The Pact

The Pact Essay Questions

  1. 1

    James and Gus, Michael and Melanie, and Chris and Emily all have quite different personalities. How do these personalities balance one another out? Which relationships are the most successful?

    In The Pact, Picoult presents three main couples, and each works as a case study of how opposites may attract, but can also put major strain on a relationship in hard times. James has been raised to be stern and stoic in the face of hardships, and even goes so far as to pretend a problem does not exist, while Chris's trial brings out passion in the forms of strong grief and protectiveness in Gus. This ends up pulling Gus and James apart for the majority of Chris's time in prison, a time when they needed one another as a support system. Likewise, Michael is a gentler soul than Melanie, especially during the major grief following the loss of their daughter. While Melanie becomes spiteful and even vengeful, Michael remains trusting of Chris and even seeks to give comfort to Chris and Gus, knowing they are also experiencing grief and confusion over the situation. Again, these differing modes of living are shown to pull the relationship apart rather than strengthen it. Finally, Chris and Emily are raised in very similar situations, but they are defined largely by their genders and their interests, and their parents seem keen on keeping them in these roles. Feeling trapped in these roles is what keeps Emily in a relationship with Chris, but also makes it hard for her to see ways to impact her life besides suicide. Perhaps the most successful of these three pairs is James and Gus, who are able to repair their relationship somewhat by the end of Chris's trial. Mostly, though, Picoult seems to speak to the troubles that differences in a long-term relationship can cause when it is put under stress.

  2. 2

    What does Picoult suggest about the relationships between parents and children, especially between mothers and their children versus fathers and theirs? Does she cast these relationships in a positive or negative light?

    In writing The Pact, one of Picoult's main goals seemed to be exposing the lack of communication between parents and their children. Neither Emily's parents nor Chris's foresaw Emily's death or Chris's role in it, even though the teens were deeply distraught and perhaps looking for someone to ask them about it and provide solutions besides the ones they saw available. In that sense, Picoult shows parent-child relationships in a negative light.

    Picoult also focuses on the difference between motherhood and fatherhood. She does not seem to suggest that one parent's role is to be the more compassionate, as Gus is the more emotional parent to Chris but Michael the more empathetic of Emily's parents. However, Picoult shows and even says directly that mothers will become fiercely protective, even in ways that are negative for those around them or even immoral, when their child is threatened. This is shown both through Melanie's rage and attempts at revenge after Emily's death and Gus's willingness to say anything in court to protect Chris.

  3. 3

    The characters in the novel have jobs and hobbies that seem to reflect their personalities. Examine 2-3 examples from the text and discuss how Picoult uses these interests to reveal things about the characters.

    Picoult often gives characters jobs that represent them or end up being ironic in some way. One important example of this is James, who is a surgeon focusing on eyes. One day soon after Chris has been arrested, James thinks about a particular consultation with a patient that makes him feel in control and appreciated. At the end of the appointment, he muses to himself that though he is an award-winning doctor who helps people to see, he still "had not seen this coming" (p.102), referring to Chris. Thus, Picoult gives an ironic nod to the different ways people can "see," important to the novel's theme of truth versus perception. Michael and Melanie's jobs can also help the reader understand their personalities from early on in the book; both have jobs helping others, though Michael helps ailing animals and Melanie people in search of knowledge. However, after Emily's death, Michael is able to keep focused on doing well in his job, demonstrating his healing process, while Melanie turns spiteful and fails to do the parts of her job she once so enjoyed.

  4. 4

    Was Emily correct in thinking her only option was suicide? Could anything have prevented her suicide?

    Emily's suicide was brought on by problems in communication. Picoult provides a parallel through the time when Chris and Emily break up briefly; she feels totally at a loss for people to talk to about the situation and is surprised when her mother is empathetic. When Emily is feeling distressed about sex due to her childhood sexual abuse and then becomes pregnant, neither of her two main confidants, Chris or her mother, seems available, given what she thinks their reactions will be. Still, Emily tries to pursue a solution on her own, consulting with Planned Parenthood about abortion and almost going through with the procedure. However, the procedure is cancelled when she has an extremely negative reaction to a male doctor trying to touch her. This means that a lack of open communication again drives Emily toward seeing suicide as the only option. Thus, Emily's suicide might have been prevented if her loved ones had been more open and empathetic, so that her trauma from sexual abuse could have been dealt with earlier, and if her family had encouraged her to form strong relationships with people besides Chris.

  5. 5

    In what ways does jail change Chris? In what ways does he benefit from the experience, and in what ways does it hurt him?

