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The Alasdair Gray Archive Presents

Poor Things: A Novel Guide

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(Poor) Things are about to get interesting… You are about to step into 19th century Glasgow and experience the fiercely political, deftly satirical, Victorian inspired world of Scottish writer and artist Alasdair Gray's Poor Things, the award-winning 1992 novel which inspired director Yorgos Lanthimos' film of the same name...

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Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara, take the central narrative from Gray’s novel and bring it to life on screen. SPOILER ALERT: both film and novel tell the story of surgical genius, Godwin Baxter (Willem Defoe) who revives a drowned corpse by transplanting the brain of the woman’s unborn child into her adult skull. A galvanising jolt of electricity gives them both new life. If that story sounds a little familiar you’re not wrong...

Gray borrowed the central theme of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and transplanted it in Glasgow. The Glasgow cityscape you see on this page was drawn by Gray. Many of the characters in the film are alike those in Gray’s novel as you’ll soon see by scrolling below…

But there is one central figure missing: Glasgow. Lanthimos' feature film replaces the novel's original setting recasting Glasgow as London.

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Poor Things (1992), illustration of Bella Caledonia, courtesy AGA; Poor Things film poster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (2023), Searchlight Pictures.

Poor Things (1992), illustration of Archibald McCandless, courtesy AGA; Poor Things, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (2023), Searchlight Pictures.

Poor Things (1992), illustration of Godwin Baxter, courtesy AGA; Poor Things, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (2023), Searchlight Pictures.

Poor Things (1992), illustration of Duncan Wedderburn, courtesy AGA; Poor Things, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (2023), Searchlight Pictures.

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​​When you finally scroll to the bottom of this page you will hear from Dr Victoria McCandless. Dr Vic is another of Gray's characters who doesn’t make it into Lanthimos’ film. Or, well, she does...sort of…depending on whose story you believe. In Gray’s book, Dr Victoria McCandless is the wife of Dr Archibald McCandless (Max McCandless in the film). According to Archie, his wife is the same person as Bella Baxter. According to Victoria, Bella is a male fantasy concocted by her husband for his self-published fiction ‘Episodes from the Early Life of a Scottish Public Health Officer’. According to Gray, Archie’s book is NOT a fiction. It is, in fact, the source material for Poor Things which Gray claims he only edited. A likely story...

As you’ll soon discover, there is a great deal of ambiguous truth-telling in Poor Things and many conflicting narratives. Poor Things: A Novel Guide explores these contradictions and unmasks the city, people, places, and politics of Poor Things which makes the novel so distinctly 'Gray' and a uniquely Glasgow story.

Old Men in Love (2007) book jacket, illustration adapted for Hillhead Underground mural (2012), courtesy AGA

There are several ways of navigating the guide. Click the ENTER sign guarded by the winged foetus at the bottom of this page, and you’ll be taken to the Character Gallery. In the gallery, you’ll find portraits of Gray’s characters hung on virtual walls. Click any of the portraits and you’ll be whisked off to a new page. Each is written by one or more of A Novel Guide's contributors. The character pages explore the novel’s wider themes while closely considering the perspective of that character and contributor. Pages such as Notes Critical and Biographical give contributors biographies and a bibliography for each page. Intertexts offers a glossary of the books that inspired Gray's novel. Hunterian Anatomy Lab provides historical context on the period in which Gray's novel is set. At the end of each page, you’ll be met by one of Gray's characters. If you choose to follow them by clicking on their image, they’ll lead you to their character page. There’s lots of clicking in this novel guide and plenty of interactive video and audio content to get stuck into. If you’re feeling lost, trapped, or just fancy exploring the guide in an order of your choice that’s ok too. You can access any page by clicking the menu at the top right-hand side of each page. If you’ve never used the guide before, the Synopsis is a good place to start.

But perhaps you might delay your journey to hear what Victoria McCandless has to say?


Do not click play

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