Reader’s Guide

City of God

City of God

Written by:
Translated by: Henry Bettenson



City of God opens a vast window on a range of religious, scientific, historic, and aesthetic concerns. E. L. Doctorow’s novel promises to strike readers as a wonderfully unusual novel with a liberating narrative technique that breaks many of the so-called “rules” of the novel and also echoes and riffs on styles and themes from a wide range of literary and historical antecedents. The works of such disparate authors as John Dos Passos, Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin, Tony Kushner, Elie Wiesel, and Jorge Luis Borges might be discussed alongside City of God with fruitful results.

A novel as thematically playful, nonlinear, and wide-ranging as City of God invites a similarly atypical approach to discussing it in a reading group. Hardly a narrative suitable for chapter-by-chapter analyses and succinct plot summaries, Doctorow’s novel concerns itself centrally with the kind of capital “M” mysteries (the natures of God, creation, and human destiny) that finally defy satisfying solutions. Casting readers as apprenticing detectives to the Reverend Dr. Thomas Pemberton, the self-anointed Divinity Detective, City of God allows for a lot of intellectual “play” and features what Doctorow has called a “kitchen sink” prose style. The book conflates all sorts of literary forms and genres and serves up a stew of fragmented biographical sketches, Homeric verse poems, prayers, and jazz-like improvisations on pop standards, all of which orbit around the narrative’s central issue—the mystery of the stolen cross.

The plot of City of God, such as it is, will likely seem confusing to readers because it is so fragmented and jittery, and because the narrative, especially at the outset, rarely supplies us with the standard clues to establish who is speaking and what the situation is. A useful metaphor which could be discussed and assigned to the novel is that of an intricate puzzle, the assembly of which is up to the reading group to perform together. Perhaps more than any book since Joyce’s Ulysses, City of God all but defies critical distillation or reduction. And like Ulysses, City of God is more than anything a work of skilled mimesis, mirroring in prose the nature of one New York writer’s consciousness and concerns at the dawn of the twenty-first century.


Named for Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow occupies a central position in the history of American literature. On a shortlist that might also include Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow is generally considered to be among the most talented, ambitious, and admired novelists of the second half of the twentieth century. Long celebrated for his vivid evocations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American life (particularly New York life), Doctorow has received the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howell Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal.

Doctorow was born in New York City on January 6, 1931, and, like the novelist Everett in City of God, attended the Bronx High School of Science. After graduating with honors from Kenyon College in 1952, he did graduate work at Columbia University and served in the U.S. Army, which stationed him in Germany. In 1954, he married Helen Setzer. They have three children. Doctorow was senior editor for New American Library from 1959 to 1964 and then served as editor in chief at Dial Press until 1969. Since then, he has devoted his time to writing and teaching. He holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters at New York University and over the years has taught at several institutions, including Yale University Drama School, Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of California, Irvine.

With The Book of Daniel, his third novel, Doctorow emerged as an important American novelist with a strongly political bent. A fictional retelling of the notorious Rosenberg spy case, the novel deftly evokes the complex anxieties of Cold War America, shuttling back and forth in time from the 1950s, when Paul and Roselle Isaacson are convicted and electrocuted, to the late 1960s, when their troubled son, Daniel, a grad student at Columbia, must deal with the consequences of his unusual birthright. The Book of Daniel was adapted in 1983 into the film, Daniel, starring Timothy Hutton and directed by Sidney Lumet. Four years after The Book of Daniel came Ragtime, a dazzling reimagining of the United States at the dawn of the twentieth century by means of a plot that, like City of God, ingeniously brings together real-life figures—such as Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, and Emma Goldman—with an array of invented characters. Ragtime was named one of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century by the editorial board of the Modern Library and was adapted into a successful Broadway musical in 1998.

Widely acclaimed for the beauty of his prose, his innovative narratives, his feel for atmospherics, and above all for his talent for evoking the past in a way that makes it at once mysterious and familiar, Doctorow has created one of the most substantial bodies of work of any living American writer.


