Analysing the cover
Introduce a study of the novel’s covers by discussing the purpose of a book cover: to intrigue readers for the purpose of making a sale. Covers give us insights into the story itself but also the target audience because of their attempts to appeal to that audience. Consider why different editions of a book have different covers, blurbs or titles, and how that which is suitable or appealing to one cultural group may not be attractive or even acceptable to another culture.
Project the following PowerPoint presentation (PPT, 3MB) featuring selected Burial Rites book covers. Take a few minutes to scroll through the slides with the class, pausing at each cover and inviting students to examine them. Divide the class into five groups of roughly even numbers, assigning one cover to each group in colour, hard copy or on their devices. Alternatively, visit Hannah Kent’s cover art website and project the covers you prefer to study.
Ask students to complete the following focus questions after discussing each one. A worksheet is available for student use (PDF, 86KB).
- What are the styles of the writing/fonts and main colours used on the cover?
- Who or what is the central subject?
- Based on the cover, what do you expect of the novel’s themes or issues?
- Based on the cover, how do you read the genre of the novel?
Once students have completed the above analysis they are to present their findings to the rest of the class. One student per group or all members of the group are to present while classmates record the information for the other images. If this is too time-consuming you might omit the recording task, but giving listeners a job is a good way to keep students on task even if it is a lengthy process. The collection of notes, focusing on visual elements, is also useful in developing their reading skills.
Note that the final synthesis questions on the handout are opportunities to extend students’ learning by encouraging comparing and contrasting in addition to the prediction activity. You could return to these at any stage of the unit.
A Venn diagram may assist students in the ‘compare and contrast’ process. Students could label each one a different colour to help them draw out their comparisons and points of contrast.
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Analysing the titles as translations
Similarly, a book title is chosen for the way in which it can market that book, but it also functions to identify the work, highlight its themes and sometimes its characters, and to place it in context. Ultimately, the title frames the narrative. Discuss this with your students. While it may seem obvious, draw attention to the fact that the aesthetic and ideological appeal of a cover reveals much about the audience and the visual/written conventions constructed to attract it.
Ask students to take a moment to think about the title, Burial Rites. On a sheet of paper or in their workbooks, ask them to brainstorm the meanings of the term and its separate words:
- What are the connotations and images associated with ‘burial rites’?
The class might:
- distinguish between ‘rites’ that are rituals and ‘rights’ that are entitlements
- identify ‘burial rites’ as rituals or traditional ceremonies associated with death, burial or cremation
- recognise that these practices are culturally specific and vary according to religious and cultural beliefs
- discuss how ‘burial rites’ are varied in the degree of their flexibility: some are rules or traditions that must be followed or obeyed, or a very specific set of rules for what to do to a body (or soul) in the process of burial or cremation.
Interestingly, when using a search engine to look up the meaning of ‘burial rites’ it usually defaults to a wiki definition of ‘funeral’. There is an obvious difference, however, in participating in burial rites versus attending a funeral. It is also interesting to think of Agnes’s ‘burial rites’. How was she prepared for her death? How was the execution carried out? How is she remembered? It would be useful to return to the title towards the end of the unit to see how the title bears relevance to the novel overall. What ‘rites’ was Agnes afforded? What ‘rites’ was she denied? How does that denial make comment on her life, gender, class and circumstance?
Burial Rites has been published in nearly thirty countries since its release in 2013. The titles vary across editions. Some of the titles are listed below with their English translations.
|De laaste rituelen||Dutch||The Last Rites|
|Das Seelenhaus||German||The Soul’s House|
|A la grace des hommes||French||Has/With the Grace of Men|
|Ho Lasciato entrare la tempesta||Italian||I let the storm enter|
|En Morderska bland oss||Swedish||A Murder Among Us|
|Uindviet Jord||Danish||Unconsecrated Land|
|Tuzba A Zrada||Slovak||Desire and betrayal|
Direct students to translate a selection of titles from around the world. If pressed for time, provide them with the translations already listed in the table above. Ask them to note the various emphases, then choose two translations that surprised them or changed their understanding significantly. Ask them to explain why it surprised them and shifted emphasis. For each translated title, identify the images and connotations of those translations (of ‘Convicted’ for example, as they did previously with ‘Burial Rites’). How does the emphasis differ from ‘Burial Rites’? They might also benefit from completing a PMI chart.
