The Bridge over the River Kwai: Reading Schedule, Focus Questions, and Background Information


M, 1/7: Novel distributed; read tomorrow's assignment (chapters 1, 2, and 3) tonight. Get ahead: you must read THROUGH chapter 11 by 1/10 or 1/11 (depending on your class period).
T, 1/8:
Chapters 1, 2, and 3 are due; odd bell day (pages 3-21). Read chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 tonight.
W, 1/9: Chapters 1, 2, and 3 are due; even bell day (pages 3-21). Read chapters 8, 9, 10, 11 tonight.
R, 1/10: Chapters 4-11 are due (pages 21-74). Read chapters 10 and 11 tonight
F, 1/11: Chapters 4-11 are due (pages 21-74). + Read chapters 12, 13, and 14 tonight. (pages 74-94)
S, 1/12: Read chapters 15, 16, and 17 today (pages 95-117).
L, 1/13: Read chapters 18 and 19 today (pages 121-138).
M, 1/14: Chapters 12-19 are due today. Read chapters 20 and 21 tonight.
T, 1/15: Chapters 20 and 21 are due today (pages 139-152). Read chapters 22 and 23 tonight.
W, 1/16: Chapters 22 and 23 are due today (pages 152-172). Finish the book tonight.
R, 1/17: Chapters 24 and 25 are due today (pages 172-184).






Before you start reading, realize that this novel takes place during World War II. The characters from Britain (Nicholson, Clipton, and their soldiers), along with prisoners of other nationalities, are being held prisoner by the Japanese. By the end of chapter three, you will know how the Japanese intend to use the British (and the other prisoners) to their best advantage.


1) C.O. = Commanding Officer

2) N.C.O. = Non-Commissioned Officer

3) M.O. = Medical Officer

4) navvy = an unskilled laborer

5) kowtow = to show obsequious deference (to act in an extremely humble, meek, and servile way)

Chapter One

1) What is meant by “saving face”?

2) Why does Clipton think that Nicholson is a snob?

3) Why does Nicholson want to go through with the surrender? Who does not want to go through with it?

4) Whom does Nicholson call the “deserters”? Why?

5) When the Japanese come to accept the British surrender, what “plan” has Nicholson devised in order to “save face”?

6) How do the Japanese react to Nicholson’s surrender?

7) How does Nicholson react to the reaction of the Japanese?

8) How does Nicholson instruct his men to behave while they are prisoners?

9) What does Nicholson make his men do when the Japanese are not forcing them to work?

10) Near the end of the chapter, what does Nicholson protest about the Japanese?

11) On page 10, what is Nicholson’s philosophy about keeping his men under control?

***NOTE: Even though the British are P.’s O. W., Nicholson is still their leader.***


Chapter Two

1) Where are the British imprisoned?

2) Describe the encounter (on page 11) between the British and their Japanese overseers (“commandants”).

3) Describe the medical situation of the British.

4) On pp. 12-13, how does Yamashita act? What does he say? What is his motto for the British?

5) Where is Nicholson’s battalion sent? Under whose power/authority will they be working?


Chapter Three

1) How and why does Nicholson try to change Saito’s mind?

2) Who is a Medical officer?

3) Who is a former director of a mining company in Malaya?

4) Who is a former public works engineer in India?

5) Of what phrase is Saito especially fond?

6) What two reasons explain why Saito is extra mean to the British working under his power?

7) What advice was Clipton given about the Japanese a long time ago?

8) On page 19, what is the SPECIFIC task the British will perform for the Japanese?


Chapter Four

1) Why doesn’t Clipton have to do manual labor?

2) How and why does Nicholson refer to the Manual for Military Law? What is Saito’s reaction?

3) After the soldiers are marched off toward the river, what is Saito apparently ready to do to the remaining officers?

4) On page 25, what is Saito’s predicament?

5) How does Saito lose face on page 26?


