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A Map of the World

A Map of the World

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A Map of the World (1994) is a literary fiction novel by American author Jane Hamilton (1957-Present). Alice and her family are viewed as outsiders to the community in a small Wisconsin town. When a tragic accident on the farm leads to false accusations against Alice, the family's life is turned upside down. In A Map of the World, Hamilton uses tragedy and lies to analyze themes of guilt and forgiveness.

A Map of the World, Content Warning, StudySmarter

A Map of the World: Summary

The summary of A Map of the World is that Alice Goodwin and her husband Howard enjoy a peaceful life in the small town of Prairie Center in rural Wisconsin. The novel starts from Alice's perspective. Having moved to the town from the big city with their daughters Emma and Claire, the couple is viewed as odd by their neighbors.

Despite this cold atmosphere, the family works hard to ensure their dairy farm is successful. As Howard maintains the farm, Alice works as a nurse at the local elementary school.

A Map of the World Farm StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Goodwin family works hard to support Howard's dream of running a farm.

During the summer break, Alice's best friend, Theresa, drops her daughter Lizzy off at the Howard farm for the day. While preparing to take the children to swim in the lake, Alice goes into her room to find her bathing suit. During the search, she finds a drawing she did as a child. The picture is just one of many maps she produced following her mother's death. While briefly reminiscing about this challenging time, the children enter the lake unattended, and Lizzy accidentally drowns.

How does Alice describe the map which transfixes her? Why is her emotional connection to the map so strong?

The guilt of the accident causes Alice to fall into a deep depression as Howard tries to distract himself by working on the farm. A few days later, Alice's world is further shaken when the police arrive at the house to arrest her on charges of child molestation. During questioning, a guilt-ridden Alice blurts out that she hurts everyone around her. The police take this as an admission of guilt and place her in jail. Although Alice is innocent of this crime, she reasons that she must be punished for her role in Lizzy's death and accepts her punishment.

A Map of the World was chosen as Oprah's Book Club pick for December 1999.

As the police remove Alice, the narrative shifts to Howard's perspective as he desperately fights to prove Alice's innocence and reunite the family. He works night and day on the farm, trying to raise the bail money and secure a competent lawyer while trying to care for his daughter. As Howard continues to fight for his wife, he simultaneously grows bitter toward her, believing her actions may have destroyed the family. Plagued by thoughts that his marriage may be beyond saving, his visits with Alice deteriorate into petty arguments and awkward silences.

A Map of the World Prison StudySmarterFig. 2 - Having been accused of abusing children, Alice is targeted by other inmates.

As Alice struggles for survival, she faces threats and is eventually beaten up by another inmate. Despite her innocence, she seems committed to accepting her punishment as righteous justice for Lizzy's death. Meanwhile, Howard secures the service of Paul Rafferty, a lawyer who believes Alice has a strong case. As the family scrambles to make ends meet and pay the lawyer's fees and bail amount, Howard is forced to make a difficult choice. He finally decides to sell the farm to free Alice.

How does Howard's approach to the family's circumstances differ from Alice's passive acceptance?

In the final section, the narrative switches back to Alice's perspective. She recounts her time in jail, getting to know her fellow inmates. Although initially scared, she begins to see them as people who, like her, have experienced tragedy and injustice. Through listening to their stories, Alice begins reassessing her situation, acknowledging that Lizzy's death was not her fault and that her imprisonment is unjustified.

In 1999, A Map of the World was adapted into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver as Alice.

Released on bail, Alice is glad to be reunited with her children but feels hurt that Howard sold the farm without telling her. The family struggles through the trial as tensions in the town mount. In court, Rafferty reveals that Alice's main accuser Robbie Mackessy is not telling the truth. As a school nurse, Alice repeatedly helped Robbie during his many visits to her office. When Alice confronted Robbie's mother about his frequent absences and continued medical issues, an argument ensued where Robbie's mother threatened to report Alice. After Lizzy's death, Robbie's mother saw an opportunity for revenge and coerced her son into falsely accusing Alice.

The trial ends with Alice being acquitted.

A Map of the World Family StudySmarterFig. 3 - Although they did not emerge unscathed, the Goodwin family survived their ordeal intact.

With the trial behind them, the Goodwin family decides to leave town and start a new life in Chicago. However, Lizzy's death and the trial left a dark shadow over them all. Alice and Howard remain distant because of the sale of the farm, and as the novel ends, Alice promises to recommit herself to her husband and children.

