt he or she is. El Patrón is the perfect example of this idea, because by the end of his life, he is corrupt beyond redemption.

    By becoming a leader of his fellow outcast boys, Matt discovers positive ways to use power.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    There are some nasty people in The House of the Scorpion. We're thinking of El Patrón, of course, but also of Tom, the Keepers, and plenty of others, too. None of these people are very nice to Matt, and he could just as easily be just as cruel. But he's not, and that's because Matt is a compassionate, forgiving guy. He's got humanity in spades. Although he struggles with his own identity as a clone, we're never in doubt of Matt's humanity. No matter what anyone says, we know that Matt has a soul, and that it's a good one. And we know this because he struggles to be compassionate and forgiving at various points throughout the novel. He struggles, but he succeeds. He feels for El Patrón, for example, but he's still strong enough to walk away from him and forge his own life. In the end, Matt's ability to be compassionate and forgiving set him apart from El Patrón, and will make him a much better ruler of Opium.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Does Matt ever show compassion towards El Patrón? Do you think he might ever forgive him?
    2. What sort of view does María take of forgiveness? Where in the novel does this come up?
    3. Is Matt ever able to fully forgive Tom for being a punk? Should he?
    4. Does Matt have to struggle with anger and the need to forgive Tam Lin after Tam Lin dies?

    Chew on This

    Compassion isn't easy for Matt, who is surrounded by jerks most of his life, but he learns the value of living without anger and hate as he grows older and decides to avoid the dark side (unlike Anakin Skywalker).

    María, more than any other character, represents the book's theme of compassion and forgiveness.

  • Isolation

    Ever spent some time alone at home and been spooked by weird noises? Multiply that by a thousand, and you'll get what Matt goes through when he's imprisoned at age seven by the possibly deranged, crazy Rosa. But that sort of real, physical isolation isn't the only kind the The House of the Scorpion deals with. Matt experiences what we might compare to the isolation of going to a new school, walking into the cafeteria and not knowing anyone or having a place to sit. Except instead of being an average student, Matt's a clone. And instead of going to school, he's joining his drug lord clone-daddy's household, where he is promptly shunned by his various relations. Same thing, really. At any rate, Matt isn't the only character who suffers from loneliness. Tam Lin is far from his home and trapped in service to El Patrón. The Lost Boys have all lost their families. Even Tom is isolated by his status as an illegitimate child. The harsh world Matt experiences, both in Opium and in Aztlán, isolates a lot of people and traps them in bad situations. So the fact that characters like Matt manage to make connections and cobble together a family is pretty remarkable.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How isolated do you think Celia is in her role as Matt's caretaker?
    2. Take a look at the opening passage of the novel. In what ways do the language and imagery help to give us a sense of the isolation we're headed for in the novel?
    3. Later in the novel, do we see any long-term effects from Matt's period in solitary confinement, when he's jailed by the evil Rosa?
    4. Who is the most isolated character in the novel? Matt? María? Tam Lin? Even Felicia, maybe? How so?

    Chew on This

    Matt is often depicted as a very isolated and even lonely character, which makes his eventual ascent to leadership fitting – it is lonely at the top, after all.

    El Patrón has effectively isolated himself from any sort of meaningful human contact; though he's a very bad man, his life is quite sad.

  • Lies and Deceit

    In The House of the Scorpion, everyone but Matt seems to be in on a secret. Even when that secret is revealed to Matt, he's still in the dark about a lot of other things, and he remains in the dark only because of the atmosphere of lying and deceit that El Patrón has created in Opium. There are all kinds of lies in Opium – ones that are total secrets (like Tom's parentage) and others that are open secrets (like Matt's being a clone). These secrets are kept secret because they are threats to El Patrón's power, and also because they are painful to acknowledge. Growing up in such an environment means that facing the truth is a hard lesson for Matt to learn. But he definitely learns it, with the help of Esperanza's shockingly truthful book, A History of Opium. Our hunch is that when Matt returns to set things right in his home country, he'll need to expose all the secrets that allowed El Patrón to have total control for so long.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. How does María's mother try to fight back against El Patrón's lies? Is she successful?
    2. Would you describe Matt as an honest character overall? Is he ever dishonest?
    3. In the novel, do you think keeping a secret and lying are one and the same? In other words, when Celia neglects to tell Matt he's a clone until she absolutely has to, do you consider this a lie? Was she right to withhold this information?
    4. How do you think Matt feels when he discovers that he is a clone, after being kept in the dark? And how do you think he feels when he discovers that he's destined for death in order to keep El Patrón alive? In other words, how do all these secrets and lies actually impact the characters?

