Study Guide

The Luminaries Themes

  • Foreignness

    Pretty much everyone in Hokitika is an ex-pat, with the lion's share of the characters hailing originally from the British Isles or China (of course, Te Rau Tauwhare and Charles Frost are the two notable exceptions).

    You'd think that the fact that everyone is foreign might make people less conscious of difference and more accepting in general, but that doesn't really seem to be the case. The goldfields throw all kinds of men into close proximity and create close relationships that might not have necessarily existed elsewhere. There is still plenty of tension surrounding cross-cultural relations in The Luminaries, and some of the British characters seem to enjoy exoticizing the Chinese and indigenous residents of the area—you know, by thinking of them as somehow scary or mysterious, as opposed to just dealing with them like any other human being.

    Questions About Foreignness

    1. Balfour and Moody claim that the goldfields bring unlikely men into close and even family-like relationships. What are some specific examples among our main characters? Also, overall, do you think this is a fair generalization, based on your analysis of the main characters?
    2. What exactly does George Shepard mean when he talks about the civilized and the savage? How does his definition differ from other people's?
    3. What do you make of the way the Chinese characters are portrayed in the novel? How does the novel portray (and work with/against) those characters' marginalization in Hokitika society?

    Chew on This

    Catton's narrative bears out Balfour's claim that the goldfields bring unlikely men into family relationships, with Crosbie Wells and Te Rau Tauwhare being the best example of the kind of "brother" relationships that can blossom in these circumstances.

    Although Moody and Balfour initially lead us to believe that Hokitika is some kind of big melting pot, the blatantly obvious separation of the area's Chinese and British inhabitants (and most everyone's indifference to Hokitika's indigenous population, aside from Te Rau) imply that class/social separation is alive and well even here.

  • Family

    Family is kind of a, er, touchy subject for a lot of our characters in The Luminaries. Sure, as we mentioned in "Foreignness," the goldfields present men with the opportunity to make a new family for themselves with their fellow diggers. However, a lot of the characters have some family drama in their past that's hard to escape—or, worse, that's bubbling up into their present in ways they don't like (and/or can't control). Look at Alistair Lauderback, whose half-brother, Crosbie, is being used to blackmail him—that's definitely a case of the sins of the father coming back to bite you in the tushy.

    Also, there's a lot of revenge on behalf of dead relatives going on: Sook is going after Carver to avenge his father's death, and Shepard goes after Sook because he (mistakenly) believes Sook killed his brother. In the words of Lorelai Gilmore, "Nothing like a family to ruin a family."

    Questions About Family

    1. If standard family relationships aren't that important in a gold town, why does the novel draw so much attention to them throughout the novel?
    2. What do you make of some of the family-like bonds that non-related characters form? Which characters really are bonded like family, and what do you make of these relationships?
    3. Why do you think Catton has Moody's father show up at the very end of the main narrative, only to never show us their reunion (that is, if such a reunion ever even happens)? What is the importance of that plot point to the whole?

    Chew on This

    Catton makes family kind of a slippery or fluid concept to highlight the way class and social boundaries are getting fainter in that particular context and at that particular time.

    Moody's father shows up at the end to highlight the fact that the past will always come to bite you in the butt—that is, that the desire to reinvent yourself and your family can only go so far.

  • Lies and Deceit

    The Luminaries has several intertwined mysteries, so lies and deceit are kind of its bread and butter. And thank goodness—if the characters weren't so lousy at telling the truth, the mysteries couldn't have dragged on nearly as long as they do. The book actually ends up keeping some secrets from us as readers, too—in the case of certain mysteries (e.g., what happened to Emery Staines for nearly two weeks), we don't actually find out exactly what happened. It's okay that the book keeps a few secrets from us, though, since it drives home the book's persistent message that absolute truth is pretty darn hard to come by (see "Truth" for more on that).

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What do you make of the story Emery tells the court about what happened during his absence? Why do you think he lies? You'd think that everyone would be tired of dealing with the fallout from lying—so why does everyone go along with this final monster of a deceit?
    2. What do you think Moody ends up believing about the "truth" of what he saw on the Godspeed—or about the spiritual world in general? Does he come over to Lydia's view that normal people can interact with and "know" spirits?
    3. Why do you think Catton keeps secrets from the reader—for example, when she delays our knowledge about a particular event, or denies us access to the full story entirely?