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Analysing the blurb
While each edition of the novel has a different blurb, this activity will focus on the Australian (2018) paperback edition. The blurb can be found on the back cover or on the Publisher’s website for Burial Rites.
Ask students to read the blurb then carry out a close reading of it. The close reading process is modelled here but at this stage students should be familiar with it. At its simplest, close reading ‘is a process of observing the features of texts and identifying their significance’ (Lockett, 2010). In this way, students are looking at meaning, construction of the text and ways of reading the blurb. Some guiding questions include, ‘What arouses your curiosity?’ and ‘About what are you curious?’
‘In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdottir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men.’
In the above quotation, for example, students might comment on gender (‘her part’ and ‘murder of two men’) or dramatisation of ‘northern’ Iceland (a global extremity, on the fringes) and strong language such as ‘condemned’ and the adjective ‘brutal’.
Access one or more other blurbs (a blurb from a different edition or editions) and provide copies for the students.
We do: As a class read a second blurb and highlight terms that are also used in the 2018 Australian paperback version. You may select words such as ‘betrayal’, ‘soul’, ‘condemned’, ‘formidable landscape’, ‘compelled’, ‘freedom’ or ‘survival’. There might also be an emphasis on ‘one woman’ or Agnes as a solitary or alienated woman. A Venn diagram might also be useful here. Reinforce the importance of active reading, so that in the process of reading students are annotating to highlight words that stand out because they create vivid imagery, are repeated or are emotive. They may also be noting what the sounds and rhythms of the text are as they read it.
They do: Direct students to read a third blurb to annotate it, then write a close reading of the extract. Alternatively, you might prefer to set a question for them to complete in paragraphs such as:
- How does the blurb achieve its purpose?
- How does the blurb construct the protagonist?
- How does the blurb highlight possible themes of the novel (such as survival, freedom or marginalisation)?
The setting of Iceland is perhaps unusual in a novel written by an Australian writer, particularly an early career writer as Kent was with this being her first novel. While section three of this unit includes further analysis of the representations of alienation or ‘foreignness’ of the setting, students will benefit from an insight into Iceland’s geography and culture before studying the novel more closely.
The publisher’s website identifies that ‘Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, in which every day is a battle for survival.’ The Icelandic landscape takes on a presence of its own in the novel, reflecting the mood of grief and depression, but somehow participating in both isolating and enabling characters. A study of Iceland – geographically and culturally – is therefore important background. Direct students to find a map of Iceland that establishes its geographical position globally. The map in the novel’s front pages is useful in magnifying the places in the novel, but before moving to that it is important for students to see how distant it is from the equator and also Australia. Direct them to sites such as Guide to Iceland, Lonely Planet or World Atlas.
As an optional extension, you may also like students to participate in some further research about Iceland. If so, direct them to the web quest (PDF, 105KB) to complete during a research period. The answers are available here (PDF, 291KB).
Journal composition task
Direct students to read Hannah Kent’s photo essay, Burial Rites: A photo essay from Iceland. This creative journal task involves students choosing one of the photos from the photo essay and imagining themselves in that photo. Using first person point of view, students could compose a diary entry in which they describe the scene as if seeing their surrounds for the first time. This may require some scaffolding and revision of the terminology of sensory imagery such as olfactory, tactile, kinaesthetic, visual, auditory and gustatory imagery. Guide students by emphasising that language choices will develop imagery and contribute to the atmosphere.
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Background: Hannah Kent
A writer’s context, including the writer’s motivations and beliefs, inevitably shapes the text produced. The context of production and reception are influential in how we read texts, so to start with you may wish to introduce your students to Hannah Kent. Kent’s own story in visiting Iceland on a rotary exchange at age 17, and her own encounter with Agnes, aroused in her a deep curiosity for the last woman executed in Iceland. What seems like a story on the opposite side of the world geographically to us, in fact, offers us many common human experiences.
