The Sweet Everlasting

A Novel by Judson Mitcham

Go to The Sweet Everlasting book page
Return to the Reader's Guides listing

About the book

Judson Mitcham cuts through the moral ambiguities of life in the midcentury rural South to show us the heart and soul of a good but flawed man.

Sharecropper’s son, mill worker, and ex-convict—Ellis Burt surely knows adversity. For a brief and cherished time there was a woman, and then a child, too, who had been a kind of salvation to him. Then they were gone, leaving Ellis to carry on with the burden of what he had done to them, of the ruin he brought down upon them all. Like the hero of William Kennedy’s masterpiece, Ironweed, Ellis Burt is a man of uncommon personal dignity and strength, always moving toward, but never expecting, redemption.

About the author

Judson Mitcham’s poems have appeared in Poetry, the Georgia Review, and Harper’s. His novels, The Sweet Everlasting and Sabbath Creek, are both winners of the Townsend Prize for Fiction. He teaches writing at Mercer University.

For discussion

  1. What is the significance of the title? What symbolic value might it have? What parts of the story might be seen as having some relation to the title?
  2.  
  3. How does the first-person narration, in the voice of an uneducated, elderly Southern white man, affect the telling of the story? What are the limitations and advantages of this particular point of view?
  4.  
  5. What is the “idea as real as a sharp stick” in the first line of the novel?
  6.  
  7. What are some consequences of the author’s decisions concerning the use of racially charged language?
  8.  
  9. Comment on the way time is handled in the novel. What techniques does the author employ to avoid confusing the reader?
  10.  
  11. Which earlier scenes foreshadow Ellis’ extreme reaction to what Susan tells him late in the story? (p.164)
  12.  
  13. What does Ellis mean by “On that day I’ll know what it is that I’ve been given to do?” (p. 189)
  14.  
  15. How do you interpret the scene in which Ellis, after leaving the faith-healing ceremony, encounters an Isaiah-like figure on the road home? (p. 56)
  16.  
  17. How would you describe Susan as a character? What devices (action, appearance, speech) does the author emphasize in drawing her character?
  18.  
  19. How is the world of work dealt with in the novel? What kinds of jobs do these characters hold? What are the satisfactions and the difficulties?
  20.  
  21. How does Ellis’ use of a biblical concordance function as an element in the story?
  22.  
  23. Can the concept of “tragic flaw” be properly applied to Ellis Burt?
  24.  
  25. Comment on the significance of rumor and misunderstanding in the story.
  26.  
  27. Comment on the questions posed throughout the novel by Ellis and by other characters. Are there answers to these questions in the novel?
  28.  
  29. Why are some readers puzzled by the way Ellis reacts to what Susan tells him? (p. 164). Why are some readers not puzzled? What does Ellis’ reaction tell us about his character and his world? What do our reactions tell us about our own characters and our own worlds?