The Burgess Boys

Elizabeth Strout


“The Burgess Boys” by Elizabeth Strout is a captivating novel that delves into the complex dynamics of family relationships, personal growth, and the impact of the past on the present. Elizabeth Strout, an American novelist known for her deep character studies and engaging narratives, masterfully weaves the tale of the Burgess family, setting it against the backdrop of Brooklyn, New York, and Shirley Falls, Maine. This book falls into the genre of contemporary fiction, offering a poignant and reflective exploration of life’s intricacies 📚.

Strout, acclaimed for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Olive Kitteridge,” continues to charm readers with her detailed storytelling and rich character development in “The Burgess Boys.” The novel not only entertains but also provides insightful commentary on themes such as guilt, redemption, and the immigrant experience in America, making it a thought-provoking read.

Plot Summary

“The Burgess Boys” unfolds the story of the Burgess family, particularly focusing on the brothers Jim and Bob, and their sister Susan. Here’s how the plot develops:

Exposition — The novel introduces us to the Burgess siblings: Jim, a successful attorney; Bob, a kind-hearted but less accomplished lawyer; and Susan, a single mother struggling in Shirley Falls, Maine. The narrative sets up their complicated family dynamics and past traumas, including a childhood accident that haunts them.

Rising Action — Tension escalates when Susan’s son, Zach, throws a pig’s head into a local mosque, sparking a hate crime accusation and community uproar. This incident forces the Burgess boys back to their hometown, bringing unresolved issues to the surface.

Climax — The peak of the novel occurs as family secrets are revealed, testing the siblings’ relationships. Jim and Bob confront their long-standing rivalries and grievances, while Susan deals with her own resentment and loneliness.

Falling Action — As the legal and emotional fallout of Zach’s act unfolds, the siblings must navigate their complex feelings of guilt, blame, and loyalty. They start to see each other and their past in a new light.

Resolution — The story concludes with a sense of tentative reconciliation and understanding among the Burgess family members. They come to accept their imperfections and move forward with a newfound appreciation for one another.

Throughout the book, Strout masterfully shifts between the past and present, providing a deep and nuanced view of the Burgess family’s life and struggles.

Character Analysis

Jim Burgess — Jim is the eldest Burgess sibling, a successful lawyer in New York City known for his charisma and confidence. However, beneath his successful exterior lies a complex personality marked by guilt, superiority, and a deep-seated fear of failure. Throughout the novel, his motivations are often driven by a desire to maintain his image and escape the shadows of his family’s past.

Bob Burgess — The middle sibling, Bob is kind-hearted, self-deprecating, and often seen as the underachiever of the family. Despite his successes, he constantly lives in the shadow of his brother Jim. Bob’s character evolves significantly throughout the story, as he confronts his insecurities and past traumas, leading to a journey of self-discovery and empowerment.

Susan Burgess — Susan, the youngest, lives in Shirley Falls and struggles with loneliness and resentment after her divorce. Her life takes a dramatic turn when her son, Zach, commits a hate crime. Throughout the novel, Susan’s character is explored in-depth, revealing her inner strength and complexities as she navigates the challenges of single parenthood and reconnects with her brothers.

Zach Burgess — Zach’s actions serve as the catalyst for the novel’s main events. A quiet and introspective teenager, he struggles with identity and belonging. His journey through the legal and emotional ramifications of his actions provides a critical look at adolescence, belonging, and the search for identity.

Character Analysis Summary:

CharacterPersonality TraitsMotivationsDevelopment
Jim BurgessConfident, Charismatic, Guilt-riddenDesire to maintain image, escape pastFaces personal demons, understanding of family
Bob BurgessKind-hearted, Self-deprecatingSearch for self-worth, escape brother’s shadowGains self-awareness, confronts past
Susan BurgessLonely, ResentfulNeed for connection, handling single parenthoodFinds inner strength, reconnects with siblings
Zach BurgessIntroverted, MisunderstoodSearch for identity, belongingFaces consequences, seeks understanding

Themes and Symbols


Family Dynamics and Secrets: The Burgess Boys delves into the intricate dynamics within the Burgess family, revealing how past secrets and traumas shape relationships. The novel explores the tensions, misunderstandings, and bonds that develop over time, highlighting the impact of family history on individual identity and behavior.

