Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for The Marriage Bed
1. Think about Deirdre's relationships with her daughters; her panic at the thought of not being with them. Why is this so powerful in her? Why is she afraid to let them go into the world? Is it them she fears for, or is it, as Maighread says to her, "It's you who would be unmoored in the world." We learn as the story goes on, how deeply Deirdre loves each of them. How would you identify the active force in Deirdre, which enables her to finally take charge of her own life? Is it related to her attachment to and love for her daughters? What is the significance of her daughters accompanying her to the Great Blasket Island near the end of the book?
2. After they escape to the garden rooms early in their marriage, Deirdre and Manus find the Secretus Secretorum and read from its pages. Manus reads aloud: "Inside each of us there is a heaven and hell and a universe outside of us...all the order and the chaos of the universe exists within the human heart" (158). Deirdre then goes on to read: "The created world began with a separation of opposites, the tearing apart of the united opposites. Injustice is incurred by the existence of separate things" (158). What does the imagery in these quotes bring to mind? What kinds of injustices has Deirdre suffered and how have they contributed to the chaos in her own soul? Are there "separate things" in Deirdre's life that prevent her from reconciling the warring elements inside her?
3. In what ways might these quotes be applicable to Manus? After all, Deirdre says, "...there were two of him, and it was the lost one that I was in an intrigue with; the one that was only visible to me when he slept" (187). 4. Why is the Secretus Secretorum, a medieval text on alchemy, so compelling for these young lovers? Does it shed light on their natures and their place in the universe? Do you see in its imagery that male and female are, by virtue of their differences, doomed to separation, or does it suggest a potential for euphoric union that attracts both Deirdre and Manus? Do you think, knowing the way Deirdre's parents died, that these images of the Courtship of the Sun and the Moon, the marriage of two elements becoming one, touch something profound in Deirdre; offer some meaning, some consolation? But Deirdre also fears the Secretus Sectretorum. The first time she finds a copy of it in the Antiquarian Bookstore in Dublin, she is deeply disturbed by some of its darker, stranger images. She closes it and leaves, upset. But she returns soon after and purchases it. Why?
5. Why is Manus so deeply betrothed to his mother's vision of what must be? Although he sometimes bristles at the life he feels doomed to lead, he does not struggle to break free of it for most of this novel. At one point, during an argument with a fellow apprentice, Manus fiercely argues against tearing an old house down, saying "I just think we ought to be cautious of knocking away at the old" (174). Is his reverence for the past connected to his mother's demands for tradition? Or might this be related to his father's love of ancient architecture? While Manus is held in thrall by his mother's wishes, he also idealizes the father he hardly knew. How would you describe the way his father lives on inside him?
6. Consider the different houses in the novel. The house at Kenmare is a vast house, strange and dreamlike. Manus and Bairbre both tell Deirdre about the forgotten rooms in the house, and that there were rooms that had not been entered in years. Manus shows Deirdre the room where Bairbre's girlhood attempts at plasterwork remain. It is also truly a house "divided." There is Mrs. O'Breen's orderly façade, the front areas of the house and there is the wilder, more elemental, more creative side that Manus' father had occupied with its untended gardens. Why does the latter feel the natural setting for Deirdre and Manus' love? Why is it here that they are free to express their true selves? Why does Manus feel that it is inevitable that they go back to the "other side of the house?"
7. What about the house on Merrion Square? Deirdre had thought that moving across Ireland, far away from Mrs. O'Breen, she and Manus would be able to live their own lives. Why do they feel Mrs. O'Breen even more strongly present in this house than in the house in Kenmare?
8. At one point, Maighread surprises her mother by speaking of what she has learned in school about the Blasket: "Sister Elizabeth says that Island Irish is the purest. The Blasket in particular. Preserved there. Medieval Irish, it is! Unruined by English invasion" (244). What significance does this idea, that the Blasket is somehow more purely Irish, have in terms of the larger story? What does the Irish language, with its rich history, represent?
9. Living the life that was planned for her, Bairbre suffers in silence. But in the end, she rebels against her mother, greatly displeasing her. Why does she give her mother her hair, which should have been buried with her? What meaning is there in this gesture?
10. What do you make of the relationship that Deirdre and Bairbre have while they are both at Enfant de Marie? What does each girl recognize in the other? What do they each long for? Does Deirdre's leaving the convent to marry Manus feel like a betrayal of Bairbre? Was it always Bairbre herself that Deirdre was longing for? Remember the deep impression that the O'Breens made on Deirdre the first time she saw them. And when she sees Bairbre again weeks later, she says, "...all the feelings the three had once roused in me, and the ones her brother had especially excited, I read now in her."(pg. 55)
11. "I marveled as I lay there at how deeply buried the things are that drive us. How remote we are each from ourselves" (248). This striking quote from Deirdre comes as she ruminates on her relationship with Maighread and the repressed rage that she believes she has passed on to her daughter. But in what ways does this quote get to the heart of this novel? Look at the main characters in The Marriage Bed, and discuss the ways that all are motivated by wounds that are too painful for them to look at.
12. Why do people often cling to doctrines or traditions that can ultimately stifle and hurt them? Do you see evidence of this in people you know; in society in general? What does this tell us about human vulnerability?