Listen to ‘Conversations with Richard Fidler’ a fifty-minute podcast in which Fidler interviews Kent about her writing of Burial Rites.
- What are the sources of isolation that Kent identifies in her own experience of Iceland?
- What details about the climate and landscape does Kent provide?
- When Kent discusses food with Fidler she refers to Skyr. What is it? Describe it.
- What aroused Kent’s curiosity about Agnes’s story?
- What does Kent identify that worked against Agnes? i.e. what made Agnes unpopular or an easy target (in the 1830s)?
- Fidler refers to Agnes in the novel as ‘a Lady Macbeth’ type character (37:40). In what way is this true/not true? Justified or not?
- Record some of the barbaric details of the execution to which Kent refers.
- Fidler refers to the influence of oral traditions on histories. What does this suggest about narratives and storytelling?
Another possible option is to find and watch episode 22 of season 18 of ABC’s Australian Story, ‘No More than a Ghost’. It premiered on Monday 1 July 2013 and features Hannah Kent’s story of writing Burial Rites.
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A thread of the central narrative relies upon familiarity with the sagas, Icelandic literature that focused on history and the struggles of the people historically. See Icelandic sagas. Direct students to the saga wiki, asking them to read and answer:
- What are the sagas?
- On what do the sagas focus?
- When did events in the sagas occur? In what centuries?
- When were the sagas recorded?
- Who wrote the sagas?
- What reasons do historians give to explain why Icelanders produced such a high volume of literature relative to the size of the population?
Direct students to the novel’s epigraph (the quotation that precedes the Prologue): ‘I was the worst to the one I loved best’ from the Laxdæla saga.
Direct students to the Laxdæla saga story, asking them to read and answer:
- Why is the Laxdæla saga so popular?
- What is the focus of the saga?
- What are the consequences of love for Kjartan and Bolli?
Project Hannah Kent’s answers to the following two questions and discuss them with your class:
- How much did the Icelandic sagas inform your research and storytelling?
- What sagas, if any, particularly influenced you? Can you briefly describe them?
Kent’s answers are important to the study of the novel, particularly her reference to the sagas as an explicit and intentional focus on storytelling. Kent highlights here the different ways in which women are punished for their roles in relationships, an important aspect of reading the epigraph as an ideological question about power in the text. Discuss with the class:
- What connections does Kent make between the Laxdæla saga and the events at Illugastadir?
As an optional extension exercise you could ask students to investigate criticism of the connection between Gudrún (Laxdæla saga) and Agnes. The levels of depth and sincerity in the respective relationships in the triangle are thought to be more complex and intense that the one dimensional ‘use and abuse’ of Natan towards Agnes and Sigga for instance. The motives of the women and their reactions to the men’s deaths are also different enough to make the link tenuous. See one blogger’s view here.
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Optional activity: The death penalty
An optional activity you might like to use with your students is to explore the history of capital punishment globally as well as in Iceland. Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friðrik Sigurðsson, were the last people executed in Iceland, their beheadings taking place publicly in 1830. At this time there were no gaols in Iceland, a significant fact in terms of the plot since it is the absence of gaols that leads Agnes to be housed at the home of the District Officer of Vatnsdalur, Jón Jónsson, and his wife Margrét.
A brief summary of the history of capital punishment in Iceland is informative, as is a comparison of capital punishment and the last female executions within Europe. By contrast, the date of the last woman executed in Australia was in 1951. In Britain it was 1965 and in the USA it was 2015.
Making students aware of these dates you could ask them to:
- make a list of arguments for or against the death penalty, then write a persuasive text, such as a speech, arguing for or against. (Direct students to specify their purpose, audience and context before writing. This task could be completed in their journals.)
- discuss why it still exists in the USA but not in Australia or Iceland
- research the death penalty using sources from Amnesty International
- research a case such as that of Maggie Heffernan, who is fictionalised by Wendy James in Out of the Silence, and was the subject of the Victorian Socialist League’s sympathies and social action in 1900.
