We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

By Karen Joy Fowler


Welcome to the enchanting world of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler! πŸ“šβœ¨ Published in 2013, this thought-provoking novel dives deep into the complexities of family dynamics, human nature, and the blurred lines between humanity and animality. Karen Joy Fowler, an American author known for her captivating storytelling and unique characters, presents a narrative that’s both heartwarming and heart-wrenching, leaving readers to ponder long after the last page is turned.

Set against the backdrop of a seemingly ordinary American family with an extraordinary secret, the novel belongs to the contemporary fiction genre, sprinkled with elements of psychological drama and humor. Fowler’s work here is a testament to her versatile writing prowess, effortlessly weaving themes of identity, memory, and ethics through the fabric of her narrative.

Join us as we embark on a journey through the intricate world of Rosemary Cooke and her unconventional family. Whether you’re a long-time fan of Karen Joy Fowler or new to her work, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves promises a rollercoaster of emotions and insights. πŸŒŸπŸ“˜

Plot Summary

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves unfolds the complex and compelling story of the Cooke family, particularly focusing on the youngest member, Rosemary Cooke. Here’s how the story progresses:

Exposition β€” The novel begins in medias res with Rosemary Cooke, now a college student, reflecting on her family’s past. She hints at a significant event that led to the disappearance of her sister, Fern, but the details are initially obscured.

Rising Action β€” Through flashbacks, we learn that Fern is not a human but a chimpanzee, raised alongside Rosemary as part of a psychological experiment conducted by their father, a university professor. The narrative details the close bond between Rosemary and Fern during their early years, and how Fern’s removal from the family deeply affected everyone, especially Rosemary.

Climax β€” The central turning point occurs when Rosemary, after years of silence, decides to confront her past and unravel the truth about Fern’s sudden disappearance. This decision leads her to reunite with her estranged brother, Lowell, who has been on the run for years due to his involvement with animal rights activism.

Falling Action β€” Rosemary’s journey to find Fern and understand her brother’s choices forces her to confront painful truths about her family, the experiment, and herself. She grapples with feelings of guilt, loss, and the realization of how her parents’ choices have irrevocably shaped their lives.

Resolution β€” The novel concludes with Rosemary coming to terms with her past and the role she played in her family’s dynamics. She learns to accept her identity and the complexities of her relationship with Fern. The story ends with a semblance of closure for Rosemary, as she finds a way to move forward while acknowledging her past.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a deeply emotional narrative that explores themes of family, identity, and the ethical boundaries of scientific research. Through Rosemary’s journey, Karen Joy Fowler invites readers to question the nature of humanity and the impact of our choices on those we consider different.

Character Analysis

In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler crafts a set of vivid, complex characters whose lives and choices are central to the narrative’s exploration of memory, identity, and ethics. Here’s a closer look at the main characters:

  • Rosemary Cooke β€” The narrator and protagonist, Rosemary, starts her story in the middle of her life, at college, far away from her family. As a child, she was talkative and lively, but the loss of Fern and the subsequent departure of her brother, Lowell, profoundly impact her, rendering her withdrawn. Her journey through the novel is one of self-discovery and reconciliation with her past.
  • Fern β€” Fern, a chimpanzee, is raised as Rosemary’s sister in a unique experiment by their father. Her removal from the family is the pivotal event around which the narrative revolves. Fern’s presence and absence shape the family, highlighting themes of otherness, family, and what it means to be human.
  • Lowell Cooke β€” Rosemary’s older brother, Lowell, becomes deeply involved in animal rights activism as a response to Fern’s treatment and eventual disappearance. His actions reflect a struggle with moral and ethical dilemmas, making him a complex character whose ideals conflict with his actions.
  • The Cooke Parents β€” Rosemary’s parents are significant to the narrative, primarily through their decisions and the secrets they keep. Their father, a psychology professor, initiates Fern’s adoption into the family for his research, while their mother struggles with the experiment’s ethical implications and its impact on her human children.

Here’s a summary table for a quick overview:

Rosemary CookeInitially talkative and lively; becomes more withdrawnSeeking understanding and reconciliation with her pastGrows to accept her identity and past; learns to move forward
FernChimpanzee raised as a human; central to the family’s dynamicSymbolizes the blurred lines between human and animalHer absence forces each family member to confront their actions and beliefs
Lowell CookeAnimal rights activist; conflicted and passionateDriven by guilt and a sense of justice for Fern and other animalsHis journey reflects the complexities of activism and familial loyalty
The Cooke ParentsComplicated figures, with their own sets of beliefs and secretsMotivated by scientific curiosity, ethical considerations, and familial protectionTheir actions and decisions reveal the ethical dilemmas and consequences of their experiment

Karen Joy Fowler’s characters in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are deeply human, flawed, and relatable, each navigating their complicated feelings and relationships, which makes the novel’s exploration of family, ethics, and identity all the more poignant.

