Burial Rites
By Hannah Kent


West Maui Book Club DISCUSSION QUESTIONS compiled by:
Elaine Gallant
Nov, 2016

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1. What are your thoughts on supposed hints, warnings, and/or omens of evil in a person? For instance, there was a time when evil was associated with red-haired people or those who had warts or some unusual birthmark. In Burial Rites, there was some discussion (pg 52) between the daughter, Lauga, and her mother, Margret, with regard to whether or not Agnes Magnusdottir had a harelip, snaggletooth, birthmark, or some small outer defect. Margret thought not and instead wondered if it was her beauty—a beauty greater than the poet Rosa—that had indeed been the sign. She (or the author) mentioned a saga that suggested “a witch often has fair skin.” Also in the story, what is the significance of ravens and birds as omens of evil?

2. Discuss the tensions (plus and minus) of the Jonsson’s for having Agnes—a condemned person—in their home, on their farm, and under their care for the duration between conviction and death. Put yourself and your family to the litmus test of a similar situation.

3. Discuss gossip and hearsay with regard to truth. How did it hurt or help the suspected murderers Agnes, Sigridur Gudmundstottir, and Fridrik Sigurdsson? And once you learned the truth, how could things have been different for them all, particularly Agnes? Quotes: Pg. 67--“I’ve heard it was she who stabbed Natan eighteen times. Over and over again!” Pg. 67--“And-oh, the Lord bless us—even in the face! I heard she plunged the knife into his eye socket.” Pg. 90--“He was a sorcerer and he got what was coming to him.” Pg. 107--“To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.”

4. What did you think of Reverend Thorvardur “Toti” Jonsson and his particular predicament as he wrestled with his own demons of physical illness, sexual desire, and of proving oneself to his father, the court, and to his charge?

5. There were many wonderful outtakes worthy of discussion, and in particular what comes to mind is the conversation between Natan and Agnes (Pg 233) regarding the capture of a fox kit’s parents. Read the following passage and discuss how it might relate to the three condemned people:
     “The trick is to find and catch a fox kit,” he said. “The kit must then be made to cry out to its parents, otherwise it’s near impossible to lure them out of their hole. They’re wily things. Cunning. They smell you coming.”
     “And how do you make a fox kit cry?”
     “I break its front legs. It cannot escape then. The parents hear it mewling and come running out of their den, and they’re easily caught. They won’t leave one of their own.”
     “What do you do with the kit after you kill its parents?”
     “Some hunters leave it there to die. They are no use for market—the skins are too small.”
     “What do you do?”
     “I stove their heads in with a rock.”
     “That is the only decent thing to do.”
     “Yes. To leave them is cruelty.”

6. For those of you who have been to Iceland, could you picture the starkness of its northern climate? Could you picture life in the 1800s on a farm with its cruel winters and quick summers? Could you identify with the related work by season, ie: winters indoors knitting, spinning and rope making. Or the slaughter during the “flitting days” or the swinging of freshly born lambs so that they might breathe?

Discussion Questions from the Publisher of Little, Brown & Co.

1. What do you make of the historical documents (both real and fictionalized) that begin each chapter? How did these change or aid your understanding of Agnes’s story?

2. Agnes often comments on the ways in which she has been silenced, or had her story altered by the authorities. Why do you think she has such an anguished relationship to language?

3. Fate and destiny are major themes in this novel, for Agnes seems fated to have come to the end she does. Could she have escaped this destiny? Was there a turning point in her life that she might have avoided?

4. Are Steina, Lauga and Margret changed by Agnes’s time with them? Has her fate changed theirs in any way?

5. Death is a major theme in this novel, but it is also about life and living. When Agnes faces the day of her execution all she wants to do is live, despite the harrowing nature of the life she has endured. Discuss.

6. Blondal is the real villain of this piece. His dispassionate communications with those whom he controls are filled with venom and spite. What did you make of his decision to lodge Agnes with District Officer Jon and his family? What do you believe happened at Stora—Borg that caused Blondal to move Agnes to Kornsa?

7. Toti’s interest in Agnes’s case begins as a young cleric wanting to prove himself to his elders, to a sincere desire to defend a condemned woman. His growth in compassion and his readiness to stand up to his seniors is one of the most significant themes in this novel. Discuss.

8. Agnes goes to her death holding Toti’s hand, for they have discovered a deep need for each other. Is this story ultimately about the loneliness of our end in life? Or does it celebrate the comfort that a person can bring to the dying? Discuss.

9. Hannah Kent calls her novel a "dark love letter to Iceland" in her Acknowledgements. What does she mean by this? Did you read the novel in this way?