Clockwork Discussion Guide
Explore the suspenseful book by Philip Pullman, which takes place on a snowy winter's evening.
- Grades: 6–8
It's a snowy winter night in the town, and a young apprentice clockmaker is in despair. Tradition holds that each apprentice, as a final test and rite of passage, must design and build a mechanical figure to be added to the town's impressive clockwork. But on the night before his work is due to be unveiled, young Karl has not even begun work on his design. No wonder, then, that when a shadowy, sinister stranger enters the tavern where Karl sits, and offers him a wondrous piece of clockwork, a knight so intricate, so real, that to pass it off as his own would make Karl forever famous, Karl is ... tempted. However, once Karl accepts the "gift", there seems to be no stopping the events which unfold like inexorable clockwork in a series of interlocking stories, giving us a spellbinding read as we wonder whether this tale will end happily ever after.
"Be careful what you wish for; it just might come true." Karl finds out that the little knight he has been given for the clock has a decidedly deadly characteristic. In what ways do other characters in the book enjoy a similar fate by wishing for something they should not? A related theme is man's refusal to accept the limitations of mortality. Prince Otto cannot accept that he will have no heirs and so turns to the clockwork-maker, who makes him a clockwork child. But the child is destined for destruction; those who love him without understanding him are likewise doomed. Is Pullman telling us something about our society today? What does the book say about human nature? About good and evil? About creativity? Did the themes of Clockwork remind you at all of Faust, Frankenstein, or Pinocchio. If so, how are they similar? Different?
Clockwork begins with the traditional folk tale opening "Once upon a time," and ends with the words "So they both lived happily ever after ...." What other elements of a folk tale are present in this novel? Think about the setting (nonspecific), the characters (static rather than dynamic), an unlikely hero (or in this case heroine), and the classic battle of good versus evil.
Notice how Philip Pullman plays with the fiction genre in Clockwork. What starts out as Fritz's "story within the story" becomes part of the "real" story. Fritz can't finish his story because it hasn't happened yet. Are there parallels between Clockwork and science fiction stories of time travel or alternative reality that have similar elements of ambiguity? There are many jokes and references to storytelling in the book — do you think Pullman is saying something about himself? About writers in general?
Names often offer insight into characters' traits. Florian's name could come from flora which is related to flowers. Prince Otto's name could be a variant of the word attar which is an oil that comes from a flower. The flower (Florian) needs the oil (Otto) to lubricate itself and to live. Mariposa in Spanish means butterfly; in English, a mariposa lily is a type of lily with showily blotched flowers. Read about Princess Mariposa on pages 56 and 71 and decide which description fits her personality. Dr. Kalmenius's name is similar to the word kalmia which is a type of mountain laurel with beautiful pink or white flowers that are filled with poisonous nectar. Fritz's name means a state of disorder or disrepair. Use a dictionary and/or encyclopedia to check the meanings of other names in Clockwork. Just as a flower cannot change its nature, are the characters in Clockwork similarly fated to proceed toward their destiny like clockwork?
Even after Karl discovers Sir Ironsoul's true nature he still intends to put the figure on the town clock. Even when Prince Otto understands that he will die by giving Florian his heart, he still chooses to do so. Even though Fritz understands that he as the one who started the story should be one the one to conclude it, he runs away from that responsibility. Even though Gretl is scared while climbing the stairs in the clock tower, she knows she must reach Florian. What motivates each of these characters to resolve the conflict each faces? Which character do you think has the most difficult decision to make?
1. In traditional folk or fairy tales, the characters usually do not change throughout the story, and the power of the story is not in character development so much as in imagery, symbols, language, plot, conflicts, theme or setting. Do you think this is true of Clockwork? If so, which of these elements would you say is most memorable about this book? What does Pullman do to make that aspect of Clockwork most memorable?
2. Examine similarities between Clockwork and other well known tales. Prince Florian is like the mechanical nightingale in The Nightingale, or Pinocchio in his attempts to become a real little boy; and in the end, because he is loved, like the Velveteen Rabbit, he does become real. Dr. Kalmenius clearly resembles Dr. Frankenstein as he removes hearts and creates pseudo-humans. Gretl who ultimately rescues Prince Florian shares the same name as the young girl who rescues her brother in Hansel and Gretel. Can you think of other similar connections?
3. The narrator of the book, in the introductory Note About Clocks, says that stories are like clocks — "Once you've wound them up, nothing will stop them; they move on forward till they reach their destined end, and no matter how much the characters would like to change their fate, they can't." Do you agree? Can you think of other books or plays in which once decisions were made and actions were set in motion, nothing could change the inevitable outcome? You might find examples from the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, and many others. You might talk about fate and predestination as a theme running through literature, and whether and how you think Clockwork fits into this literary tradition.
4. Pullman writes, "That's often the way with princes; they want instant solutions, not difficult ones that take time and care to bring about." (p. 59) Could the same thing be said of people in general? What are signs in our culture that people prefer quick fixes over lengthy solutions?
5. When people say that something "works like clockwork" they are usually describing something that works well, precisely, and exactly as expected. In what ways did this novel work like clockwork? In what ways did it not?
Other books to compare and contrast
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Faust by Goethe
Graven Images by Paul Fleischman
A Fate Totally Worse than Death by Paul Fleischman
The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende
About the author
Philip Pullman is a graduate of Oxford University. He teaches literature at Westminster College in England where he resides with his family. His works cover a variety of genres and include historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, plays, and picture books. Clockwork has received a High Commendation from the Carnegie Medal, the British equivalent of the Newbery Medal.
Discussion guide written by Kylene Beers and Teri Lesesne, both of whom teach children's and young adult literature at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.