Themes and Symbols

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is rich with themes and symbols that explore the complexities of identity, family, ethics, and the human condition. Here’s an in-depth look at the major themes and symbols present in the novel:


  • Family and Identity β€” The novel scrutinizes the dynamics within the Cooke family, particularly focusing on how the members define themselves in relation to one another and the impact of Fern’s presence and absence on their identities. It challenges conventional notions of family and asks what it means to belong.
  • Humanity and Animal Rights β€” Through the story of Fern, a chimpanzee raised as a human, the book probes the ethical boundaries of scientific research and the treatment of animals. It questions the arbitrary distinctions made between humans and other animals, highlighting the moral responsibilities humans have towards all sentient beings.
  • Memory and Perception β€” Rosemary’s narrative is heavily influenced by her memories, which she acknowledges may be unreliable. The novel explores how our perceptions and memories shape our reality and identity, and how revisiting and reinterpreting past events can lead to understanding and healing.
  • Ethics and Morality β€” Central to the narrative is the ethical dilemma posed by the experiment that the Cooke family participates in. The novel examines the consequences of blurring ethical lines for scientific advancement, personal ambition, or even love, prompting a reflection on the limits of moral flexibility.


  • The Puppet β€” Rosemary’s childhood puppet serves as a symbol of her lost innocence and the simpler times before her family was irrevocably changed. It also represents her silenced voice and the persona she adopts to cope with her trauma.
  • Mirrors β€” Mirrors in the novel symbolize self-reflection and the quest for identity. They reflect the dualities within characters and the often uncomfortable truth about how they see themselves versus how they are perceived by others.
  • The Lab β€” The laboratory where Fern is taken symbolizes the cold, calculating side of scientific research, devoid of ethical considerations. It represents humanity’s tendency to prioritize knowledge and progress over compassion and empathy.
  • The Maze β€” Used in psychological experiments in the novel, the maze is a symbol of the complex emotional and ethical labyrinth that each character navigates. It represents the search for understanding, the quest for answers, and the often circuitous path toward resolution.

Through these themes and symbols, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves delves deep into the heart of what it means to be human, challenging readers to reflect on their own beliefs and assumptions about family, identity, and the ethical treatment of all beings.

Style and Tone

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is marked by a distinctive writing style and tone that play crucial roles in unfolding the narrative and engaging the reader. Here’s how these elements contribute to the mood and atmosphere of the book:

  • Conversational and Reflective Tone β€” Fowler employs a conversational tone through Rosemary, the narrator, who speaks directly to the reader. This approach makes the complex themes more accessible and the narrative engaging. Rosemary’s reflective insights add depth, inviting readers to ponder alongside her.
  • Humor Amidst Tragedy β€” Despite the heavy themes of loss, identity, and ethical dilemmas, Fowler interjects humor throughout the narrative. This balance of light and dark serves to humanize the characters, making their experiences and the moral questions raised more relatable.
  • Non-linear Storytelling β€” The narrative structure is non-linear, with Rosemary recounting her memories out of chronological order. This technique mirrors the way memory works, emphasizing the theme of recollection and perception. It also maintains suspense and encourages active engagement from the reader to piece together the story.
  • Rich Descriptions and Imagery β€” Fowler uses vivid descriptions and imagery to bring scenes to life, creating an immersive reading experience. Whether describing the Cooke family home or the lab where Fern is kept, the detailed settings contribute to the emotional weight of the narrative.
  • Emotional Depth β€” The writing style is notable for its emotional depth. Fowler captures the complexities of the Cooke family’s relationships and individual struggles with sensitivity and nuance. The tone fluctuates appropriately to match the narrative’s mood, drawing readers into the characters’ inner worlds.
  • Themes Integration β€” Fowler skillfully integrates themes into the narrative without them feeling forced or didactic. Through the characters’ experiences and the unfolding plot, she invites readers to explore themes of family, ethics, and identity naturally.

Here’s a breakdown of how these elements contribute to the narrative:

  • Conversational Tone: Makes the complex narrative accessible and engaging.
  • Humor Amidst Tragedy: Balances the emotional weight, making the story more relatable.
  • Non-linear Storytelling: Reflects the theme of memory and engages the reader actively.
  • Rich Descriptions: Enhance the immersive quality and emotional impact of the story.
  • Emotional Depth: Allows for a deeper connection with the characters and their journeys.
  • Themes Integration: Encourages reflection on the book’s deeper meanings organically.