Guilt and Redemption: Strout examines the theme of guilt, both in terms of personal mistakes and perceived failures. The characters grapple with their past actions and inactions, leading to a quest for redemption and forgiveness. This theme is crucial in understanding the characters’ motivations and transformations.

Immigration and Cultural Conflict: The book presents the immigrant experience and cultural conflicts through the lens of a small Maine community reacting to a hate crime. It addresses the complexities of assimilation, prejudice, and the struggle for acceptance, reflecting broader societal issues.


The Pig’s Head: In the novel, the pig’s head thrown into the mosque is a potent symbol of hate and ignorance. It represents the underlying racial and cultural tensions in Shirley Falls, serving as a catalyst for the unfolding events and personal introspections of the characters.

Brooklyn and Shirley Falls: The contrasting settings of Brooklyn, New York, and Shirley Falls, Maine, symbolize the different worlds the Burgess siblings inhabit. These places reflect the themes of belonging, identity, and the dichotomy between urban and rural America.

The Burgess Family Home: The family home in Shirley Falls stands as a symbol of the past, holding memories and secrets that define the Burgess family’s legacy. It represents both comfort and confinement, influencing the siblings’ perceptions of themselves and each other.

Through these themes and symbols, Elizabeth Strout weaves a rich narrative that captures the complexities of life, family, and society, making “The Burgess Boys” a deeply resonant and thought-provoking novel.

Style and Tone

“The Burgess Boys” by Elizabeth Strout showcases her distinctive writing style and tone, which play a crucial role in shaping the novel’s atmosphere and emotional depth. Here’s how Strout’s style and tone contribute to the narrative:

  • Nuanced Character Portrayal: Strout employs a detailed, introspective style that delves into the inner workings of her characters. Her ability to capture their thoughts and emotions in a nuanced manner adds depth and realism to the story.
  • Multiple Perspectives: The novel’s narrative shifts between different characters’ perspectives, allowing readers to understand the events and relationships from various angles. This multiplicity of voices contributes to a comprehensive and empathetic view of the Burgess family dynamics.
  • Elegant Prose: Strout’s writing is known for its clarity and elegance. Her prose is both accessible and profound, making complex emotions and situations understandable and relatable to the reader.
  • Atmospheric Details: The settings of Brooklyn and Shirley Falls are depicted with rich details, reflecting the contrasting lifestyles and cultural atmospheres of urban and rural America. These descriptions enhance the mood and underscore the characters’ feelings of belonging or alienation.
  • Subtle Humor and Irony: While tackling serious themes, Strout incorporates subtle humor and irony, especially in character interactions and inner monologues. This lightness adds a layer of complexity to the narrative, balancing the more poignant moments.

In summary, Elizabeth Strout’s writing style and tone in “The Burgess Boys” are integral to its impact, offering readers a deeply engaging and emotionally resonant experience. Her skillful narrative technique, combined with a keen insight into human nature, makes the novel a compelling and insightful read.