    Chew on This

    Although it provides us with the solution to some of its mysteries, the novel ultimately keeps quite a few secrets to remind the reader that s/he should be focusing on relationships and interpersonal dynamics, not "truth." Also, because of the supernatural elements, there are just certain things that can't be explained.

    If the characters had just told the truth, as they knew it, more often than not things would have worked out better. So, the novel actually suggests that trying to tell the truth—and by that, we mean "what happened" as far as you can explain it— is the way to go.

  • Wealth/Class

    According to Moody, class isn't really as important in a place like Hokitika as it might be, say, back in the British Isles. The fact is that even a person with extremely "low" birth like Crosbie Wells can raise his status in an instant with a gold strike (and yeah, that happened—before Lydia Wells stole all his cash, that is).

    Of course, not everyone in The Luminaries is happy about this particular aspect of the gold frenzy. In a letter to his highborn brother Alistair Lauderback, Crosbie Wells commented that certain people objected to gold as a "scourge," probably because they felt threatened by the class mobility that these chances for insta-wealth were creating.

    Questions About Wealth/Class

    1. For reals, how important is class in Hokitika? How do we know?
    2. Does the narrator/narration take a stance on wealth? On class divisions? Are they presented as good or bad, or neither?
    3. What do you think of Te Rau's assertion that greenstone is totally different from gold? Do you agree? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Pounamu and gold are entirely different to Te Rau because one represents the traditions of a pre-gold rush New Zealand that was undisturbed by western prospecting and capitalism, and the other represents global capitalism, which has now overtaken his native land.

    The novel implies that class and other social divisions are still alive and well, regardless of how much money people have; those things are just too deep-seated in the European consciousness to disappear entirely.

  • Chance/Destiny

    "Luck" and "Destiny" are, strangely enough, both pretty important concepts in The Luminaries that coexist more or less peacefully. On the one hand, the novel's cosmic architecture implies that the future is already written (in permanent ink) in the stars. On the other hand, being set in a gold town and all, the novel makes a lot of references to good and bad luck and chance, and suggests that those things, you know, exist. Within the story, there's definitely a tension between the idea of "destiny" and the notion that chance or some other force can intervene at any point to change the future. You'll have to decide which of side of the equation wins out for our characters, though …

    Questions About Chance/Destiny

    1. There are a lot of coincidences in the novel, but it also seems like most if not all of them can be explained by all the planetary/zodiac stuff. Are there any "true" coincidences?
    2. Would Emery and Anna's connection have been as strong if Anna had not been told that she had an astral twin? In other words, did knowing she had a soul mate make her more likely to find him? Remember, Lydia said that telling one's fortune changes one's fortune.
    3. Which force is stronger—destiny or chance/free will? Is one stronger than the other, or do they kind of coexist?

    Chew on This

    There is no such thing as chance or coincidence—or even free will, really—in the novel; destiny rules the roost and can explain everything.

    The only way one can interfere with or alter destiny is to talk about it; the minute you become conscious of what's laid out for you, you start altering what's possible. So, really, the related activities of communicating and storytelling are the ultimate ways to intervene in destiny.

  • Primitivism

    As we discussed with "Foreignness," some of the characters in The Luminaries tend to exoticize the non-English people or places. Harald Nilssen, for example, gets really excited thinking about the "primitive" and "unknowable" Maori women—which is pretty weird, since he lives among the Maori and could easily get to know their men and women alike, no? Anyway, despite their penchant for emphasizing the savagery and primitivism of others, the British characters have pretty much cornered the market on savage behavior by the end of the book. After all, Frank Carver is responsible for most of the crimes in this book, and he's the son of an Englishman.