“The greatest American novel of the past 50 years . . . reading City of God restores one’s faith in literature.”
Houston Chronicle

“Sparkles with Mr. Doctorow’s rich language and ideas.”
The Wall Street Journal

City of God blooms with a humor and a humanity that carries triumphant as intelligent a novel as one might hope to find these days.” —Los Angeles Times


Billy Bathgate

The Book of Daniel

City of God

Lives of the Poets

Loon Lake


The Waterworks

Welcome to Hard Times

World’s Fair

  • One critic has written that City of God is a story about storytelling—about the ubiquity of narrative; about the whole of language existing as a storytelling tool to reflect and respond to reality; about consciousness perceived as a narrative (hi)story. Do you agree with this characterization? Discuss the dozens of stories that comprise Doctorow’s book, from the story of the universe to Yehoshua’s ghetto narrative, highlighting the interplay that exists among them.

  • Discuss the structure, language, and imagery of City of God. In what ways does it mimic or recreate the rhythms of contemporary thought and life? How might Doctorow’s structure—full as it is of spiraling ideas, images, and themes which recur and continually double back on themselves—be viewed as a sort of jazz-like innovation on the Wagnerian leitmotif? To what end do these spiraling repetitions of theme progress? How do they all relate to and riff upon the central mystery of the missing cross?

  • When Pem goes to the cancer ward just after leaving the priesthood, he encounters a group of dying people singing twentieth-century standards. Discuss the implications of this scene. Why does it affect Pem the way it does? What does it mean when the pop song, that most “self-referential” and instantly recognizable of all musical genres, is transformed into a sort of secular hymnal?

  • Compare and contrast the spiritual and metaphysical quests of Pem, Everett, and Sarah.

  • Chart the course of Pem’s relationship with Sarah Blumenthal, from their first meeting at the synagogue where the stolen cross is discovered, to their wedding reception at the close of the book. What qualities attract Pem to Sarah? Sarah to Pem? And in terms of the book’s major themes, what are the implications of their union? How does their marriage affect Everett? What is it about these two ecclesiastics that Everett finds so fascinating?

  • You say all history has contrived to pour this beer into my glass,” says the nameless Vietnam veteran to Everett. Later, Pem speaks of “a great historically amassed communal creation.” And finally, much earlier in the novel, Rabbi Joshua asks, “Is time a loop? Do you have the same feeling I have—that everything seems to be running backwards? That civilization is in reverse?at is going on in all of these lines? What theme is Doctorow underscoring here?

  • How might the Jewish notion of Messianic time, in which all of history becomes meaningful retrospectively by the sudden and unexpected coming of the Messiah, be linked to the themes in City of God?

  • City of God is one of those perfect books for reading clubs and discussions among friends, because much of the power in this novel derives from what the author leaves unsaid, from what lies in the spaces between the characters’ perceptions, and from the ways Doctorow invites the reader to draw her/his own conclusions and make her/his own conjectures. Discuss your reactions to Doctorow’s characters and their relationships to each other. What techniques does the author use to develop the novel’s central characters? What particular qualities make these people so believable and/or affecting?

  • Discuss the book’s extended portrait of the man who discovers that his life is gradually becoming a movie. What is going on here? Fill in the blanks of Doctorow’s metaphor.

  • Pem ferociously struggles with the Judeo-Christian tradition—in much the way his real-life forebear, James Pike, did—because it appears to him to be more a narrative about power, genocidal destruction, and the renunciation of human reason and intellect than about faith, hope, and love. “I take the position that true faith is not a supersessional knowledge. It cannot discard the intellect. . . . How can we presume to exalt our religious vision over the ordinary pursuits of our rational minds?” Interpret Pem’s remarks here to the bishop’s examiners. Then re-read Pem’s crowning toast at the wedding, the culmination of his struggle. How does this impassioned and captivating speech serve to bring together the myriad fragments that have preceded it in City of God?
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