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. Paul Blauer says:

    This is a wonderful piece, very inspiring. I’m so sorry for Louise’s loss. I’m looking forward to Inspector Gamache’s return!

    Thank you for the great reads.

    Paul Blauer
    Munith Michigan

    • Catherine Sullivan says:

      This discussion allows me to clarify for myself that the gift of Louise’s writing emanates from a place of spiritual maturity. This informs her characters and makes for multifaceted characters and stories.

      Thank you Louise for doing the required prep work.

      • Duffy Grove says:

        I so agree with this comment. I feel exactly the same.

      • Cheri Matthews says:

        Thank you, Catherine, for your expression “spiritual maturity”. It so resonates with me and what I search for in literature, what Louise provides, what is probably the cause of her success. It also opened my eyes to what I search for in friendships and in leadership. Maybe we all do.

      • Deborah Knittel says:

        Yes, that is it exactly! Emanating from a place of spiritual maturity. I feel that with every tead but could not put it into words. Thank you for doing that for me.

  2. Jayne Harbour says:

    She knew from the book at her bedside, that the meaning of transcending from life can be a joyous thing. Jane lived a simple but joyous life. Thanks for sharing, I have 34 years of sobriety.

    • Michele Harris says:

      Congratulations Jayne! What a wonderful tribute to your strength and courage!

    • Alison Malkin says:

      Congratulations, Jayne! A wonderful accomplishment. I have found comfort in the rereadings of the series. And I just recalled that when I was younger- much younger- I found that same comfort in reteading the CS Lewis Narnia series. I hope we all can find comfort and continue to be surprised by joy.

    • Margo Nagle says:

      Louise please accept my condolences for the death of your .courageous husband. I am grateful to you for including us your readers in the post.
      I’, sober 31 years this past May 30! Hooray for all of us.
      Reading these comments reveals to me why I savor and absorb the Gamach series so passionately. The books drag me kicking and screaming through dark places, as did my drinking. Then thank God they return me to the bench in Three Pines and to the gratitude and joy in my life now.
      I just finished the 12th book. I am encouraged by this discussion to go back and read them all again!

      • Mary Pitner says:

        Margo, Congratulations to you as well on your outstanding 31-year accomplishment! There is no way to describe that except AWESOME!

    • Mary Pitner says:

      Jayne, congratulations! What a wonderful gift you have given yourself! Best wishes!

  3. Harriet Rynkiewicz says:

    Loved this article. Looking forward to more insights into the themes and cultural references, which undoubtedly will bring me back to the joy of rereading Ms. Penny’s gems. Shalom.

  4. Louisa (Lisa Ann) Shampine says:

    I did not know you were a Friend of Bill’s also, Louise! 9 months last week. And I, too, have been surprised by joy. I look forward to more of this.

  5. Nanci Fletcher says:

    I read this long ago, now i want to go back and read it again. I love that you are doing this, gives evn more insight into the books. cant wait ti hear about A Trick of the Light, my all time favorite

    • Barb Kling says:

      Do it! I reread the first 3 last summer and plan on rereading the next 3 this summer…..takes the edge off the wait. Because they have so many layers and the character development is so true, you will have a new experience. Enjoy!

      • RobbieBe says:

        The layers are what I love too. Along with each book highliğting art in some way.

      • Phyllis says:

        Second read of Still Life was so much BETTER! I made my way through the series once and couldn’t wait for a new one so starting over to join a newly formed discussion group of other lovers of this wonderful series. I appreciate so much Minatous web site with the references and these discussions. Louise has indeed dug deep into her heart and soul to know such beauty along with joy and loss. Stay strong, all of you, there is so much joy to be found.

  6. Leslie M. Thomas says:

    While living with grief, I have been surprised by joy and it has always been a lift ~ like seeing daffodils in the snow.

  7. Sonia Cotarelo says:

    I love the idea of exploring some of the deeper meanings in the books. I think doing this will spark some great discussions and ideas. Being surprised by joy is a wonderful way to live your life. Oftentimes we become jaded and negative. We have to learn to see the good, the beauty, the positive etc. in every situation, in every day, even in times when it may be difficult. This will help make our lives happy and worthwhile. We just have to be open.

  8. Barb Kling says:

    What a fabulous idea for a article series! I enjoyed the food article series, but this ….. I now have to read Lewis’ Surprised by Joy.

  9. Donna Taylor says:

    Thank you for sharing these insights. You have zeroed in on one of the reasons I so live your writing. It isn’t just what the plot is doing, but also what you are offering in and under the action. I also may have to start rereading again! Looking forward to this series of insights.

  10. Diane Hines says:

    This is such a beautiful idea. Whenever I read any of your books, I always have a pen and notebook next to me, to write down a phrase of wisdom, an exceptionally revealing image, an insight that your words give me. Thank you for doing this. I love being surprised by joy.

  11. Deanna Peters says:

    I finished A Great Reckoning yesterday. Tears came to my eyes when I read the final line. I have loved all the Gamache books, but this one spoke to my heart. I was surprised by joy when I read about exploring the themes and cultural influences.

  12. Leslie Jones says:

    And now Louise will be getting more people to read CS Lewis, which is a great thing! Deep thoughts from Louise’s characters are what make them seem so real and human. I love your books, LP, and love that you inscribed the benches with Surprised by Joy.

    • chris says:

      I cannot believe how great your insights are and all these thoughtful sharings are bringing me joy as I read them. I’ve never followed an author like this before. wow. thank you so much for all you are giving us. I too will read this c.s. lewis piece. I lost my husband 18 mos ago and he brought me so much joy. wow.

  13. Terri says:

    My best friend repeatedly told me that I should read ‘the Gamache books’ by Louise Penny. She said they were my kind of book. Finally I bought Still Life….and the rest is, well you know ❤️ I love the phrase surprised by joy, it makes me think of the feeling I get, if I am feeling sad and my grandson comes and gives me a big hug. The joy creeps in, then begins to grow!

  14. Lynn Davis says:

    I LOVE your books and re-post all of your messages on my FB page. I have gotten MANY of my friends to become your loyal readers. Thank you for the “joy” you give to all of us.

  15. Ellen Murphy says:

    I love these books and can’t wait for the next one! I think we are surprised by joy whenever we see an unexpected full moon or dark sky full of bright stars. A friend who calls unexpectedly and makes you laugh. A dog that snuggles next to you. A daffodil in the snow (as mentioned in a previous post). The smell of chocolate chip cookies baking! The simple things of our life that we take for granted can often seem routine and go unnoticed…until the world shifts a millimeter and we actually see them and are surprised that they mean so much.

    • Chris MacNaughton says:


    • Donice Gilliland says:

      So true – these simple pleasures are truly where we can be – and need to be – surprised by joy. Living through the challenges this world is bringing daily requires that we be attuned to such. Thank you, Louise, for adding such beauty and depth of joy, to so many lives!

    • Katherine Leff says:

      Love your and all the comments. I have always loved the phrase “Surprised by Joy” since first encountering it in Still Life, but, having the full, “behind the scenes” story from Louise makes it even more special. I too am inspired to reread the entire Gamache series while I await the newest book. I just love magical Three Pines, its’ cozy, natural beauty, and the relationships therein. Thank-you Louise yet again, for everything you give to your readers!

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