Chapter Five

1) To what type of torture is Nicholson subjected in this chapter?

2) Why is Nicholson’s rice heavily salted?

3) On page 28, how does Clipton feel about Nicholson “sticking to his guns”?

4) On pp. 30-32, how does Saito try to reason with Nicholson? What does Saito say? What is Nicholson’s response?

Chapter 6

1) What kind of job are the soldiers performing on the river? Why?

2) How many times do they have to start over?

3) How do the soldiers blunder as they procure lumber for the bridge?

4) On page 35, what does Saito do in front of his squads?

5) On pp. 36-37, what deal is agreed upon? What does Saito do after he makes the deal?


Chapter 7

1) How does Nicholson obtain four days off from Saito?
2) On page 38, why does Nicholson want the four-day respite? (It's not only for rest.)
3) Note Nicholson's reactions to the subpar work being done by his soldiers as he, Reeves, and Hughes tour the work site. On page 41, Nicholson makes clear his thoughts about the work being done; what are his thoughts?
4) On page 42, note the last paragraph of the chapter.

  • What is Nicholson's attitude toward getting the bridge...for the enemy...built?
  • Explain how his attitude is ironic.


Chapter 8

*Note the alternate name of Force 316.
**plastic explosive:
a soft explosive substance that is used to make bombs and can be easily formed into different shapes

1) Explain Force 316. What will they do? Who is Col. Green? (Realize that the imprisoned troops do not know about Force 316.)
2) What is the alternate name of Force 316? Based on this, what do you think their goal will be in this novel?
3) On page 47, the "liberators" are referred to. This is what the Japanese call themselves as they commandeer Siam in their attempt to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Since the Siamese do not like the Japanese, what do you think their role will be regarding Force 316?
4) Note on page 47 that Col. Green is gathering intelligence reports on the Burma-Siam Railway. Now turn back to page 19 and notice Saito's words in the second full paragraph on that page. Who else is working on the Burma-Siam Railway? Can you see potential conflict starting to creep up?
5) On page 47, Col. Green decides to send a team into the railway area. Which specific spot along the Burma-Siam Railway do you think Force 316 will attack? Why?

6) Whom does Green choose to lead the mission?
7) On page 48, note the paragraph beginning "There was no need..."

  • The phrase raison d'être is French, meaning the reason for something's existence
  • What do you think is Force 316's raison d'être, especially if its alternate name includes the word destructions?

8) Note on page 48 that the Siamese are called partisans.

  • A partisan is a person who supports a cause. In this case, whom do the Siamese support: Force 316 or the Japanese, who have essentially taken over their lands in order to build their railway?

9) Which specific target is ultimately chosen as Force 316's target?

Chapter 9

1) On page 52, why are Reeves and Hughes so upset?

  • pile: a cylindrical or flat member of wood, steel, concrete, etc., often tapered or pointed at the lower end, hammered vertically into soil to form part of a foundation

2) On pages 52-53, what's the first mistake Reeves notes the Japanese are making with their attempt at building the bridge?

  • quagmire: an area of miry or boggy ground whose surface yields under the tread; a bog

3) On page 54, what does Reeves suggest in order to ameliorate this first blunder?
4) On page 54, what's the second issue with the bridge that Reeves explains?
5) On page 54, what's the third and final problem that Reeves explains regarding the Japanese and their method of building the bridge?
6) Take a moment to realize something here: Reeves, a prisoner of the Japanese, is actually angry that the bridge is not being built properly. This is a bridge that will help the enemy...who is holding him captive...and making him and his soldiers suffer through terrible working build a bridge...that will help the enemy. What type of irony does the reaction of Reeves create? How?
7) On page 55, what's the first problem that Hughes explains regarding the bridge being built?
8) On page 56, what's the final problem Hughes explains?
9) Nicholson says that the entire situation can be traced back to one cause. What is it?
10) Again, realize that Nicholson is actually and sincerely going to organize the whole process so that the bridge gets built...the right way. What type of irony does this create? How? Why would Nicholson help the enemy?
11) At the end of the chapter (page 57), what does Nicholson decide to do in an attempt to amend the situation? What do you think will be Saito's reaction?