- identify other texts in which characters are convicted of a crime and sentenced to death such as in The Confession by John Grisham, The Green Mile by Stephen King or A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines.
Personal response on reading the text
Analytical note-making: motifs
A motif is a recurring symbol, image, phrase or thing. Motifs often influence the structure of a novel and shape how we read character and theme. They are also features of genre. Dystopian texts for instance include motifs of surveillance, control or oppression, while the gothic texts include elements of fire, the supernatural, a haunting, incarceration, etc.
As students read Burial Rites, encourage them to record and make notes on the examples of various motifs that they encounter, including ravens, hands, light/dark and smoke/fire and ice.
Before doing so, consider how symbolic archetypes function within the text, such as:
- light usually symbolises hope, renewal, or illumination
- dark often symbolises despair, the unknown, ignorance, or alienation
- fire often represents knowledge, passion, anger, light, life
- ice, like the desert, represents ignorance, despair, barrenness or sterility, and death.
Journal entries that make personal connections with the text
Encourage students to complete a series of journal entries (PDF, 100KB). They could respond to a range of prompts such as having to:
- explain what they would most like to know about Agnes and why (analytical)
- justify the character they believe to be the most under developed (persuasive)
- depict how the descriptions of Icelandic climate and landscape made them feel (they could complete this entry in a creative form such as writing a poem where students capture the feelings evoked in the novel)
- write a persuasive speech for or against the death penalty using Agnes Magnúsdóttir as an example (persuasive)
- review the novel (in the review, students should provide a brief synopsis as well as commenting on themes, characters, language, point of view. They should give the novel a rating out of five stars and give the review an imaginative title)
- write a newspaper report on the fire and death of Natan Ketilsson, or the execution of Agnes Magnúsdóttir (interpretive)
- write an obituary for Natan Ketilsson using what you know of him from the novel to add detail (interpretive)
- write a profile feature article on Agnus Magnúsdóttir for a contemporary audience (interpretive)
- explain which character or characters they identify with most and why
- identify a theme or situation in the novel that is close to an experience of their own (explain how it connects to them personally).
Outline of key elements of the text
- There are many online plot summaries that are useful for students and teachers in their study of Burial Rites. Use one of these, such as the summary from the Stella Prize, to encourage students to sequence the plot according to the order of events in the novel. One way of approaching this is to cut up the summary into cards or strips of phrases that students then need to number in order as events occur in the novel. This is an exercise in comprehending both the novel and the summary.
- Another way of exploring the narrative sequence of Burial Rites is to assign one chapter to each pair of students. Each pair could provide a dot-point list of the main events that occur in that chapter, which is then shared with their classmates (via software such as OneNote, Teams, My Classes or even in hard copy). Students could then plot the events along X and Y axes labelled time/action that visually represent the high points of action in the novel. This stage/year level should be able to identify the exposition, complication, rising tension, climax and resolution of the novel along the X/time axis.
Activity: characters and ideas
The novel’s protagonist is Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a woman condemned to death for her role in murdering two men. Her relationships with the other characters, particularly Tótiand Margrét, in whom she comes to confide, are evidence of her growth and strength despite the constraints imposed by her status and death sentence. Assign students or pairs one character each from the worksheet table (PDF, 126KB). Direct them to identify the ideas associated with that character, recording evidence from the novel to support those associations. Then, reconvene for a class discussion in which students take it in turns to share their findings with the class so they have a full set of notes on each character.
The character of Agnes Magnúsdóttir is publicly executed as a murderer, ending a life filled with betrayal, despair and loneliness. Ask your students to compare Agnes to other murderesses in fiction such as Lady Macbeth or Medea. What qualities or stereotypical traits do they have in common? How do their circumstances, contexts and construction differ? Encourage them to consider their relationships with their respective partners. A Venn diagram may assist with this and can be found on page 3 of these compare and contrast organisers.
