Book Clubs & Reading Group Guides: Moderators
Responses & follow up questions
- A few examples to get things rolling: Early in the book there is the
legend of the two volcanoes as lovers from a rival tribe, and of the
Smoking Stone with its plume of smoke as a tree that holds up the sky.
The disappearances of the wizard Martin Ocelotl and his brother Andres
Mixcoatl are tied to the mythic figures Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl.
Donald discusses Beulah’s interest in mythology directly in Book
I’s “Hall of Mirrors.”
- Some proverbs and riddles: popcorn riddle (page 33); the world spilling
out of the pockets of the poor (page 35); Juana’s father as someone
who arranges his intestines artistically (page 35). In your view, what
does this last proverb eventually prove to mean, for Juana at least?
- Carlos refers specifically to the myth of Eden in his suite of letters
entitled “This New Eden,” which is the chapter immediately
following upon Juana’s final departure from Panoayán. In
Juana’s childhood home, a setting of an almost surreal beauty,
we have Amanda’s burgeoning fertility, and a version of original
sin that arises during the girls’ fertility ritual.
- The fall of the Spanish empire being another variation on The Fall.
Yet another instance being the murder of Hypatia, which Juana sees as
symptomatic of the decline of Alexandria, and which loosely foreshadows
Sor Juana’s own fate.
- The chapter “Abecedario” in Book I ends with a mention
of the Inquisition. Through that lens we see that though Juana at seven
is aware of its existence, she has only a hazy picture of what the Inquisition
really is. But there is also a suggestion that the incident of her childish
outburst over her ABCs may be viewed in a less innocent light at a later
stage in her life. At various points in the novel’s first two books,
the adult Juana who narrates the story shows herself to be aware of the
scrutiny of “the holy officers” and of their interest in
- Cutting herself off from what was in many ways a wonderful past meant
that there was a lot about that past she did not know for certain, or
had not come to an adult understanding of.
- The author may have thought it would make it easier to relate to her – easier
to understand how she could not only find ideas beautiful but also be
emotionally caught up in them, in part through her connection with her
- Book IV presents Sor Juana with a series of revelations from her own
past, and about her mother specifically. The first of these begins on
page 813, when Juana discovers that a letter calling for help, which
she’d always thought her mother had refused to answer, had in fact
never been delivered. Other understandings come in the chapters that
follow, culminating in a final one, in a passage that begins on page
- A possible follow up question: Do you think it’s true that we,
in our time, don’t feel much of a responsibility to give something
back in exchange for the benefits and liberties we enjoy?
- The Silvio episode in “Palace Games” is just one of many
possibilities, in this case suggested by a very unscholarly reading of
some of Sor Juana’s poetry. It seems entirely possible that Juana
would have found the alternatives to convent life unattractive – said
alternatives, in Mexico City at least, probably amounting to a choice
among subservience in marriage, some form of prostitution, or toil and
poverty. On the other hand, Hunger’s Brides considers
also the possibility that she was manoeuvred there.
- We see nuns and would-be nuns (María de San Jose), saints (Teresa),
false saints (beatas), scholars (St. Catherine), prostitutes
(St. Mary of Egypt, and the women of ill-repute living in recogimientos,
a sort of reform school).
- Shortly after her death, figures within the Church maintained that
her abandonment of worldly matters coincided with a true conversion in
which she “flew towards sanctity” or holiness. Octavio Paz
saw her silence and statements of remorse as akin to the Moscow show
trials of the 1920s and saw Sor Juana as a political prisoner of the
Church. But Hunger’s Brides, while taking these possibilities
into account and drawing from them, also explores other possibilities.
- A few examples being hunger for food, for sex, for friendship.
- Hunger’s Brides reminds us that at least part of what
we find in the past is shaped by what we are looking for – Antonia
and Beulah, at different points, are aware of shaping a vision of Sor
Juana that fits their own needs. But also, seeing our present coloured
by certain memories of the past opens up a number of perspectives in Hunger’s
Brides: on the resurgence of religious intolerance, the resurgent
conflict between science and ideology, the subsurface parallels between
the hungers of Sor Juana’s time and ours.
- Donald seems to be giving us glimpses of himself as he was, initially
quite unsympathetic ones. For example, it’s a bit much to hear
a serial adulterer, moreover someone repeatedly involved with his own
students, now crying victim. On the other hand, it becomes ever harder
to picture Beulah as a hapless victim.
- Another key example being Beulah’s journal entries, which often
seem to address a hostile reader – who usually appears to be Donald,
but sometimes also a god she cannot believe in.
- It may have been Graham Greene who said that every good novelist has
a sliver of ice in his heart. He may have been saying that a novelist
needs to be able to hurt his or her characters, or to know how to wound
readers. To what extent do we need to believe that art is benevolent,
or even useful?
- It’s hard not to see Beulah as someone, at least in the early
going, trapped in her own head, so to speak. She’s not nice. She’s
sarcastic. She’s not considerate. She’s needy, and open about
her neediness. She’s angry and messy. Does she have any redeeming
- So far three reviewers (all male, for what it’s worth) have mistaken
Donald for the author of Sor Juana’s chapters. Do you think the
prologue overstresses Donald’s role in the book? What is your understanding
of Beulah’s condition by the very end of the book?