    Questions About Primitivism

    1. Does the novel's general presentation of the "civil" and the "savage" change or evolve throughout the novel? Which things, people, or behaviors are ultimately portrayed as falling into those two categories?
    2. How are British stereotypes of the Maori and the Chinese as primitive challenged in the novel? Are they ever affirmed? If so, where/how, and what effect do those moments have on your understanding of the novel as a whole?
    3. Does the fact that Te Rau (probably) kills Carver affirm the English-speaking characters' racist stereotypes of the non-English characters as primitive and savage? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The book flips the British notion of the "primitive" on its head by the end, making the supposedly "primitive" Chinese and Maori characters look mighty civilized compared to the lying, cheating, and murdering English.

    By making Te Rau a murderer and presenting him and the Chinese characters as largely silent throughout the book, the novel replicates British stereotypes of non-British/non-Western peoples.

  • Truth

    Secrecy and lying are big topics in The Luminaries, but truth also gets a lot of airtime and consideration—and there's a lot of philosophizing about what the whole notion of "truth" actually means. Walter Moody feels like the truth is always subjective, but he's unwilling to admit that something can be "true" or "known" if you can't see it from all sides. However, people like Lydia think that something can be "known" or true even if you can't fully wrap your head or eyes around it—like a spirit, for example. It's unclear how open Walter ultimately is to the spirit world, since it's hard to examine that realm scientifically (and he's pretty analytical)…but anyway, these are the kinds of conversations and debates that go on regarding that whole "truth" subject.

    Questions About Truth

    1. Does Walter Moody ultimately become open to the idea of being able to know or find truth in the unseen/spirit world? Or does he just totally drop that line of thinking and fail to come to a conclusion on it?
    2. Does Lydia Wells really believe that the spirit world can be known, or is that just part of her shtick? Does she make a compelling case for believing in forces that are beyond our control (e.g., the stars) and that are manipulating the "truths" of our future/current existence? Or is she just a fraud?
    3. Why do you think Catton never gives us the full "truth" behind some of the novel's events?
    4. Do we trust the narrator to tell us the truth? And if so, what does that mean to you? How about the characters? Who are the least and most trustworthy characters, and how do we know?

    Chew on This

    The novel sets us up without a clear protagonist to latch onto and prevents us from hearing the full "truth" behind the novel's events to draw our attention to the way in which truth is always subjective and dependent on one's position/perspective.

    You can pretty much figure out what "truly" happened in every single mystery, even if it's technically left open-ended, which undermines any claims the novel might make to complicating traditional ideas of "truth."

  • Revenge

    After greed, the desire for revenge is probably the largest motivator for Hokitika's residents in The Luminaries (if the characters in the novel are a representative sample of the population, that is). Lots of people seem to be caught up with the idea of getting back at someone: Crosbie Wells wanted (and got) a certain amount of revenge on Frank Carver, and then Frank Carver wanted revenge on him (for cutting up his face), and Sook wants revenge on Carver. Meanwhile, Shepard wants revenge on Sook for a crime Sook didn't even commit against his brother. And then there's the bad blood between Anna and Lydia Wells, whose "kindness" Anna has promised to repay. All in all, this is a vengeful bunch—we haven't even mentioned all of the examples of people who have a settle to score in Hokitika. That would take too much space—why do you think Catton needed over 800 pages for her novel?

    Questions About Revenge

    1. George Shepard says he thinks seeking revenge is unjust. Does the novel bear this perspective out? Or is revenge justified? And more importantly, does it result in a better life in some way for the person seeking revenge?
    2. Sook dies before he can seek revenge. What message, if any, do you think the novel sends about the particular way he went about seeking revenge? Is it justified? Was the approach itself just? Why or why not?
    3. Do you think Shepard realizes he's a hypocrite when he says he kills Sook for trying to take revenge on Carver, when really he kills him to avenge his brother's death? Why or why not?
    4. What is going on when, during the séance, Lydia Wells repeats Sook's vow to kill Carver? Was she shamming to try to make Sook think Carver was already dead, or…was it something else?

    Chew on This

    Shepard doesn't say it, but the reason he's drinking (and invites Devlin to drink with him) after Sook's death is that he's feeling guilty since he realizes he's a hypocrite for seeking revenge on Sook (which he supposedly doesn't believe in).

    Shepard drinks after killing Sook to celebrate. Since he's totally not self-aware, he has no idea what a hypocrite he is (but don't worry, the narrator clues us in).