Chapter 10

1) On pages 57-58, how do the British officers react when Saito enters the room? Is this surprising to you? How does Saito react? What's this suggest about Saito?
2) On page 58, Nicholson outlines his reasons for having the meeting. What are they? How are they ironic?
3) On pages 59-60, what is a specific change Nicholson tells Saito should take plce in the construction process? How does he support his claim that this change is necessary?
4) On page 61, what is the next change that Nicholson already has made?
5) On pages 61-62, Nicholson outlines his administrative plan (sort of a "who's in charge of what and whom" plan).

  • What will be Nicholson's role?
  • What will be Reeves' role?
  • What will be Hughes' role?
  • What will be the platoon officers' role?
  • What will be the administrative department clerk's responsibilities?

6) Near the bottom pf page 62, what is Saito's reaction to Nicholson's suggestions and plans?
7) On pages 63-64, Nicholson also mentions that what else should be built, suggesting the Japanese soldiers should build it while his men are involved in building the actual bridge?
8) Note that on page 64, Clipton is watching and looking for some sort of Machiavellian undercurrent to Nicholson's actions and words. Clipton cannot find any such motivation in his C.O. Clipton therefore realizes that Nicholson is actually sincere in his efforts to accelerate the progress of building a first-rate bridge. Nicholson is incredibly ironic, don't you think?

  • Machiavellian: being or acting in accordance with the principles of government analyzed in Machiavelli's The Prince, in which political expediency is placed above morality and the use of craft and deceit to maintain the authority and carry out the policies of a ruler is described. 
  • Therefore, the term has come to mean anyone or any actions characterized by subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency, or dishonesty.
  • Remember that Nicholson is NOT acting in such a way. He is actually sincere in his attempt to build the best bridge possible. You must be asking yourself why he would be doing this!

9) On page 65, Nicholson mentions that the quota of the Japanese soldiers has yet to be set. Saito sets it at what amount? Why do you think Saito does this? (Think about how Saito has felt throughout the entire conference!)
10) We read a very important line here about Nicholson: "This Sphinx-like character could not reveal his secret, since he had no secret to reveal."

  • The "secret" mentioned refers to the bottom of the previous page when Clipton says that, without the British taking control of the situation, the Japanese would have built a bridge that would have crumbled under the weight of almost anything moving across it. Clipton is hoping that Nicholson turns and says something to the effect that he still plans for that to happen, that the conference the two just attended was all a Machiavellian ruse menat to fool and best the Japanese. Nicholson says nothing of the sort.
  • Sphinx: a monster, usually represented as having the head and breast of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. Seated on a rock outside of Thebes, she proposed a riddle to travelers, killing them when they answered incorrectly (as all did prior to Oedipus). (The riddle: What creature walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?")
  • Therefore, anyone described as Sphinx-like is being described as inscrutable, impossible to know the thoughts of, having secrets that nobody else can figure out. Nicholson has no such Sphinx-like, Machiavellian secrets at work. He truly intends to build the best bridge possible. Can you even believe this?

Chapter 11:

1) On page 67, what has been the Japanese method of bridge building during their advancement through countries they have overrun?

  • parapet: any low, protective wall at the edge of a balcony, bridge, or roof

2) On page 68, by contrast, describe some of the facets of the Western way of building a bridge.

  • a priori: facts known to be true independently of or in advance of experience of the subject matter; requiring no evidence for validation or support

3) On page 69, what casual, offhand remark of Nicholson's acts as Reeves' impetus to work as hard as he can in planning the bridge?
4) On page 70, Reeves' Japanese colleague sidles up to him. How is the Japanese colleague described as he looks at Reeves' plans?