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There are many themes in the novel that emerge from a story of death, brutality and redemption. Identify themes you see emerging in the novel and find examples of the treatment of those themes. The following structure (PDF, 97KB) may be useful:
|Theme||Evidence (quoted example) and literary technique at work within that example||How the example highlights the theme|
1. Group task: reporting
Direct students in groups to create a two to three-minute video news report on the execution of Agnes Magnúsdottir. They may need to revise the conventions of news reports.
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2. Individual task: analysing
Encourage students to use their completed themes tables (above) to write an extended response that addresses the following task:
Explore the ways in which a text conveys its themes to evoke powerful emotions in the reader.
Alternatively, students could use their character notes (above) to complete:
Readers are often fascinated by characters with which they may not always identify. Discuss how a character’s complexity is established and made engaging in a novel you have studied.
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The writer’s craft
Responding to the structure
The structure of Burial Rites is non-linear, also known as a-chronological. We learn the story of Agnes’s past, and the details leading up to the murder as Agnes is prepared to reveal them to Margrét and Tóti. Telling her story and confiding in Margrét and Tóti in this way reflects Agnes’s growth and her ability to trust Margrét and Tóti. It unravels a process of her coming to terms with events. For us reading the novel, the gradual storytelling reminds us of the complexities of truth, hauntings and the effects of emotional grief. Ask your students to articulate the effects of the broken, disrupted narrative on them personally and on their reading of the novel.
Some points to note in analysing the structure of the novel:
- readers know that Agnes is executed from the outset of the novel
- readers switch between narrative forms and narrative points of view
- flashbacks and shifting points of view fragment the narrative of the murders
- the novel may be read as having a postmodernist structure where historical texts intersperse perspectives of the powerless.
Using other textual forms
As each chapter of the novel commences with a textual form other than prose and includes poetry, letters and public notices, assign a pair of students a chapter each and guide them to focus on the text at the beginning of their respective chapters, relating it to the significance of the rest of that chapter. This information will be useful to return to at the end of the unit to add to and extend its analytical depth.
Before dividing the class into pairs to complete the chapter study (PDF, 114KB), highlight for them the way in which these texts or documents tell a story of their own and remind us that historical narratives are versions of truth. The formality of the official records establishes a detachment expected of documents that attempt to record historical events (births, deaths, etc.) with accuracy. Kent’s inclusion of such documents reminds us of the fluidity of truth, of the tales that lie beneath the official records. And what we can take from that is a questioning of our own versions of history. These letters, records and poems add to the narrative layers that parallel the multiple versions of Agnes’s story as it is told to Tóti and to Margrét. The texts that open each chapter are sometimes impersonal, such as the court records or registers. Their simplicity disguises a more complex narrative. The patriarchy and power of Blöndal is established immediately, for instance, and the lists of possessions can be contrasted to make a gendered reading about the wealth and power of men and women. These textual inclusions also act as metafiction to some extent, reminding us that Kent has taken some historical facts and weaved a whole story around them.
Analysing the prologue
The novel’s prologue is beautifully written. It contains vivid imagery, is richly symbolic, and controls its syntax for effect. Ask your students to undertake a close reading of this passage. You could direct them to focus on binaries such as us and them, life and death, and light and darkness. The threat of the weather and its trope as a feature of the gothic is also evident: footsteps, howling wind, flickering flames and the cold. How does this function in reading for genre? The focus on identity is also significant: Agnes’s fear of vanishing, of not existing, of being invisible, asking, ‘Where will I be then?’ How is the resolution foreshadowed here?
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Approach to characterisation
Getting to know the characters through the text
Characterisation or character construction refers to the ways in which writers create or develop their characters. The characters act as representations and are developed through a character’s thoughts, dialogue, appearance, actions and reactions, their surroundings, decisions, values, etc. Choose some examples from the novel that draw attention to Kent’s characterisation and that construct important qualities in the novel’s main characters. You may wish to use the examples here (PDF, 137KB) and distribute them to students as a basis for discussion.
Character and growth in Burial Rites
Direct students to answer the following question. This character growth worksheet (PDF, 396KB) may assist their planning:
Agnes can be read as a source of change for Tóti and Margrét. As Agnes shares her story with them, they grow in understanding, compassion and affection for Agnes, learning more about life and humanity in the process. Similarly, Lauga and Steina are changed by Agnes.
