Book Clubs & Reading Group Guides: Readers
Discussion: questions & topics
- Hunger’s Brides is subdivided into six books, each named after
a mythic figure. Besides in the retellings of the myths themselves, in
what other ways does mythology surface in the book? Why do you think
Hunger’s Brides gives such prominence to myth and legend?
- Juana’s childhood is set in the upper reaches of the Valley of
Mexico. Her wetnurse is descended from a Mexica or Aztec wizard and the
book’s early chapters are laced with references to the prehispanic
past and the Conquest of Mexico. There are many instances, also, of Aztec
proverbs, common sayings and riddles. Do these add anything to the image
that history gives us of the Aztecs?
- The first generations of Spaniards struggled with two sharply distinct
visions of the New World: 1) a New Eden; 2) a land of monstrous fertility
and diabolic influences. How does this find its way into the story of
Juana’s life in the fields and forests with Amanda?
- Variations on The Fall abound in Hunger’s Brides, Juana’s
childhood fall from Eden being one of these, the fall of the Aztec empire
being another. What other examples come to mind? How do you look upon
these from the perspective of our own time? Do you think the author is
drawing any parallels?
- Like many other children, Juana makes a game of secret knowledge and
mysterious rituals, though she is perhaps taken with these to an unusual
degree. Through them, the Inquisition first makes its presence felt in
the story. What are some examples of this? How does this childhood hunger
for secret knowledge, her passion for riddles and puzzles, leave her
vulnerable? And how do agents of the Church exploit this vulnerability?
- Does her decision, in her early teens, to make a clean break with her
past create other vulnerabilities?
- The breadth of Sor Juana’s interests and knowledge, as an adult,
is formidable. What advantages are there for the reader in having followed
her intellectual and emotional development – as guided by Xochitl
and her grandfather – from Juana’s earliest years?
- Juana’s relationship with her mother was a complex one. No surprise
there. And yet it is not quite as one would expect. At what points does
she come to realize that she may have misjudged her mother?
- Current in Sor Juana’s day was the idea that with great gifts
come great responsibilities. In the midst of the crisis of her final
years (in the chapter “Malinche”) she compares herself to
others who have made better use of their gifts. It’s an idea that
seems not to have much influence in our lives today. Does she, in your
view, judge herself too harshly?
- We get glimpses of women’s roles in the 17th century. At home,
in society, at court. What’s your understanding of why Juana entered
- One doesn’t have to be a feminist to see that her options would
have been very different if she had been a man. In Hunger’s Brides
we are given several glimpses of the lives of women in Christian society.
What are some of these? As presented by the novel, what role does her
gender seem to have played in the Church’s dealings with her?
- There is no record of Sor Juana publishing or writing anything after
a final statement signed in blood in or around 1693. It seems likely
that she ceased writing altogether, and sharply curtailed or abandoned
her studies. Both Antonia and Beulah are desperate to understand this
silence, and to discern what it might say. What’s your understanding
of the reasons for Juana’s silence? What does it say to you?
- Hunger emerges as one of the novel’s recurrent themes. On how
many levels do you find it playing out – what types of hunger does
the reader encounter? Do you see one of these as primary or fundamental?
Which of them might be the “hunger” of the title, Hunger’s
- What, if anything, do we gain from the novel’s “binary” structure – that
is, its setting in two distinct eras? Does seeing the past through the
eyes of characters who are our own contemporaries add anything to what
we find there? Does, conversely, seeing our present in the context of
this past add anything to the modern story?
- Does our view of Donald change over the course of the novel? Most of
what we know of him is what he himself reveals to us. Initially he seems
the modern equivalent of the antagonistic male figures in the novel.
If what he chooses to reveal for our benefit gradually changes, why?
If he himself changes, what has changed him?
- The book features various intense engagements between writers and their
readers: for instance, featuring Antonia as the author of a journal read
by Bishop Santa Cruz. If Juana’s narration of her own story could
be seen as a kind of text, who is it composed for – and why?
- It would seem that at least part of Beulah’s motivation in writing
her manuscript was to break Donald down. To what purpose? What do you
think of her aims? What do you think of her methods?
- Readers have responded strongly to Beulah, perhaps women especially,
and not always positively. Why, in your view? What is it about Beulah
that won’t allow her to let up?
- The author has noted two frequent misreadings of the book. The first,
that Donald is the author of Sor Juana’s chapters when, instead,
Beulah is. The second, that Beulah dies at the end of the story, when
she does not. For future printings of the book, the author is considering
changing a word or two here and there to reduce the chance of a misreading.
What do you think?