  • sidle: to move sideways or obliquely, so as not to be noticed or draw attention; to move sideways or obliquely
  • bewildered: completely puzzled or confused; perplexed

5) On the top of page 71, Reeves is described as taking expert care (not case as the publisher mistakenly typed) over which tool, thus indicating his complete devotion to his doing the best job possible?

  • T square: a T-shaped ruler, used primarily in mechanical drawing, having a short crosspiece that slides along the edge of the drawing board as a guide to the perpendicular longer section in making parallel lines, right angles, etc., and as a support for triangles

6) On page 71, Clipton realizes that what has been the effect of all the preparatory work regarding the construction of the bridge?

  • modus operandi: mode (method) of operating or working

7) On page 73, Reeves has selected wood as much like *** as possible, based on what other structure mentioned on the page?
8) Why is the use of creosote rejected?

  • creosote: an oily liquid having a burning taste and a penetrating odor, obtained by the distillation of coal and wood tar, used mainly as a preservative for wood and as an antiseptic
  • Heath Robinson: (of a mechanical device) absurdly complicated in design yet having a simple function.
  • See for more information and fascinating pictures of the contraptions that William Heath Robinson drew.

9) On page 74, that's why Nicholson tells Reeves that he does not want "'some Heath Robinson'" contraption. He's telling Reeves to keep it simple, efficient, and straightforward regarding the design of the bridge.



1) Here again we read about the Siamese partisans. We first read about them on page 48, by the way. They refer to Shears as Number One. Why? (See page 48 if you need some help.)
2) On page 74, we also find out the third member of the Force 316 team sent on the Kwai mission. Who is it?
On page 75, what does Joyce display on the wall of the hut? What is the purpose of this item and its markings? Also, what is Joyce's profession in civilian life?
4) On page 75, how do the Siamese feel toward the Japanese?
5) On page 77, Shears asks Joyce if he would be able to use a *** in cold blood.  Why do you think this weapon and this question are included by the author here? (Think back to a literary term we have studied.)

6) On page 78, what is Joyce's answer to the question posed by Shears (question #5, above)?
7) On page 78, what sort of men does Shears favor as potential colleagues in Force 316?
8) On page 79, why doesn't Force 316 attack right away? Seeking this information will help you understand their strategy.
9) On page 80, the bridge being built over the Kwai lacks two drawbacks that the other two possible bridge targets have. What are they?
10) On pages 80-81, what are the qualities that make the bridge over the Kwai so appealing as the target?



1) When Clipton tells Nicholson that the soldiers' workload is too much on page 82, what is Nicholson's reasoning for keeping the men busy with building the bridge?
2) On pages 83-84, we see how Hughes divides the labor. Explain what he does.
3) How is Lieutenant Harper useful in the construction process?
4) On page 85, what does Nicholson see the bridge as a symbol of?
5) Similarly, on page 85, what does Reeves see when he looks at the bridge taking shape?
6) On the last page of the chapter, what is Clipton's grudging reaction to the efficacy with which the construction process takes place?
7) At the end of the chapter, when will the bridge be finished relative to the timeline set down by the Japanese?



1) On page 89, what details let the reader know that Joyce has made a reconnassaince mission to scout the lay of the land surrounding the bridge?
2) On page 90, how did the Siamese (again, referred to as partisans) help Joyce on his mission?
3) On pages 91-92, explain the reasons a ground mission will be more effective than an air mission, such as one carried out by the R.A.F. (Royal Air Force).

4) On page 93, how do the Siamese reports describe the bridge?
5) On page 93, Shears exclaims that, based on reports, the Kwai bridge must be as remarkable as the George Washington Bridge. What does this tell the reader about the quality, appearance, and craftsmanship of the bridge?