This was the lesson, perhaps, that I was sent to learn: The old life was worth having at any expense." (Ch. 18)

A Map of the World: Characters

Alice Goodwin and her husband, Howard, the most important characters in A Map of the World.

Character Description
Alice Goodwin The novel's protagonist is a 32-year-old woman whose life is devised by a momentary lapse. Alice is a college-educated woman from a middle-class background. When she arrives in Prarie Center with her husband, Howard, the locals are immediately hostile and treat the pair as outsiders. Despite the cold welcome, Alice works hard to create a new life for her family. She works as a nurse at the local elementary school but struggles to find her place in the small town. Alice only sticks it out because of her husband.
Howard Goodwin Howard was raised to value hard work and stoic self-dependence. Coming to Prairie Center allowed him to fulfil his farm dream. The rest of the town views Howard and Alice as idealistic hippies. As their life is torn apart by Lizzy's death and the false accusations against Alice, Howard refuses to give up and works as hard as possible to reunite his family.

A Map of the World: Themes

Through Alice's story, Jane Hamilton explores the themes of guilt and forgiveness.

Guilt and Forgiveness

After Lizzy's tragic death on the Hamilton farm, Alice feels tremendous guilt that her moment of distraction has cost the life of an innocent child. Even when Lizzy's mother, Theresa, absolves Alice, Alice continues to feel guilty. This feeling is compounded days later when she is falsely accused of sexually abusing children in her care. Alice's grief and guilt about Lizzy's death are so intense that she passively accepts her imprisonment as punishment. She does not view her circumstances as a twist of fate or unfortunate luck. Instead, Alice views it as some form of justice.

While in prison, Alice becomes shut off from the outside world and her family. She gets to know the other women in her cell block and learns how they came to be there. Through these women's stories, she begins to understand that her imprisonment was not divine intervention or karma. She sees that misfortune and tragedy strike many lives, and bad things sometimes happen to good people. This vital realization allows Alice to begin forgiving herself. It is only when Alice has learned to forgive herself that she can forgive others. When she emerges from prison, she bears no ill will against the townspeople and refrains from pursuing charges against Robbie and his mother for the false accusations.

It was about forgiving. I understood that forgiveness itself was strong, durable—like strands of a web weaving around us, holding us." (Ch. 22)

When Jane Hamilton first created the character of Alice Goodwin, she had no idea what kind of story her protagonist would go on. The author had four different possible scenarios for Alice's story but finally settled on the plot for A Map of the World after reading about a young woman named Kelly Michaels.

Michaels was a 22-year-old daycare worker in New Jersey who'd been convinced of sexually abusing children in her care in 1985. The case against Michaels relied on the testimony of three 5-year-olds who police and social workers had heavily coached. The charges alleged horrific acts, which appeared implausible to many.

Michales was found guilty and sentenced to 47 years in prison. After serving five years in prison, Michaels was released after her defense team proved that she had been falsely accused of sexual abuse. They argued that many of the children interviewed had initially denied that any abuse had taken place and most felt pressured into pleasing the adults.

In her article, "From the mouths of babes to a jail cell," journalist Dorothy Rabinowitz defined the case as an example of a "witch-hunt narrative"1 similar to the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s or the Salem Witch trials. She argues that during the 1980s, there was a great deal of hysteria surrounding child abuse in daycare centers and schools. Rabinowitz argues that this atmosphere led people to stop thinking rationally and led to many false accusations of innocent people.

A Map of the World Blame StudySmarterFig. 4 - Like many innocent people accused of crimes they did not commit, Alice is quickly judged by others.

Jane Hamilton was drawn to Michael's case because "that kind of injustice that happened on so many levels that you can't get yourself out of the hole was interesting and horrific."2 Alice's experience mirrors Michaels' in many ways, as she has an entire community turn against her because of false accusations. Hamilton uses Michaels's experience to warn against the dangers of mob mentality and the rush to judgment.

A Map of the World: Analysis

In A Map of the World, Jane Hamilton uses elements of the literary fiction genre, first-person perspective, and past-tense narration to analyze the importance of forgiveness and family. Since the novel focuses on Alice's journey and development, it is considered a work of literary fiction.

Literary fiction: a genre of literature that focuses on characters, themes, or social issues over traditional plot or narrative techniques. Works of literary fiction do not usually fit neatly into standard genre definitions.

The novel's title refers to one of Alice's key memories and highlights some of the works underlining ideas. During Alice's childhood, her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After her mother's death, Alice escaped the pain and grief by drawing maps of a fictional land she called Tangalooponda. She designed the maps in great detail, including information on topography and weather patterns. To Alice, Tangalooponda represented a perfect land where she could be alone and at peace away from other people.