Literary Devices Used in The Burgess Boys

  1. Metaphor — Strout uses metaphors to convey complex emotions and themes, such as comparing the Burgess family’s unresolved issues to a “dark, tangled garden,” suggesting hidden depths and neglected problems that influence their lives.
  2. Simile — Through similes, Strout vividly describes characters and settings, like saying someone is “like a bird, ready to fly away,” which captures the person’s restless, fragile nature.
  3. Foreshadowing — Events or conversations hint at future developments, building tension and anticipation. For instance, early mentions of the Burgess family accident set the stage for understanding its full impact later in the story.
  4. Flashback — The narrative often shifts to the past, revealing the history of the Burgess family. These flashbacks are crucial for understanding the characters’ present actions and motivations.
  5. Irony — Situational irony is present when outcomes are unexpected, such as Jim’s façade of success hiding his inner turmoil, highlighting the difference between appearance and reality.
  6. Symbolism — Objects or events, like the pig’s head, symbolize larger themes such as cultural conflict and racism, adding layers of meaning to the story.
  7. Imagery — Strout uses detailed imagery to create vivid scenes and emotions, such as the descriptive portrayal of Shirley Falls, which brings the setting to life and enhances the atmosphere.
  8. Personification — At times, Strout gives human traits to inanimate objects or abstract concepts, enhancing the narrative’s emotional impact, like describing time as “crawling” or “rushing.”
  9. Dialogue — The dialogues in the book reveal character traits, social dynamics, and pivotal moments, serving as a direct way to understand the characters and their relationships.
  10. Stream of Consciousness — This technique is used to represent the continuous flow of thoughts and feelings in the characters’ minds, providing a deeper insight into their inner lives and personal struggles.

These literary devices enrich Elizabeth Strout’s narrative in “The Burgess Boys,” adding depth and complexity to the storytelling, character development, and thematic exploration.

Literary Devices Examples

Here are examples and explanations for the top 10 literary devices used in “The Burgess Boys”:


  1. Example: “Jim’s career was a towering skyscraper, while Bob’s was a mere shack.” Explanation: This metaphor compares the brothers’ careers to buildings, emphasizing the vast difference in their success and perceptions of self-worth.
  2. Example: “Her loneliness was a silent house, empty and cold.” Explanation: Susan’s loneliness is compared to an empty house, conveying the depth of her isolation and sadness.
  3. Example: “The past was a shadow, always lurking behind.” Explanation: The past is metaphorically described as a shadow to illustrate its persistent and often haunting presence in the characters’ lives.


  1. Example: “Bob felt like a leaf, blown away by his family’s storms.” Explanation: This simile illustrates Bob’s sense of powerlessness and instability within the family dynamics.
  2. Example: “Her words were like ice, freezing the conversation.” Explanation: This simile is used to describe the chilling effect of Susan’s harsh words on a conversation, highlighting her emotional distance.
  3. Example: “Zach’s guilt gnawed at him like a hungry rat.” Explanation: The simile conveys the intense and destructive nature of Zach’s guilt.


  1. Example: Early mentions of a childhood accident hint at its significant impact later in the story. Explanation: This foreshadowing sets up the revelation of how the accident has affected the Burgess siblings’ lives and relationships.
  2. Example: “Jim’s offhand comments about happiness seemed trivial but were ominous.” Explanation: These comments foreshadow the unraveling of Jim’s seemingly perfect life.
  3. Example: “The quiet in Shirley Falls was too pronounced, like the calm before a storm.” Explanation: This foreshadowing suggests impending turmoil in the community and the Burgess family.

Each literary device example showcases how Elizabeth Strout effectively uses these techniques to deepen the narrative, develop characters, and enhance thematic resonance in “The Burgess Boys.”

The Burgess Boys – FAQs

Q: What is the central conflict in ‘The Burgess Boys’? A: The central conflict revolves around the Burgess family’s struggle to reconcile their past traumas and misunderstandings, particularly following the incident involving Zach throwing a pig’s head into a mosque, which brings underlying familial and personal issues to the forefront.

Q: How does Elizabeth Strout portray the theme of guilt in the novel? A: Strout explores guilt through the characters’ internal struggles and interactions, showing how past actions and accidents shape their present lives, leading to feelings of responsibility, remorse, and the desire for redemption.

Q: What role does the setting play in ‘The Burgess Boys’? A: The contrasting settings of Brooklyn and Shirley Falls are integral to the story, symbolizing the characters’ inner conflicts and the dichotomy between urban and rural life. They reflect the Burgess siblings’ backgrounds, shaping their identities and life choices.

Q: Can ‘The Burgess Boys’ be considered a character-driven novel? A: Yes, ‘The Burgess Boys’ is a character-driven novel, focusing on the development, complexities, and interactions of the Burgess family members. The plot is largely propelled by their personal growth, relationships, and the consequences of their actions.

