Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander Analysis

Thomas Merton

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

From 1941 until his death in 1968, Thomas Merton lived as a Catholic Trappist monk-hermit in the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky; the episodic form of this work was therefore determined largely by the rhythms and obligations of his religious vocation. Divided into five parts, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is composed of 320 pages of personal reflections, metaphors, observations, insights, and critiques of various readings and of events, the more important of which are usefully indexed. The passages composing each part vary in length from an epigrammatic sentence or two to sketches and meditations of several hundred words. Merton wrote them between 1956 and 1965, but they do not display any particular chronological order.

Nevertheless, the book is neither a ragbag nor a capricious collection of musings. In 1955, Merton became Master of Choir Novices and thus shouldered what was to be an eleven-year burden of exceptionally heavy religious duties that precluded studied, systematic, or dense writing. Yet 1955 also marked the commencement of the fourth and most significant phase of his already prolific writings. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander constitutes his personal interpretation of the world of the 1960’s. His Trappist emphasis on solitude and meditation during this period was joined to a growing preoccupation with the alternatives and conundrums posed by a transitional era: nuclear weapons, Oriental mysticism, racism...

(The entire section is 440 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Baker, James Thomas. Thomas Merton: Social Critic, 1971.

Bouyer, Louis. The Meaning of Monastic Life, 1955.

Cross, Robert D. The Emergence of Liberal Catholicism in America, 1958.

Dawson, Christopher. The Historical Reality of Christian Culture, 1956.

Ellis, John T. Perspectives in American Catholicism, 1963.

Knowles, David. Christian Monasticism, 1969.

Maritain, Jacques. True Humanism, 1938.