A Map of the World Map StudySmarterFig. 5 - Alice's maps of Tangalooponda provide solace and escape during difficult times.

This sense of wanting to be alone followed Alice to adulthood as she settled in Prarie Center. She is happy that the rest of the town remains cold and distant from her as it allows her to maintain a solitary lifestyle. The memory of the maps still plays on Alice's mind as an adult and is why she becomes momentarily distracted while caring for Lizzy.

Through her harrowing experience in prison, she spends time thinking again about the maps. Now forcibly isolated from her children and husband, Alice learns the true pain of being alone. This feeling leads her to the realization that being alone should not be her goal in life, and she must cherish her loved ones.

...if I could make the world over...make an impossible, new world, Howard, this is who you would see: You'd see Emma and Claire, and you'd see yourself, and me, all together, dancing on the porch with the shades down, outcasts making a perfect circle." (Ch. 21)

Hamilton narrates the novel from both Howard's and Alice's perspectives, using the first-person point of view in the past tense.

First-person point of view: a narrative technique that presents the story's events from a character's perspective. This technique gives the reader an inside view of a character's thoughts and motivations.

A Map of the World is divided into three sections, with parts one and three being told from Alice's perspective, while part two shows Howard's experiences during Alice's imprisonment. The first-person point of view in the past tense allows the characters to reflect on their experiences and struggles and provides insight into how the story's tragic events have altered them.

A Map of the World: Quotes

The following quotes illustrate Hamilton's exploration of guilt and forgiveness in A Map of the World.

I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error… I've found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life" (Ch. 1)

The novel opens with Alice providing a perspective on all she's been through and learned. Before the traumatic experience, she believed people fell on hard times because of their actions or errors. Through her journey, she realizes life is more complex and unforgiving than she previously thought.

I didn't know if the forgiveness itself was light, glittery stuff that showered down and absolved a person and set them free, or if, instead, it was heavy, cumbersome, a new debt, a currency that was continuously renewed no matter how much was paid out." (Ch. 6)

As Alice looks back on her harrowing ordeal, she acknowledges that her approach to forgiveness was wrong. While she initially accepted her time in jail as a just punishment for Lizzy's death, she ultimately learned that to forgive others, she first had to forgive herself.

A Map of the World - Key takeaways

  • A Map of the World (1994) is a novel by American author Jane Hamilton.
  • The Goodwin family is viewed as outsiders in the rural town of Prarie Center. When a child accidentally drowns on their property, the city quickly turns against them. This tragedy is soon followed by false accusations against the mother, threatening to destroy the family.
  • In A Map of the World, Hamilton analyzes themes of guilt and forgiveness.
  • The novel is an example of the literary fiction genre.
  • Hamilton drew on the actual case of Kelly Micheals as the inspiration for Alice's story.

1 Dorothy Rabinowitz, "From the mouths of babes to a jail cell," Harper's Magazine, 1990.

2 Barbara Shoup, "Interview with Jane Hamilton," Booth, 2010.

Frequently Asked Questions about A Map of the World

A Map of the World is based on a true story. Jane Hamilton took aspects of Kelly Micheals's case, who was falsely accused of sexually abusing children in the daycare she worked at. Alice's experience mirrors Michaels's in many ways as an entire community turned against her because of false accusations. 

Alice and her family are viewed as outsiders to the community in a small Wisconsin town. When a tragic accident on the farm leads to false accusations of sexual abuse against Alice, the family's life is turned upside down. 

Jane Hamilton, an American novelist from Illinois, wrote A Map of the World.

A Map of the World was published in 1994 so would have been written before then, and after The Book of Ruth was published in 1988. 

The main character in A Map of the World is Alice Goodwin, who is falsely accused of sexually abusing children. 

Final A Map of the World Quiz

A Map of the World Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


In which state does A Map of the World take place in? 

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A Map of the World tells the story of the ________ family.

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Alice started to draw maps to cope with the death of her___________.

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Alice's world is shattered when one of her daughters drowns in the lake. 

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 One of the novel's key themes is forgiveness. 

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Which genre best describes A Map of the World? 

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Literary fiction

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As a child, Alice drew maps of a fictional land known as ___________. 

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To pay for Alice's bail and lawyer fees, Howard is forced to _________________. 

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Sell the family farm 

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Which narrative point of view does Hamilton use in A Map of the World

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Alice is imprisoned on charges of __________. 

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Sexual abuse

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