Q: What is the significance of the title ‘The Burgess Boys’? A: The title refers to the Burgess brothers, Jim and Bob, highlighting their central role in the story. It underscores the theme of family legacy and the expectations and burdens associated with their family name and personal histories.

Q: How does the novel address the theme of cultural conflict? A: Cultural conflict is addressed through the incident of Zach’s hate crime and its repercussions, which bring to light the tensions and prejudices within the Shirley Falls community, as well as the challenges faced by Somali immigrants there.

Q: What literary devices does Elizabeth Strout use most effectively in ‘The Burgess Boys’? A: Strout effectively uses flashbacks, multiple perspectives, and detailed character analysis to provide depth to the story, allowing readers to fully engage with the complex emotions and backgrounds of the characters.


  1. What triggers the main events in ‘The Burgess Boys’?
    • A. Jim’s new job
    • B. Bob’s move to Shirley Falls
    • C. Zach’s hate crime incident
    • D. Susan’s divorce
  2. Which character is known for their successful career as a lawyer?
    • A. Bob Burgess
    • B. Jim Burgess
    • C. Susan Burgess
    • D. Zach Burgess
  3. How does the novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ primarily explore its themes?
    • A. Through detailed landscape descriptions
    • B. Through the family’s historical legacy
    • C. Through the character’s personal development and interactions
    • D. Through the use of supernatural elements
  4. What symbolizes the cultural conflict in the novel?
    • A. The Brooklyn Bridge
    • B. The Burgess family home
    • C. The pig’s head incident
    • D. Jim’s law firm
  5. Where is the setting of ‘The Burgess Boys’?
    • A. Mainly in New York City
    • B. In Shirley Falls and New York City
    • C. In Boston and Maine
    • D. Entirely in Shirley Falls
  6. What literary device is used to reveal the characters’ past in ‘The Burgess Boys’?
  7. Who feels overshadowed by their sibling in ‘The Burgess Boys’?
    • A. Jim
    • B. Bob
    • C. Susan
    • D. Zach
  8. What is a major theme of ‘The Burgess Boys’?
    • A. Technology and progress
    • B. Family dynamics and secrets
    • C. Adventure and exploration
    • D. Political intrigue
  9. Which setting in ‘The Burgess Boys’ symbolizes the contrast between urban and rural life?
    • A. The law office
    • B. The mosque
    • C. Shirley Falls and Brooklyn
    • D. The Burgess family home
  10. What does the character development in ‘The Burgess Boys’ mainly focus on?
    • A. Overcoming external conflicts
    • B. Achieving professional success
    • C. Personal growth and understanding familial relationships
    • D. Solving a mystery

Correct answers are intended to test the reader’s comprehension and understanding of the novel’s plot, characters, themes, and settings.


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from ‘The Burgess Boys’:

“Jim’s voice echoed in the spacious, empty courtroom, sounding more like a melody than a plea. The walls, adorned with the faded portraits of past judges, seemed to lean in, absorbing every word. Outside, the city breathed a rhythm of life that felt distant yet persistent, as if whispering secrets meant only for those attuned to its language.”


  1. Metaphor: “Jim’s voice…sounding more like a melody than a plea” – This metaphor compares Jim’s voice to music, enhancing the description of the scene and conveying the persuasive, flowing quality of his speech.
  2. Personification: “The walls…seemed to lean in, absorbing every word” – The walls are personified as if they are active listeners, intensifying the atmosphere of the courtroom and the importance of Jim’s speech.
  3. Imagery: “The city breathed a rhythm of life” – This imagery vividly captures the essence of the city’s atmosphere, personifying it as a living entity with its own rhythm, enhancing the setting’s dynamic presence.
  4. Simile: “as if whispering secrets meant only for those attuned to its language” – This simile compares the distant sounds of the city to whispered secrets, suggesting a deeper connection and understanding for those who are aware.