    A jarring fact that Picoult exposes in The Pact is that anyone suspected of a crime, even before being found guilty, can be forced to stay in prison for months and even years. Jail is a harrowing experience for Chris, entailing violence and isolation. However, it does allow him to meet another person in a dire situation, his cellmate Steve, and they bond over feeling like their lives are out of control and unlucky. In this way, Chris benefits from being in prison, rather than the outside world where he was avoided by many following Emily's death. Furthermore, the awful boredom and loneliness of the isolation cell at the prison causes Chris to turn to religion, something which some readers might see as quite positive. While this doesn't seem to have a strong lasting effect, it gives him some sense of peace while still in jail. Overall, however, Chris's prison stay demonstrates the unsafe and even inhumane situation that befalls those accused of a crime.

  6. 6

    Why does Picoult give so much time to Jordan McAfee's life and character? Does Jordan McAfee learn or change at all throughout the novel?

    There must be a reason Picoult gives so much time to Jordan McAfee, not simply focusing on the way he puts Chris's case together, like she does for the prosecutor as well, but detailing his troubles with his son, ex-wife, and detective (soon to be lover, perhaps). In these moments, Picoult is able to parallel and call further attention to some of the themes, especially the themes of childhood development and parenthood (primarily fatherhood). Picoult shows that McAfee sets an example for his son by bringing home seemingly random women and having loud sex at the house; this piques Thomas's sexual curiosity and makes it difficult for Jordan to lay down the law when he finds a dirty magazine in Thomas's possession. It might even be said that this event demonstrates how children often take on the qualities of their parents that are accidentally modeled, such as James and then Chris taking on a more closed attitude to emotions that affects their abilities to empathize with their romantic others.

  7. 7

    What is the significance of the blank piece of paper Chris finds at the end of the book? What message does Picoult seem to send with her entire epilogue, especially this moment?

    The epilogue of the book shows both that life goes on after tragedy and that some wounds cannot be fully healed. Though Chris has been released from prison, undoubtedly a happy ending of a sort, he is still haunted by the time he spent confined and constantly threatened while in prison. Furthermore, while the parents have all found ways to go on with their lives, the bond between the families (and especially between Gus and Melanie) has been irreparably damaged.

    The very last scene in the book is one in which Chris is watching the Golds move out and remembers a way he and Emily used to communicate - a can on a string between their bedrooms. He is able to retrieve a long lost note, which falls out of the can to the ground, but when he reaches it, the note is blank. This seems to indicate the finality of Emily's death and perhaps also point to the lack of communication which led to it.

  8. 8

    Do you believe the jury's decision that Chris was not guilty is correct? Why or why not?

    The jury had a difficult decision to make, even with the full evidence of the case laid out for them, including Chris's truthful testimony. It is clear that Chris played a role in Emily's death, and had chances to stop her, but whether he is actually guilty of first-degree murder is a different story. As the lawyers both lay out for the reader, to prove someone guilty of first-degree murder you must show that they killed someone with premeditation, willfulness, and deliberation. It seems that through Chris's testimony, one could perhaps point to premeditation and deliberation, but less so to willfulness. Emily had control over his emotions to such an extent that his will was not his own in the moments leading up to her death, so it was appropriate for the jury to find him not guilty. On the other hand, whether he could have been convicted of a lesser sentence is still a question.

  9. 9

    The Pact has been banned at some schools for its content such as suicide, teen sex, and sexual abuse. Do you believe The Pact and/or books like it should be banned at your school? Explain.

    The issue of whether to ban books from schools for their content is tricky. On one hand, exposing students to serious issues such as teen sex and suicide can help them to mature and prepare them for the real world, where such things do occur. On the other hand, without the guidance of a teacher or counselor, even reading about these issues can be upsetting or perhaps lead students to contemplate doing the things themselves. This latter concern seems to be most on the minds of parents or community members who attempt to ban books from schools.

    Rather than ban books, I would encourage schools and teachers to discuss these issues openly with students in ways that help them to process the issues and fully discuss their negative aspects. Students will find out about these things from other sources such as video games and television, so creating a space of ignorance in schools rather than a space for inquiry and deep thought is counterproductive.

  10. 10

    The Pact was adapted into a movie in 2002. What elements of the novel might need to change in this adaptation? What elements of The Pact might be better suited either to novel or movie form?

    There are always issues to grapple with when literature is adapted, whether it is losing the imagined version of the characters you have held dear or creating special effects that are believable and engaging. In adapting The Pact, probably the most important thing to deal with is the jumping around in time, which is comprehensible in the book due to clear titles and transitions but could be confusing to the viewer of a movie (especially since you can't flip back and forth as easily in a movie when you get confused). These skips in time will also require multiple actors to play Chris and Emily at different times in their lives, and it is important to choose child actors who look very similar so that the length and strength of Chris and Emily's relationship is convincing. Finally, the issue of dreams will need to be dealt with very delicately. Dreams are a major motif in the book and serve both as another form of flashback and at other times as symbolic or Freudian representations of the characters' emotions and fears. The director will need to decide whether to keep these dreams in the script, how to make it clear they are not real events, and whether to differentiate the flashback and symbolic types of dreams.