Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for The Limits of Enchantment
1. How do the broad cultural changes of the 60's (the backdrop of this story) inform your reading of Fern's life and the changes that she undergoes? Compare the life that Mammy led with the life led by people of the next generation, like Judith. What attitudes do they share, and what cultural mores have changed? In what way does Fern bridge this generation gap? Does she change over the course of the novel?
2. Although best known as midwives, Mammy and Fern offer a wide range of services including wart removal, baking wedding cakes, and herbal remedies. What brings the villagers to seek help from them, even though there are professionals that specialize in all these services? Why do women with access to free, state licensed midwives still call on them?
3. Describing MMM and Biddy, Fern says, "They shouldn't even have been put in the same lifetime together" (135). Why can't these two women see eye to eye on midwifery? The modern technology and terminology and MMM's authoritarian attitude irritate Fern, too, but she doesn't leave the course like Biddy does. Why not? Is it just because she wants to be licensed? Or does she appreciate the course for other reasons?
4. When Greta comes to Fern for an abortion, she says, "It was a woman's right to choose" (209). Fern agrees with her on this. Does this novel take a firm position on this issue, or is the question left open? Did this story change your opinion on the topic, or enhance your understanding of it? 5. In the prologue, Fern says, "When you come to know the nature of the teller of this tale you may have good reason to doubt both. You may suspect the balance of my mind....You may start to disbelieve." Did you find that Fern was a reliable narrator? Or did you, like others in the story, suspect that she might be mad? What elements of the story struck you as most true? Were those elements realistic or surreal? Why would the author seek to establish doubt regarding his narrator so early in the story?
6. Fern's Asking is in many ways the fulcrum of her story. Several tensions crest during that experience: Fern ventures into a dreamlike reality that her science -- tempered mind resists; the sexual tension between her and Chas is released; and, although Fern doesn't realize it, Mammy passes after her long illness. How do these events resolve tensions that have been building since the beginning of the story, and how do they set the stage for the resolution of Fern's troubles and her coming of age?
7. After hearing about the Asking, William tells Fern, "Didn't clear your head beforehand, did you?" (199) What were Fern's expectations of the Asking, and what were the results of the ritual? Did she know what she wanted? Or get what she hoped for? 8. What is the significance of the hare in this story? Think about the hare in the garden at Bunch Cormell's house, the creation myth Fern hears during the Asking, and the special dispensation that allows the villager's to eat hare on Easter Monday. How is Fern's affinity with the hare an important part of her story? Similarly, why is it appropriate that she ask Chas to hunt two hare for her, and in what way does that request constitute an apology?
9. After arguing about the injustices of law enforcement, Fern insults Bill Myers by saying, "You're not a policeman, Bill. You're a ticket collector" (221). Bill doesn't understand the remark. What do you think Fern meant by it? In another scene, she describes Mammy's disapproval of the midwife's license, which she called, "that damned ticket" (96), and later Fern also refers to the red mushroom as, "the ticket" (156). What does this word represent for Fern? Why is it so disparaging, in her mind, to call Bill a ticket collector? 10. Fern describes the Freemasons by saying, "They were our opposite numbers, our shadow forms, a kind of mockery of ourselves Mammy used to say" (240). What conflict pits Fern and Mammy against the Freemasons, and more generally, what different values pit the Freemasons against "the few"? In what ways are the Freemasons a caricature of "the few"?
11. Although Mammy was not buried in the churchyard, her church funeral draws emotions from Fern that she hadn't released at the true burial in the forest. How did each ceremony represent and touch on the different aspects of Fern's relationship with Mammy? Was each ceremony necessary for Fern, if not for Mammy?
12. During the Asking, Fern describes "getting stuck," in the trance and compares it to getting stuck in life. She says people are, "too disposed to letting life go by unheeded" (162). Did you notice any other parallels between the mystical life Mammy, Fern, and the other "few" live, and the mundane life we're familiar with? Do Fern's descriptions of mystical skills or events seem relevant to everyday things in your life?