- Discuss how Agnes is constructed as a catalyst for other characters’ growth in Burial Rites.
Characterising the villain
Blöndal might be read as an antagonist and villain in this novel. Ask the class to share their understandings of these terms before directing them to brainstorm:
- How is Blöndal shown to misuse his power?
Beyond this, guide students in discussing:
- What are the consequences for others such as Tóti, Jón and his family, Sigga, and Agnes?
Points raised in the discussion might consider the lack of compassion in his correspondence (pp. 4–7), the way in which he requests coffee (p. 13) and abandons the skyr (p. 18) when he first visits Kornsá, despite the obvious poverty of the family, and the way in which he eats disrespectfully during his meeting with Tóti about such a serious subject as Agnes’s life (p. 166).
Natan Ketilsson might also be read as an antagonist and villain. Guide students to work in pairs and discuss the character of Natan. More specifically, each member of a pair should take opposing sides in arguing that Natan is too unlikeable to be convincing. Give students a limited time to prepare, such as fifteen minutes in class, or overnight for homework, then students can take one minute each to put forward their views before the other person has one minute to present his or her opposing argument. They can complete an oral presentation checklist to give their partners feedback.
A summarising activity for this concept might be to complete a journal activity, responding to the following prompt:
- Reading for a villain implies that there is a hero. Is there a hero in Burial Rites? Gather evidence from the novel to argue why or why not.
Responding to the setting
By Unit 4, Literature students will be familiar with the way in which setting functions on a deeper level of meaning than just an expression of time or place. Remind them how setting can function beyond place to reveal societal concerns or psychological states of the characters. Some of the more significant settings are listed below. Direct students to consider what happens at each place and how that contributes to their significance:
In Burial Rites, the extreme, harsh conditions offered by Iceland’s climate and landscape assume a real presence. The novel is laden with rich imagery, sensorial, mood-evoking and atmospheric. Guide students to identify some examples of these aspects of the setting, and how they contribute to a sense of foreboding and the gothic. A structure for this analysis is available here (PDF, 116KB).
Furthermore, explain the relevance of pathetic fallacy. The use of pathetic fallacy attributes human emotions to an inanimate object, most particularly elements of nature such as the weather. By employing such a device, writers bring nature to life, characterising it by emphasising its strong presence and force. One effect is often to convey depth and experience of emotion. Pathetic fallacy also serves to present a vivid and alternative perspective such as Agnes’s in the description that: ‘Only the wind speaks and it will not talk sense, it screams like the window of the world and will not wait for a reply.’ (p. 321)
Project or distribute copies of these examples (PDF, 104KB) and ask students to read and discuss if, and how, they are evidence of pathetic fallacy. How do they show setting as functioning in ways other than merely as being indicative of time and place?
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Parallels and contrasts in character
In fiction, a foil is a character who parallels yet contrasts with another character – usually the protagonist – in order to highlight various features of that other character’s personality, throwing these characteristics into sharper focus. Consider, for instance, how Macduff in The Tragedy of Macbeth can be read as Macbeth’s foil, or how Bianca might be read as Katerina’s in The Taming of the Shrew.
Guide your class in examining to what extent Margrét or Steina are foils of Agnes. There are certainly narrative and character parallels between them, but does a ‘foil’ reading ultimately hold up to scrutiny? The connection between Agnes and Margrét is explicit, with Agnes identifying them both as ‘Two dying women’ (p. 269). Distribute a Venn diagram to your students and ask them to identify the characters’ similarities and differences. You might also do the same for them to compare and contrast Steina and Agnes: ‘I am nothing like Steina. She is unhappy too, yes, but she is not like me.’ (p. 177) and, ‘Has Steina ever had to decide whether to let a farmer under her skirts […] or to deny him and find herself homeless in the snow and fog with all doors barred against her?’ (p. 178)
Parallels and contrasts in the narrative
Narrative parallels also add meaning to the novel by emphasising characters’ connections and highlighting themes of superstition and fate. These narrative parallels include Steina claiming to have met Agnes previously: ‘I know you. I mean, we met once.’ (p. 77) and Agnes’s previous meeting with Tóti: ‘The pass was flooded and you came by on your horse just as I was about to cross the water by foot.’ (p. 80). Other parallels include Agnes’s times at Kornsá and her meetings with Jóas. Draw out these connections with your class in a discussion by assigning half the class one of these parallels (say Tóti and Agnes) and the other half the second one (say, Steina and Agnes). Ask students to identify and make a list of the similarities and differences in the characters’ journeys and traits.
