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Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison: Questions for Discussion

March 8th, 2012

1. Enchantments opens in 1917 St. Petersburg, with the body of “Mad Monk” Grigory Rasputin being pulled from the Neva River—a factually accurate event. But Harrison writes from the perspective of Rasputin’s daughter, Masha, weaving fact and fiction together throughout the novel. Discuss the ways in which Harrison plays with fact and fiction in Enchantments, and to what effect.

2. During one of their first meetings, Masha and Alyosha talk about how his mother worries endlessly about his health. Alyosha tells Masha that Tsarina Alexandra believes in “the grace of God” while he believes in history. (page 24) How does the tsarina’s faith in God influence her? How does Alyosha’s faith in history influence him?

3. Masha and Alyosha create a fantasy world while under house arrest at Tsarskoe Selo. Of all the stories they tell each other and the histories they share, what passages stand out to you? Why?

4. Masha and Varya have a complicated relationship in Enchantments. Varya tells little white lies to protect herself, while Masha believes in the power of truth. Masha tells Varya, “There are ways other than lying to protect oneself,” and Varya says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. And neither do you.” (page 34) Discuss how truth and lies play into the novel. Does Masha have a point? Does Varya?

5. Harrison’s novel emphasizes the power of storytelling—through Rasputin and Masha’s relationship before his death, Masha and Alyosha’s interactions, and Alyosha’s later relations with Katya. Why do you think sharing stories—both real and imagined—hold so much power?

6. Masha struggles with Alyosha’s accident throughout the novel, wondering if he meant to hurt himself to distract his parents—and others at Tsarskoe Selo—from their plight. Alyosha tells Masha he didn’t mean to hurt himself, but she has trouble believing him. What do you think really happened?

7. As Masha and Alyosha tell their own versions of their family histories, they imagine how things might have turned out differently had their ancestors made different choices—if they had married other people, or made alternate political decisions, etc. How does the concept of fate unfold in the novel? What about the power of choice?

8. The devil and his entourage of demons, the Virgin, the Holy Spirit, a host of saints, and 630 Jesuses all appear in Enchantments. Discuss these religious apparitions and what they mean to and for the characters.

9. Alyosha and Masha are drawn to each other despite Alyosha’s condition, their age difference, and their unique predicament. Yet when they first kiss, Masha is so worried about hurting Alyosha that she can’t allow herself to enter the moment. Alyosha says, “It’s the only thing that does matter, whether or not you liked it.” Masha says, “There are other things to think about.” (page 155) What does Masha mean? How does her perspective affect their relationship?

10. According to the novel (and some historical reports), Rasputin’s death was widely predicted. Of her father and his unfortunate death, Masha reflects: “Once he’d met a man, he couldn’t imagine that man as a murderer, much less his murderer.” (page 201) Discuss this quote—in the context of both Rasputin’s death and more generally in the novel.

11. Masha and Alyosha’s relationship is cut short when she and her sister are abruptly set free from Tsarskoe Selo. Masha’s life takes many interesting turns after she leaves Alyosha: she gets married and is then widowed, moves from Paris to Vienna to America, joins the circus and is herself gravely injured. Discuss Masha’s life after the Romanovs. What did you find most surprising? Engaging?

12. Masha is afraid her father’s legacy will prevent her from getting her working papers in Paris, but in fact the Rasputin name helps her. She reflects: “The sole thing of value I possessed was my father’s history [and] his name.” (page 272) Is this true? If so, in what ways?

13. At the end of the novel, Masha dreams she is with the Romanov girls again. They are grown women, very much alive, and they want to show her a Faberge egg she has seen before. “But I know what’s inside,” Masha says. “I don’t need to see it again.” The girls all laugh and Tatiana says, “Of course you don’t know what’s inside! You can’t know. No one can. It’s never the same twice.” (pages 309–10) Discuss the meaning of this conversation in the context of the novel.

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 8th, 2012 at 3:28 pm and is filed under Reader's Guides. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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