6) On page 94, Joyce muses on what the prisoners (including Nicholson and his officers, mind you) would think if they knew Force 316 was planning to destroy their bridge. What do you think would be the reactions of Nicholson, Reeves, Hughes, and their soldiers?
7) On page 94, what reasons does Shears give as to why Nicholson and his soldiers cannot be informed of Force 316's presence or plans to destroy the bridge?
8) At the end of the chapter, who will be sent to get firsthand observations of the actual bridge itself?



1) How does Joyce disguise himself so as to conceal the fact that a European is present?
2) On pages 95-97, describe the difficulties Joyce experiences on his reconnaissance mission to scout the bridge itself.
3) On page 99, what method does Joyce suggest for destroying the bridge? How does the muddy water of the Kwai factor into his suggestion?
4) On page 100, how does Joyce get so very close to the bridge?
5) On pages 101-102, what other specific plans does Joyce offer regarding the destruction of the bridge?
6) On pages 102 (beginning when Joyce says, "'Here's my idea, sir.'") -104, explain the reasons Joyce gives for his idea as the one to follow.

  • eyrie: a house, fortress, or the like located high on a hill or mountain


kowtow: to act in an obsequious manner

obsequious:  characterized by humble obedience and submissiveness

1) On page 105, what does Joyce's physical description of the prisoners include? How does Joyce feel when he sees the emaciated soldiers? What does this tell you about Joyce? What does it make you think regarding the question that was posed to Joyce back on page 77?
2) On the bottom of page 105, how does Joyce describe the soldiers' behavior in relation to their Japanese guards?
3) On page 106, what is Joyce's impression of Nicholson?

  • pips: metal insignia of rank on the shoulders of commissioned officers

4) On page 107, what details do we read that prove Nicholson essentially is in full control of the Kwai camp?
5) As the chapter ends, what decision is Shears (with some input from Warden) trying to make?


Dutch courage:  courage acquired from drinking liquor

1) Why does Nicholson visit Clipton? Explain how this is ironic.
2) On page 111, what factors have been militating against the soldiers' working as efficiently as they could under normal circumstances?
3) On page 113, note the ailments, both mental and physical, plaguing the soldiers. List these.
4) Note very carefully the bottom sentence on page 114 and Nicholson's response on page 115. Explain the intense irony created in this short exchange between the two.
5) What "white lie" does Nicholson tell Clipton in order to get more soldiers released for duty?
6) On page 116, note the reactions of the soldiers who are sent back out to work on the bridge even though they are seriously sick or wounded. Describe their reactions.
7) On page 117, the bridge is now finished. Therefore, what does Nicholson now want to do regarding the bridge? Explain how this is ironic.


1) Now who makes a reconnaissance to the bridge, following Joyce's path?
2) On page 121, what will be sent to inaugurate the newly constructed railway line?
3) On page 122, what is the plan?
4) On page 123, the principles of Force 316 are summed up. Explain what this summary means.
5) On page 124, what does Warden hear coming from the camp?
6) On pages 126-128, note how Warden places the explosives and what their effect will be. Also, note how he plans to destroy not only the bridge but also the enemy's morale.
7) On pages 128-129, describe Warden's second contraption (also referred to as his second "toy").
8) On pages 129-130, what is the final "antipersonnel device" that Warden considers placing? Why does he NOT place this set of traps?


to be on tenterhooks:  to be in a state of anxiety or suspense 

1) On page 132, note where the members of Force 316 are in relation to each other.
2) Note on page 133 that the subject of Joyce's using his knife comes up again. See page 77 again for the importance of this issue.
3) On page 134, note very carefully the connection made between Reeves and Warden. Describe it.
4) On page 135, to what will the charges (explosives) be affixed?
5) On pages 137-138, what details of Joyce's personal life do we learn?


1) Notice what Shears asks Joyce on the first page of the chapter.  This issue has yet again surfaced.  Foreshadowing based on its first appearance on page 77?
2) On pages 140-141, note the difficulties that Shears and Joyce (along with their two Siamese guides) encounter as they make their way down the Kwai with their materials and the raft.
3) What is the nickname of their raft?