    Chew on This

    Matt deliberately blinds himself from certain truths about El Patrón, Opium, and his own nature because they are too difficult to handle.

    Matt doesn't learn the value of the truth until he is on his own and fighting for survival in Aztlán.   

  • Science

    Well, The House of the Scorpion definitely falls in the science fiction genre, so it's no surprise that science plays a major role. But this book isn't about lab work and discoveries. Instead, Farmer explores the ethics of science. What sort of science is okay for people to do? Is it right to clone people just because (in the world of this book) you can? Is it okay to brainwash people into being "eejits"? Ultimately, Farmer seems to argue that people shouldn't do things just because they can. The science in this book about recognizing our limitations, and using morals to guide our use of science and technology.

    Questions About Science

    1. How do most members of the Alacrán clan feel about cloning? Are they supportive or opposed to it?
    2. Do you think the book overall is opposed to cloning and other sorts of genetic engineering? Or do you think there might be some circumstances under which cloning is a-okay?
    3. Why do you think El Patrón keeps Opium a hundred years in the past? Why not take advantage of all the scientific advancements we later learn about when Matt gets to Aztlán?
    4. Now that he knows just how far the world has come scientifically, how do you think Matt will govern the use of science when he takes over Opium?

    Chew on This

    This novel shows that cloning is wrong, and that science has the potential to be horribly immoral.

    Farmer's mixture of scientific advancement and economic depression suggests that science and technology aren't the magical cure-alls. In fact, they can hurt more than they help.

  • Slavery

    Slavery abounds in The House of the Scorpion. The brainwashed and trapped Eejits are the most obvious example of enslavement, but pretty much everyone in El Patrón's household is a slave in some form. No one is free to leave or live their lives without El Patrón's say-so. No one can question him openly or go against his word. Plus, if you think about it, Matt's entire body (namely, his young, healthy organs) belongs to El Patrón. It would be easy to think that these forms of enslavement are a result of El Patrón's dictatorial rule, but the scary truth is that slavery is widespread in the world outside of Opium, too. Even in Aztlán, which doesn't appear to have a dictator like Opium, the Lost Boys are slaves to the will of the Keepers, and must do forced labor in order to be clothed and sheltered. No one in this world is safe.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. How are the various members of the Alacrán clan enslaved by El Patrón? Who is enslaved the most?
    2. What are some ways Matt could potentially help the eejits at the novel's end?
    3. How is Matt's situation unique and different from that of the other people trapped in Opium?
    4. Would you rather live in Opium, under the iron fist of El Patrón, or in Aztlán, under the control of the Keepers?

    Chew on This

    The fact that eejits are people captured trying to cross the Mexican-American border relates to the current immigration issues on the border between the United States and Mexico.

    Farmer uses the character of El Patrón to show us that drug lords are essentially slave owners, who use various forms of slavery to keep their drug empires running.

  • Death

    In The House of the Scorpion, no one is more obsessed with death than El Patrón. Let's be honest: he terrified of it, so he uses clones to avoid it altogether. We could have told El Patrón that living forever isn't all it's cracked up to be (just look at Voldemort), but we doubt he would have listened. After all, death is pretty scary, so we can almost understand his fear. Even brave Matt has a terrifying moment in the boneyard, when he comes quite close to dying, and he runs from Opium to avoid death in the first place. But Matt also seems to know that there's something weird and perverse about living forever, especially when it requires you to abuse others. In Matt's mind, death is to be feared, but not to be conquered.

    Questions About Death

    1. What is the significance of the childhood memory that El Patrón talks about over and over again, and how does it tie in to his fear of dying?
    2. Do you think El Patrón's fear of death has something to do with the fact that he keeps Opium a hundred years behind the times? How so?
    3. How do María's religious beliefs affect her view of El Patrón and his super long life?
    4. How do you think the various members of the Alacrán estate felt about El Patrón's death? Were they happy? Sad? Afraid? Confused?

    Chew on This

    Tam Lin does not fear death, and that sets him apart from his powerful employer, El Patrón.

    The fate the eejits experience is worse than death.