Appointment in Samarra Questions and Answers

John O'Hara

When was Appointment in Samarra published?

Appointment in Samarra was published in 1934. It is John O’Hara’s first novel and is considered his best.

Why is the book called Appointment in Samarra?

The name of the book is taken from W. Somerset Maugham’s eponymous story about the impossibility of avoiding one’s death. After reading this story in the book’s epigraph, readers understand that an appointment in Samarra is an appointment with death.

Where is Appointment in Samarra set?

The story is set in Gibbsville, PA, a fictional town in the eastern part of the state’s Pennsylvania Dutch and anthracite coal regions. John O’Hara modeled Gibbsville upon Pottsville, the town where he grew up. Although Gibbsville has its own specificities, it also represents small-town America.

What is the Lantenengo Country Club?

Named after the fictional county where Gibbsville is located, the Lantenengo Country Club is home to the town’s upper class. The social hierarchies and petty differences that play out in Gibbsville occur at the club on a smaller scale. For instance, a certain amount of wealth is required in order to be admitted to the club, and WASPs like Julian English are at the very top of the ladder, whereas people like Harry Reilly, an Irish Catholic member of the nouveau riche, have only recently been admitted. Jews are still not allowed in the club, and admitting African Americans is not even a consideration. People’s wealth determines whether dinner hosts opt for “the dollar-fifty” (roast chicken), “the two-dollar” (roast turkey), or the “two-fifty” (filet mignon). The smoking room used to be only for men, but women have muscled their way in, and now the room is co-ed. Anyone who is admitted to the club is welcome to go to the dance, but not everyone is welcome in the smoking room.

Lantenengo is also the name of the coveted street where Julian and Caroline English live.

When does Appointment in Samarra take place?

The story is set at the beginning of the Great Depression, between the morning of December 24 and the night of December 26, 1930. Although the Great Depression started in the United States with the market crash of 1929, its effects were felt worldwide and lasted for over a decade. In the story, Gibbsville’s main economic activity revolves around anthracite coal. By 1930, this industry had been in decline for five years, which meant that the general economic downturn was gradual and the Great Depression came at less of a surprise than in other parts of the country.

Why does Julian English throw a drink in Harry Reilly’s face?

Julian throws a drink in Harry’s face because he hates Harry. Although Julian never gives a specific reason for his hatred, it is implied that he is resentful toward Harry because Harry is a member of the nouveau riche whose wealth and financial security surpass Julian’s and whose upward mobility represents a threat to the long-established power of Anglo-Saxons.

Julian mentions Harry’s crush on Caroline as a possible reason people would use to explain the incident. Later in the story, it is also said that townsfolk will interpret Julian’s attack on Harry as an attack on all Catholics. Though Julian does not settle on any one reason, it is clear that the social climbing of the Reillys represents the decline of a social order long dominated by the Englishes. This shifting social order is something that all characters in the story have to face, and it constitutes one of the book’s themes.

Why does Julian English commit suicide?

The event that leads to Julian’s self-destruction is an incident with Harry Reilly in the smoking room at the Lantenengo Country Club. Julian watches Harry tell a story to the crowd and fantasizes about throwing a drink in his face to shut him up:

Why, he wondered, did he hate Harry Reilly? Why couldn’t he stand him? What was there about Reilly that caused him to say to himself: “If he starts one more of those moth-eaten stories I’ll throw this drink in his face.” But he knew he would not throw this drink or any other drink in Harry Reilly’s face. Still, it was fun to think about it.

While this starts as a fantasy, Julian ends up giving in to his impulses and throwing a highball in Harry’s face. This incident represents Julian’s break with polite society and signals his rapid descent into self-destruction. Following the incident, tensions arise with his wife, Caroline, and Julian indulges in heavy drinking. He flirts with Helene Holman, the torch singer at the Stage Coach, and it is implied that he has sex with her. Later on, he gets into a fight with several men at the Country Club. Finally, he tries to seduce a newspaper reporter at his home. While these events damage his reputation, his business, and his relationship to Caroline, none of them seems to justify his final decision. The only certainty that the narrator offers is that Julian is unable to adapt to the shifting economic and social order of his time. He easily slips into self-destruction and eventually accepts his tragic fate. This fate is spelled out in the book’s title and epigraph: Julian has an inescapable appointment with death.

Who tells the story in Appointment in Samarra?

Appointment in Samarra has a third-person omniscient narrator who allows the reader to see the points of view of different characters throughout the story. In order of importance, these points of view are those of Julian English, Caroline English, Al Grecco, Lute Fliegler, Irma Fliegler, Dr. English, Mrs. Walker, Harry Reilly, Alice Cartwright, and Herbert Harley. The last chapter also features a brief section that includes the points of view of Ross Campbell and Mary Manners. This polyphonic style allows readers to find out about the events in the story from several perspectives and hear the voices of characters from different backgrounds and social positions. All of these different perspectives come together to bring to life the story of Gibbsville itself.

How is the book structured?

The book is divided into ten chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 are each split into three parts, chapter 3 into five parts, and chapter 4 into four parts. Each of these parts is dedicated to the point of view of a different character. None of the other chapters are split. As the events of the main plot progress chronologically, the narrator also intersperses drawn-out accounts of the background stories of several characters: Al Grecco in chapter 2, Dr. English in chapter 3, Caroline in chapter 5, and Julian in chapter 7. Each of the background stories illuminates the characters’ present actions. The back-and-forth between foreground and background stories, along with the alternation from one point of view to another, results in a complex and multifaceted narrative.