This discussion guide was first published on Culturewatch.org.
‘Chris Marshall met the girl he was going to kill on a warm night in early June . . .’ (The Butterfly Tattoo, (Macmillan 2001) p. 3). Chris is seventeen , studying for A-levels but working part time and during holidays for a sound and lighting equipment company. There’s a good, honest innocence about him – in some ways he’s naïve about the world, but he’s inexperienced and trusting rather than simple. Jenny literally runs into him at an Oxford college ball. Chris is there as a technician and he helps to rescue her from three upper-class pursuers. He’s instantly smitten with this beautiful girl and patrols Oxford on his bicycle until he finds her again.
But just as chance brought their paths together, so it also divides them. Various factors – including Jenny’s painful past – conspire to force them apart. Chris’s boss has secrets of his own and Chris founds himself caught up in a web of events that are beyond his control. He finds himself struggling with questions of who he can trust, and how he can tell. He even comes to wonder whether he can trust himself.
Philip Pullman first came to fame through his trilogy, His Dark Materials, but he had already found success as a children’s author with a wide range of books including adventure stories (the Sally Lockhart quartet, etc.), fairy stories (I Was A Rat and others) and novels like The Butterfly Tattoo. It was first published in 1992 under the title The White Mercedes but the publishers changed the title when they republished it in 2001. Pullman says, ‘The Macmillan editors, Marion Lloyd in particular, thought that The White Mercedes was a title that would appeal more to boys, and be off-putting to girls. I wasn’t sure, and I’m still not. The problem with changing titles is that someone is bound to buy it, thinking it’s new, and be disappointed.’
Readers of His Dark Materials will find a very different landscape in The Butterfly Tattoo – it’s much set in the real world. On his own website, Philip Pullman writes about what he was setting out to do in the book: ‘The Butterfly Tattoo is a tragedy. I wanted to write a love story in which believable characters in a modern setting could encounter love and death in a realistic way. I also wanted to write about Oxford, the city where I live, and to get away from the sort of heritage-university-beautiful architecture idea and talk about a present-day, messy, difficult world in which unemployment and housing problems are real urgent matters.’ (www.philip-pullman.com)
But His Dark Materials fans will find some familiar themes: young people from difficult home situations, twists of fate leading to both joy and tragedy, and especially the transition from innocence to experience and wisdom. As in The Amber Spyglass, Pullman refers to the Genesis account of the Fall and sees it as an essential coming of age for humanity.
Questions for discussion
- What emotions did you experience as you read The Butterfly Tattoo?
- To what extent does Pullman succeed in writing ‘about a present-day, messy, difficult world in which unemployment and housing problems’ (www.philip-pullman.com)? Are these issues central to the narrative or peripheral?
- How would you describe Chris? At what points is he most believable as a character? When is he least believable?
- What values does he live by? Do these change during the events of the book? Why/why not?
- How is Jenny a product of her past? Why was she so drawn to Chris? What does she most need?
- What age group do you think The Butterfly Tattoo is intended for? Does Philip Pullman get the right balance for this age group in his description of the intimacy between Chris and Jenny?
- ‘This is a profoundly cruel book, impaling its central character on a spike of manipulation, innocence and love’ (Books for Keeps). Why does the reviewer calls it a cruel book? Do you agree? Why/why not?
- How does The Butterfly Tattoo express Philip Pullman’s concern with truth, honesty and integrity? How are these called into question for Chris? What does he finally conclude?
- ‘Chris sat silent, sick to his heart. Everyone and everything and everywhere he looked was rotten, corrupt, poisoned to the core’ (The Butterfly Tattoo, (Macmillan, 2001) p. 104). Do you agree with Chris’s assessment of the world at this point? How consistent is this view with the biblical idea of sin as a fundamental attitude of rebellion against God which infects all humanity?
- Chris and his mother’s lover, Mike, argue one evening about the nature of truth:
‘If something’s fundamentally true, it’s just as true whatever the age is,’ said Chris. ‘It’s stupid to say people feel something only because everyone else does . . . If something’s true, it’s true.’
‘Well, that in itself is a fundamentalist position,’ Mike said. ‘A liberal would say there were more kinds of truth than that. They’d say that what’s true is what works, and if one particular belief makes you feel good, then it’s true for you. And another belief would be true for someone else.’ (The Butterfly Tattoo, p. 115)
How do you respond to these arguments?
Chris subsequently explodes, referring to Mike’s comments as:
‘. . . all this mush of feeling good as if that was the most important thing in the world; as if it didn’t matter about truth or justice or honour; as if they were just words to make you feel good . . . so you can lie, cheat, deceive your families. None of it matters if only you feel good at the end . . .’ (p. 116)
Do you think Chris is right to respond this way? How prevalent are these ideas in our culture?
- Fletcher (the man in the white Mercedes who turns out to be Carson) tells Chris:
‘We’re not innocent; we know . . . The Garden of Eden – you know that story? The tree of knowledge of good and evil . . . Before you eat the fruit you’re innocent, whatever you do is innocent because you don’t understand. Then you eat it. And you’re never innocent again. You know now. And that’s painful . . . Losing that innocence is the first step on the road to real knowledge. To wisdom if you like. You can’t get wisdom till you lose that innocence.’ (p. 155, 156)
The Bible sees eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil as an act of rebellion against God (see Genesis 3). How does Pullman subvert this perspective? Do you think he is right to contrast innocence with wisdom? Why/why not? How do you respond to the idea which comes later in the Bible that true wisdom begins with learning to understand who God is and how to relate to him?