Cultural Inspirations from Still Life

In the bedroom Clara picked up the well-worn book beside Jane’s bed, C.S. Lewis’s, Surprised by Joy. It smelled of Floris. (Still Life, page 242, Trade Paper Edition)

Surprised by Joy by CS LewisOriginally published in 1955, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life is C.S. Lewis’s look back on his conversion to Christianity and the idea of what actual “joy” means to him.

The title of Lewis’s memoir comes from William Wordsworth’s 1815 sonnet, “Surprised By Joy — Impatient As The Wind”, which was written in the wake of his three-year old daughter’s death and begins as follows:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

At face value, a strange comparison—joy and death—but the world of Three Pines, as summed up by both readers and reviewers alike, is just that, a place where light contrasts dark, goodness exists with evil, innocence engages experience, and hope flourishes with fear.

Here, Louise describes the significance of Lewis’s tome:

“I came across it early in my sobriety. And that was a magical time, because I thought I was going to die by my own hand. I was thirty-five and I couldn’t see going through another year of life, never mind another forty years. So when I asked for help and got it through a twelve step program, it seemed — and perhaps it was — a miracle. At that time, I was surprised by joy, because I had been so dark and so negative and so afraid. Then, to find happiness and the freedom that comes from not having to drink every day and finding friends, and finding myself, and finding real joy. That’s when I came across the phrase and the book Surprised by Joy.”

And this is from Louise’s January 2009 Blog Post: “At 2 years sober we’re given a medallion by our sponsors and asked what phrase we’d like engraved on it. I thought about that and chose – Surprised by Joy. A phrase I used deliberately, with gratitude, in Still Life. I keep that medallion with me always. To remember.”

Louise also had a bench made and adorned with a “Surprised by Joy” plaque for her husband, Michael’s birthday in 2007 (that’s him reflected with Trudy the dog below!). As she says, “When I met and fell in love with him I was, indeed, surprised by joy. And he was the most joyous person I’d ever met.”

Happy Birthday Michael bench

Sadly, Michael passed away last year and here is a rendition of the plaque that will soon be placed on a bench in New York’s Central Park. The bench sits on an idyllic hill and faces Louise’s apartment.

Surprised by Joy plaque

The quote below from Lewis’s work succinctly sums a theme that continuously runs through the work of Louise Penny.

“I pay respect to wisdom not to strength.”

You can almost see Gamache saying those exact same words.

Discussion Question

1. What did Clara mean by having “Surprised by Joy” engraved on Jane Neal’s tombstone?

Discussion on “Cultural Inspirations from Still Life

  1. Kay Matthews says:

    Sometimes we are so busy with life, we are not truly present and sometimes when we are truly present we are surprised by joy.

  2. Beautifully said, Kay.

  3. Beth Van Vorst Gray says:

    I am so pleased to see this opportunity to discuss your books. They are, indeed, such lush layers of human nature, love of humanity, mystery, suspense, and forgiveness for the human conditions. I have long loved the phrase “Surprised by Joy,” ever since I discovered C.S. Lewis. The phrase was an old friend when it appeared upon the pages. I keep thinking about Clara, when she painted the three old friends, leaving a space for the woman she intuitively knew was part and parcel of this scene. So she would be the one to understand the spirit of the woman and celebrate her being.

  4. Pat Lachman says:

    Sat yesterday on a friend’s porch talking about one friend’s cancer and another’s divorce, sharing compassion, when a hummingbird flew up suddenly and we all laughed aloud…surprised by joy. The relationships between the characters in the Gamache novels are so appealing and, I guess, part of the surprise is that joy is found along with death.

  5. As always, surprised by joy of your candor, a place, a tender remark wafts through the air.
    Bless you.

  6. Stephanie Saxon Levine says:

    I just finished rereading the Gamache Series in its entirety, and am delighted to hear about the next, and to read all the articles you are posting.
    There is so much that is so special about this series- the characters, the mysteries, the depth and breadth of your knowledge of literature, the often-present humor, and, above all, the world you have made for the cast and your readers. Words fail me. Thank you for sharing Three Pines and its denizens with us. And please, some day soon, return to Murder on the Beach in Delray Beach, Florida, so we can thank you in person.

  7. Nancy Hood says:

    This is lovely. An avid reader, I have only recently discovered this body of work, and have been surprised “by the joy” of Ms. Penny’s wonderful writing. Three Pines is a place we all seek, isn’t it. In the midst of all the violence and confusion, to find this mystical collection of brilliant misfits and gifted friends, the Gamache series is a true escape. So much more is the depth of her writing and the absolute beauty of her craft. Thank you for bringing us these insights to supplement the books.

  8. Sally Michalski says:

    I love the philosophy embedded in your novels. It’s been a long time since I read Still Life, so I can’t quote anything directly, but those thoughtful gems emerge as always a surprise to me.

  9. Pam Powers says:

    Yes, a phrase that describes many parts of my life as well. Thanks for sharing – I may adopt this as my own personal motto.

  10. Beth Evans says:

    Thank you Louise for the intimate details you share with your readers. I have read every Three Pines book and the characters have a special place in my heart. I look forward to every new book and now this wonderful series. Bonne Chance!

  11. Donnie says:

    Dear Louise.
    All your readers are surprised by joy at being introduced you and Gamache
    Novels.We are very lucky ,and will enjoy this new venture.

  12. Amy LaPierre says:

    I needed to read that phrase today, “Surprised by Joy”, as I face the task of attending 3 funerals in the next few days, all friends. Two young, one older, all very unexpected, one a former student- all equally tragic, all unrelated. I am facing today with the knowledge that these next three days will be filled with tears, and hugs for the families. Yet that phrase and Louise’s story leaves me hopeful with the promise that it will get better, that life will continue, that there truly will be a surprising “Joy” around the next corner. Thank you, Louise. Bless you.

  13. The reason “surprised by joy” was inscribed on Jane’s tombstone is because she was a dour person who seldom delighted in the magic of Three Pines like some of the other characters do/did.

    I love the series and look forward to the next installment. Thanks for introducing us to such a wonderful place and cast of characters, Louise.

  14. Gee-Gee Smith says:

    Louise, I have been reading a lot by Friday Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friends. He shares a lot about contemplative spirituality. He says that mature Christians see the world as “both/and”, much more than “either/or”. I think this is why I am so blessed by Gamache and Three Pines. There is a lot of inclusive, both/and thinking in Three Pines.

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