Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!About This Book
In The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa tells an intimate story about family, the nature of memory, and the poetry of mathematics. It is also, in a sense, a story about the simple experience of getting to know someone, but with a twist: the person forgets everything in eighty minutes. How do you form a relationship with a person who cannot remember? In this uplifting and often poignant novel, Ogawa seems to ask whether our immediate experiences are more important than our memories, since memories inevitably fade, and the eponymous Professor's condition of limited short-term memory allows the author to explore this question with great creativity. At the same time, Ogawa invites the reader into the world of mathematics, using complex equations as a metaphor for the themes running throughout her book. The Housekeeper and the Professor is a rich, multilayered novel that offers much to discuss.
- The characters in The Housekeeper and the Professor are nameless ("Root" is only a nickname). What does it mean when an author chooses not to name the people in her book? How does that change your relationship to them as a reader? Are names that important?
- Imagine you are writer, developing a character with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. How would you manage the very specific terms of that character (e.g. his job, his friendships, how he takes care of himself)? Discuss some of the creative ways in which Yoko Ogawa imagines her memory-impaired Professor, from the notes pinned to his suit to the sadness he feels every morning.
- As Root and the Housekeeper grow and move forward in their lives, the Professor stays in one place (in fact he is deteriorating, moving backwards). And yet, the bond among the three of them grows strong. How is it possible for this seemingly one-sided relationship to thrive? What does Ogawa seem to be saying about memory and the very foundations of our profoundest relationships?
- The Professor tells the Housekeeper: "Math has proven the existence of God because it is absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it." Does this paradox apply to anything else, beside math? Perhaps memory? Love?
- The Houskeeper's father abandoned her mother before she was born; and then the Housekeeper herself suffered the same fate when pregnant with Root. In a book where all of the families are broken (including the Professor's), what do you think Ogawa is saying about how families are composed? Do we all, in fact, have a fundamental desire to be a part of a family? Does it matter whom it's made of?
- Did your opinion of the Professor change when you realized the nature of his relationship with his sister-in-law? Did you detect any romantic tension between the Professor and the Housekeeper, or was their relationship chaste? Perhaps Ogawa was intending ambiguity in that regard?
- The sum of all numbers between one and ten is not difficult to figure out, but the Professor insists that Root find the answer in a particular way. Ultimately Root and the Housekeeper come to the answer together. Is there a thematic importance to their method of solving the problem? Generally, how does Ogawa use math to illustrate a whole worldview?
- Baseball is a game full of statistics, and therefore numbers. Discuss the very different ways in which Root and the Professor love the game.
- How does Ogawa depict the culture of contemporary Japan in The Housekeeper and the Professor? In what ways does is it seem different from western culture? For example, consider the Housekeeper's pregnancy and her attitude toward single motherhood; or perhaps look at the simple details of the story, like Root's birthday cake. In what ways are the cultures similar, different?
- Ogawa chooses to write about actual math problems, rather than to write about math in the abstract. In a sense, she invites the reader to learn math along with the characters. Why do you think she wrote the book this way? Perhaps to heighten your sympathy for the characters?
- Do numbers bear any significance on the structure of this book? Consider the fact that the book has eleven chapters. Are all things quantifiable, and all numbers fraught with poetic possibility?
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The story is about an old professor and a special bond that develops between the professor and his housekeeper. The professor has a peculiar problem that he cannot remember anything beyond 80 minutes. His memory loss caused by a certain accident in his middle age leads to a strange life that he leads. Since he cannot remember anything beyond 80 minutes, he is forced to write short notes and pin it up on his suit so that he can glance at them everyday and remember stuff. His sister-in-law generously takes care of him and provides him with basic amenities like food , shelter and a study room. The professor despite his old age continues doing math. To take care of the cooking,cleaning and other household activities, his sister-in-law appoints a housekeeper.
Since the professor has no memory beyond the last 80 minutes, the housekeeper has to introduce herself everyday to the professor to gain entry in to the house. The professor has a peculiar way of letting her in to the house. He would ask a few questions whose answers are numbers like her shoe-size, her date of birth and allows her to enter the house. The housekeeper brings along her son to the work, at Professor’s request . The Professor soon develops a liking toward the kid and slowly starts taking time to teach him some basic math. He fondly calls him “root” , because of his rather flat head and resembles a square root sign.
Math becomes the focus of most of the conversations in the house. The housekeeper is sucked in to the infectious enthusiasm that the professor displays. Even though she is supposed to merely take care of household chores, she tries to strike conversation with the professor whenever possible and in the process learns about a whole lot of math stuff like perfect numbers, amicable numbers, prime numbers, fascinating square root sign, 0 (queen of numbers), triangular numbers, Euler’s equation, the way all the primes can be divided exactly in to two categories etc. Professor’s liking towards the kid makes him spend more time with him teaching math in such a way that it brings an element of delight and surprise even in some mundane math concepts.
The book ends with Professor’s death and the Housekeeper’s son becoming a math faculty at a local college. Well, as the story has a bit of melodrama in it, it is no wonder that this book was made in to Japanese film titled “The Professor and His Beloved Equation”.
Via Wikipedia :
The Professor's Beloved Equation is a Japanese film released January 21, 2006 and directed by Takashi Koizumi. It is based on the novel The Housekeeper and the Professor.
In contrast to the original work, which is told from the perspective of the narrator, the film is shown from the perspective of a 29 year old root as he recounts his memories of the professor to a group of new pupils. Though there are a few differences between the film and the original work (for example, the movie touches on the relationship between the professor and the widow while the book does not give much detail), the film is generally faithful to the original.