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Across the Blue Mountains

by Emma Chichester Clark
FILTERS: ethics, happiness

Summary

Is it possible for humans to find happiness? If so, how?

Miss Bilberry lives a peaceful life in a yellow house at the base of the Blue Mountains. She is happy, but she cannot stop wondering if she would be even happier on the other side of the Blue Mountains. One day, Miss Bilberry packs her bags to journey to the other side. There, she finds a yellow house similar to the one she had before. Her life seems better than before, but certain parts of her new life begin to bother her.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Complete happiness is something that is rarely attained. This story raises the question of whether humans can be happy, the difference between contentment and happiness, how our perception of life can change our attitudes toward it, and how we might go about attaining happiness.

Why are people often not completely happy in their lives?

In Across the Blue Mountains, Miss Bilberry’s life is portrayed as wonderful. Miss Bilberry lives in a lovely house with her animal friends and does the things she loves, like gardening and playing the violin. The pictures and nuances in the text clearly show that Miss Bilberry has a fulfilling life but is, nevertheless, not completely happy. It is important to note that there are many legitimate reasons why some people are not completely happy, such as poverty or illness or other factors. But the focus of the conversation should be why people are often not completely happy despite the right circumstances in their lives. One way to discuss this is to help people relate to Miss Bilberry by asking if they have ever wished they lived another person’s life, or whether they have ever envied someone else for something they could have lived without. Try to get them to see themselves in the situation of wanting to know what is on the other side of the mountains. Ask why can’t Miss Bilberry “stop wondering”? Why can’t we?

How can our perception of our lives change how happy we are? Why?

Although Miss Bilberry ends up in the same place, everything that she once enjoyed seems better than before because she believes she has reached the “other side of the mountains.” Perhaps there is something about going on a journey or actually getting what we desire that is a fundamental part of happiness. Introduce this subtlety at the outset by asking students if they would rather go hiking in a circle, or go from one place to another. Why or why not? It’s essential to give children the chance to figure out that she wound up in the same place. Have a debate about whether Miss Bilberry’s trip was a waste of time since she ends up in the same place; or if there was value in her leaving home. Because of the short length of the story, some find it more evident that Miss Bilberry should have stayed home because she ended up in the same place. Remind people that when Miss Bilberry got to the “other side,” she thought things were “perfect,” which she had not before. Try to encourage students to think about real-life examples in which a situation does not change but a person might change how they feel about the situation. Trying to predict what Miss Bilberry might find on the other side before it is revealed in the story is an excellent way to ease into thinking about the implications of Miss Bilberry ending up in the same place.

What do you think is the best way to be happy in life?

Chester the cat adds an interesting perspective to this story. Chester does not want to leave when Miss Bilberry gets everyone to help her pack because he is content with the life they already have. When they reach the “other side,” Chester never reveals that it is the same place all along. Would people be better off if they did not “wonder” so much? Let students discuss which character they think was smarter in the story: Chester or Miss Bilberry. This might bring up the dangers of always wondering how life could be different if circumstances were different. Some children might ask, “What if Miss Bilberry got to the other side, and it was worse than where she was before?” Discuss the dangers of hope or “wondering what is on the other side of the mountains,” and whether we could live without this wondering. Perhaps Chester is right, as he is content with what he has and does not let his life be upended by questioning. On the other hand, if people did not wonder what it is like on the other side of the mountains, how would they have hopes and dreams, or act to change things in their lives for the better?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Before Reading

  1. Does the woman in the picture look happy? Why?
  2. What do you think of when you hear “across the Blue Mountains”?
  3. Have you ever gone hiking in the mountains or been on adventures?
  4. Did you feel like you accomplished something if you did?
  5. Would you prefer to go hiking in a circular path or a linear path? Why?

During Reading

  1. Would you like to have Miss Bilberry’s life? Why or why not?
  2. What do you enjoy in your life? what makes you happy? Think about how how Miss Bilberry likes to play the violin before bed – do you have something similar?
  3. Do you ever wonder if you would be happier if you were in a different circumstance (time, place, or financial situation)? Do you think Miss Bilberry might be happier on the other side?
  4. Have you ever moved to a different house? Were you excited or sad to leave where you lived? Why do you think Chester looked back sadly before they left to go to the other side of the Blue Mountains?
  5. Do you think Miss Bilberry is silly to go on such a difficult journey to get to the other side of the mountain?
  6. Why do you think “everything was much the same” on the other side of the mountains? (Explain what Chester knows: that Miss Bilberry had gone on a long journey back to the same yellow house; make sure everyone understands this fundamental part of the plot as it is essential for philosophical discussion.)

After Reading

  1. Where is Miss Bilberry happiest: the beginning, on her journey across the mountains, or on the other side, which she describes as “perfect”?
  2. Is it possible for people to stop wondering what it would be like “across the Blue Mountains”?
  3. Would people be happier if they did not wonder like Miss Bilberry?
  4. What is happiness?
  5. Do you think it was silly of Miss Bilberry to go on such a huge journey to get to the other side, considering she ended up in the same place? Why or why not?
  6. Imagine your next-door neighbor has a swimming pool and you really want the swimming pool. Would you enjoy it less once you got the swimming pool? Why do your feelings toward the pool change (why are they different)?
  7. Would aspects of life and how you live your life matter if you did not wonder about change and how things could be different?
  8. What do you think is the best way to be happy in life?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Thomas Wartenberg. Edited May 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

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