Karen Joy Fowler’s writing style and tone in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves significantly enhance the reader’s experience, making the novel a compelling exploration of human and animal relationships, ethical considerations, and the complexities of family and identity.

Literary Devices used in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Karen Joy Fowler employs a range of literary devices in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to enrich the narrative, deepen the thematic concerns, and enhance the reader’s engagement. Here are the top 10 devices used:

  1. Foreshadowing β€” Fowler uses hints and clues about future events, especially regarding the true nature of Fern’s disappearance, creating suspense and preparing readers for later revelations.
  2. Flashback β€” The narrative frequently shifts back to Rosemary’s childhood memories with Fern and Lowell, providing context and depth to the family dynamics and the events leading to the family’s fracture.
  3. Irony β€” There is a poignant use of irony, particularly in the human characters’ inability to understand each other while claiming to study understanding and intelligence in animals, highlighting discrepancies between actions and intentions.
  4. Symbolism β€” Objects and events, such as Rosemary’s puppet and Fern’s maze, symbolize larger concepts like loss of innocence, the complexity of human psyche, and the search for identity.
  5. Metaphor β€” The comparison without using “like” or “as”, such as treating Fern’s life as a mirror to humanity’s ethical dilemmas, offers deep reflections on the narrative’s central themes.
  6. Simile β€” Fowler’s use of simile, comparing characters’ experiences to familiar situations, helps readers connect with the complex emotions and situations the characters face.
  7. Personification β€” At times, non-human elements, such as the lab or nature, are given human qualities, emphasizing the blurred lines between human and non-human entities in the story.
  8. Allusion β€” References to real-life scientific experiments and theories enrich the narrative’s realism and underscore its ethical inquiries.
  9. Imagery β€” Detailed and vivid descriptions, particularly of Fern and the environments she inhabits, engage the reader’s senses and highlight the novel’s themes of freedom and confinement.
  10. Repetition β€” The repeated mention of key phrases or themes serves to emphasize their importance and the cyclical nature of the characters’ experiences and memories.

These literary devices are intricately woven into the fabric of Fowler’s narrative, enhancing the storytelling and inviting readers to engage with the text on multiple levels. Through their use, Fowler not only tells a compelling story but also invites reflection on deeper themes of family, identity, ethics, and the nature of humanity itself.

Literary Devices Examples

Let’s explore examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. These examples illustrate how each device contributes to the depth and richness of the narrative.


Early mentions of a significant change in Rosemary’s familySets the stage for the revelation of Fern’s identity and disappearance, creating anticipation and preparing readers for the emotional impact.


Rosemary’s recollections of her childhood with FernProvides backstory and emotional context, deepening the reader’s understanding of the family dynamics and the significance of Fern’s loss.


The family’s failure to understand each other despite their focus on understanding FernHighlights the contradictions in human behavior and the flawed nature of the experiment, underscoring the novel’s thematic concerns with communication and empathy.


Rosemary’s puppetSymbolizes Rosemary’s silenced voice and lost innocence, reflecting her struggle with identity and her place in the family after Fern’s departure.


Fern’s life as a mirror to humanity’s ethical dilemmasEncourages readers to reflect on the ethical implications of treating animals as subjects for scientific research and the broader implications for humanity.


Comparing Rosemary’s silence to a fortressIllustrates her protective mechanism against the pain of her past, enabling readers to empathize with her emotional state.


Giving the lab where Fern is kept human-like qualities of coldness and calculationEmphasizes the inhumanity of Fern’s treatment and the emotional coldness of spaces devoid of compassion.


References to real scientific experiments on animalsGrounds the novel in real-world ethical debates, enhancing its relevance and prompting readers to consider the implications of such research.


Vivid descriptions of Fern in her various environmentsEngages the reader’s senses, highlighting themes of freedom vs. confinement and the emotional impact of Fern’s removal from the family.


Repeated mentions of key themes or phrases, such as “starting in the middle of things”Emphasizes the importance of perspective in understanding the story and the characters’ lives, reinforcing the narrative’s focus on memory and identity.

These examples showcase Karen Joy Fowler’s skillful use of literary devices to weave a complex and emotionally resonant narrative in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, inviting readers to engage deeply with the text and its themes.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – FAQs

Q: What is the main theme of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves?
A: The main theme revolves around family dynamics, identity, and the ethics of animal research. It explores the profound effects of raising a human child alongside a chimpanzee on family relationships and individual identities, questioning the nature of humanity and the moral implications of using animals in scientific research.

Q: Who is Fern in the novel, and why is her character significant?
A: Fern is a chimpanzee raised as part of the Cooke family, treated as a sister to the protagonist, Rosemary. Her character is significant because she challenges the traditional boundaries between humans and animals, highlighting issues of communication, empathy, and ethical treatment of sentient beings.