*page 141, line 20, first word:  Things should be Think.
4) On page 142, how does Joyce react when the team crashes into a rock during their sojourn down the river?
5) Based on #4, what opinion do Shears and Warden have of Joyce?  Why?

6) On pages 144-145, note how they submerge the explosives and prepare the bridge. What difficulties do they encounter during this process?
7) Can you spot some ominous foreshadowing on page 147?


1) At the beginning of the chapter, what is Shears aware of? (It's not very specific...yet.)
2) On page 149, notice that Shears and four partisans are by themselves, as is Warden. Where are Shears and his partisan helpers?
3) On page 149, where is Joyce with relation to Shears? Remember this.
4) The Siamese exclaim what?
On page 151, what problems does the lower river level cause?
6) On page 152, Shears realizes that what else is going to be visible due to the fallen river level?


1) On pages 154-155, Joyce has somewhat of a flashback. Describe it, and include the one-word heading that comes into focus.
2) By page 155, what has Joyce realized?
3) On page 157, on what does Joyce decide to focus instead of the river level, which is out of his control?
4) On page 159, what "fresh fear" assails Joyce? Remember what is asked of him on page 77!
5) On pages 160-161, note and explain the two methods of using the knife that Force 316 has taught Joyce.
6) On page 161, what very detailed scene does Joyce force himself to envision? What do you think this foreshadows?
7) On page 162, what does Joyce finally realize? Do you think he knows himself well enough that his feelings are accurate?
8) On pages 163-164, Joyce struggles to find something else to focus on. What ideas does he come up with? What does he finally focus on?


1) On pages 164-165, what does Shears see that makes him especially anxious about his mission?
2) On page 166, what does Shears mean by thinking that the Japanese guards "'look without seeing'"?
3) On page 166, Shears says to himself, "'Any British soldier would have spotted the sabotage.'"  On page 167, what British soldier do we all of a sudden learn is still there, described as "the fine upstanding officer in the uniform of a British colonel"? (Remember that on page 147 we learn that most of the prisoners had left. Most. Not all.)
4) IMPORTANT: Starting with the last paragraph on page 167 and continuing to the next page, note how Nicholson feels as he looks at the bridge he built. (Incidentally, this is one grammatically correct but very long sentence.)  What's this make you think about Nicholson?
5) On page 169, what words does Nicholson speak to his soldiers prior to their being shipped off?
6) What post-construction festivities take place for the soldiers?
7) On pages 169-170, the reason Nicholson did not have to leave with the majority of his soldiers is explained. What is this reason?
8) On page 170, what does Nicholson see as he crosses the bridge?

9) On page 171, when Nicholson mentions Communists, what possible explanation is going through his mind as to why he sees what he sees on the piles?
10) What does Nicholson notice on page 172?


In the first line of the chapter, he refers to Nicholson (from the end of the previous chapter).
1) On page 173, why is Shears so surprised that Nicholson is actually leading Saito right to the explosives?
2) On page 173, Shears is going through the motions of killing someone with his own knife. Why? (See page 160, method #2.)

*Realize that on page 174, especially, Shears is watching Joyce creep up on Saito and Nicholson.
3) What happens to Saito on page 175? How? Why? (Remember Joyce's vivid prognostication on page 163!)
4) On page 176, what does Nicholson do when Joyce tells him who he is and why he’s there?



1) Was the mission completely successful?
2) Which member of Force 316 survives the mission?
3) On page 179, Warden and Green realize that who was the real enemy?  (Read carefully.  It's the "'blockhead'" mentioned.)
4) On page 181, what does Warden mean when he says that Joyce killed the wrong colonel?
5) On pages 181-183, explain what happened at the bridge site according to the account given by Warden.
6) On pages 183-184, what is Warden's final attempt at causing as much damage as possible? What are the results?
7) Whom do Warden’s mortars kill? Does Green approve of Warden’s decision on page 184?  Do you?