Q: How does the novel’s structure affect the story?
A: The novel employs a non-linear narrative structure, starting in the middle of Rosemary’s story and weaving through her past and present. This structure mirrors the process of memory and the way it shapes identity, emphasizing the impact of past events on the present and the subjective nature of storytelling.

Q: What role does memory play in the novel?
A: Memory plays a central role in shaping the narrative and the characters’ identities. The novel examines the reliability of memory, how it can be selective and subjective, and its power to both haunt and heal. Rosemary’s journey involves reconciling with her memories to come to terms with her past and identity.

Q: How does the novel address the issue of animal rights?
A: Through the story of Fern and the experiences of Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, an animal rights activist, the novel delves into the ethical treatment of animals, particularly in scientific research. It challenges readers to consider the moral implications of using animals for human benefits and the responsibilities humans have toward other sentient beings.

Q: What is the significance of the title, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves?
A: The title reflects the novel’s exploration of identity, family, and the profound effects of Fern’s presence and absence on the Cooke family. It suggests a state of emotional upheaval, confusion, and the struggle to find one’s place in a disrupted family dynamic.

Q: Can the novel be considered a critique of scientific research on animals?
A: Yes, the novel can be seen as a critique of the ethical implications of scientific research on animals. Through the story of the Cooke family and the experiment that fundamentally changes their lives, it raises questions about the morality of using animals for research, the consequences of such actions, and the value of empathy and ethical consideration.


Here’s a multiple-choice quiz to test comprehension of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Each question is designed to engage with key aspects of the novel, from its themes and characters to its plot and literary devices.

Who is Fern?Rosemary’s human sisterA chimpanzee raised as part of the Cooke familyA college friend of RosemaryA fictional character in a book Rosemary reads
What is the main theme of the novel?Time travelThe ethics of animal researchHigh school dramaSpace exploration
How does the novel’s structure affect its storytelling?It makes the story confusing and hard to followIt adds suspense and intrigueIt has no significant effectIt limits character development
What role does memory play in the narrative?It is infallible and always accurateIt serves as a minor subplotIt shapes the narrative and characters’ identitiesIt is mentioned but not explored in depth
How does the novel address the issue of animal rights?By promoting the benefits of animal testingThrough the background setting onlyThrough character development and plot eventsIt doesn’t address animal rights
What is the significance of the title?It indicates the characters’ physical fitness levelsIt suggests a state of emotional upheaval and identity struggleIt is the name of a scientific experimentIt refers to a comedy club in the novel
Can the novel be considered a critique of scientific research on animals?No, it focuses on the benefits of such researchYes, it questions the morality of using animals for researchOnly in the chapters focusing on LowellIt critiques scientific research in general, not specifically on animals


  1. B – A chimpanzee raised as part of the Cooke family
  2. B – The ethics of animal research
  3. B – It adds suspense and intrigue
  4. C – It shapes the narrative and characters’ identities
  5. C – Through character development and plot events
  6. B – It suggests a state of emotional upheaval and identity struggle
  7. B – Yes, it questions the morality of using animals for research

This quiz offers a fun and engaging way to reflect on the novel’s complexities and encourage deeper thinking about its themes and storytelling techniques.


This exercise is designed to help students identify and understand the use of literary devices in a paragraph from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Read the paragraph carefully, and then list the literary devices you find, explaining how each is used.

Paragraph for Analysis:
“In the mirror of the bathroom, I saw myself and didn’t see Fern. Yet, how like a maze our relationship had been, with its dead ends and retraced steps. The puppet in my hands seemed to whisper secrets from our shared past, a past where laughter was a common language, and tears were for the both of us. The irony was not lost on me; in seeking to understand Fern, we had all, in some ways, become lost ourselves.”


  1. Identify the literary devices used in the paragraph.
  2. Explain how each device contributes to the paragraph’s meaning or effect.


  1. Metaphor β€” The comparison of the relationship to a maze suggests complexity and difficulty in navigating emotions and memories, enhancing the theme of a complicated family dynamic.
  2. Symbolism β€” The puppet symbolizes the childhood innocence and the silent communications between Rosemary and Fern, enriching the narrative with a sense of nostalgia and loss.
  3. Irony β€” The irony of becoming lost in the process of understanding Fern underscores the unintended consequences of the family’s actions, adding depth to the theme of self-discovery and identity.
  4. Imagery β€” The vivid description of the puppet and the mirror scene engages the reader’s senses and highlights the theme of reflection and identity.

This exercise encourages students to delve deeper into the text, enhancing their appreciation for the nuanced use of language and the thematic depth of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.