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Point of view
Burial Rites is told to us through various forms of storytelling, including first and third-person narration.
Expressing Agnes’s perspective through first-person point of view privies readers to Agnes’ deepest, most intimate thoughts and feelings, as well as enabling us to hear details of the murders and the motives and circumstances leading up to them. In parts, the effect of first-person point of view is to develop empathy for Agnes; however, her narration can be read as unreliable at other times in the novel because the combination of points of view positions us to judge the truth of her testimony from a distance. Is Agnes always being honest? Why does she withhold details and certain points? When she admits, ‘This is what I tell the Reverend.’ (p. 142) is she saying that it did not happen?
Third-person omniscient narration exposes readers to details and events from which Agnes is excluded. It means that we learn the details of Tóti’s conversations with his father and his visit to Blöndal, for instance. It also means that we are distanced from Agnes’s thoughts at various times, watching conversations she has with others. Ask students to consider the premise that point of view contributes to making this novel such a good text to adapt to film because it creates ‘scenes’ with filmlike qualities.
Direct students to the following example and highlight the significance of the changing points of view:
The next morning I woke, and for a few moments I didn’t know where I was. […] leaned against the cow, warming my cold nose and fingers, thinking of what I should do. I wanted to leave before Natan came out to feed the stock. (p. 289)
The above extract is narrated in the first person by Agnes, and is an example of Agnes telling Margrét the story of the murders. Encountering Agnes’s perspective through this intimate point of view, presents us with Agnes’s desperation and alienation. It shows that Agnes is clever, thinking and strategic because she wants to avoid Natan, and offers us insight into Natan’s depravity and the abusive nature of their relationship because she feels cold and rejected – having been physically removed from the house by Natan.
The story then shifts to an omniscient, third-person narrative that informs us of Tóti’s fever: ‘Tóti woke in the shadowed badstofa of Breidabölstadur and saw his father at the end of his bed, slumped against the wall.’ (p. 289). The interactions between him and his father highlight the severity of Tóti’s illness, as it was only something very serious that has kept him away from Agnes. It also shows us his father’s disapproval of his counsel of Agnes.
Immediately after this section, the third-person omniscient narration continues, but this time it focuses on Margrét listening to Agnes’s story and it is she who emphasises Agnes’s mistreatment at the hands of Natan: ‘Margrét was silent a moment. The milk had cooled in her cup. “He threw you into the snow?”’ (p. 290)
Guide your students through a discussion of the significance of the shifting points of view evident in these extracts. Then distribute this worksheet (PDF, 320KB) and assign students a quotation in pairs or in small groups. For each one they should:
- Identify the context of the extract. In which part of the novel is it located and what is happening immediately before and after the passage? What points of view are used in the sections immediately before and after the section of the given passage?
- Identify the point of view from which it is written.
- Explain how it constructs Agnes as an unreliable narrator.
- What information or details are we privy to through this point of view?
- How does it influence our response to the event and to the characters in that extract?
Burial Rites is a particularly useful text for teaching the concept of voice, specifically narrative voice. While there are many different voices in the text, such as those of the author or the characters, narrative voice is a product of the relationship between the language of narration and point of view.
Brian Moon explains that voice ‘refers to the real or imagined identity of the speaker or speakers in a literary text. ‘It is what we hear in the pages.’ Moon elaborates to say that, ‘A common assumption is that the most prominent voice we “hear” in a text is that of the author. But authors do not generally speak as themselves: they invent narrators and characters who become the storytellers and participants in the text.’ Moon, B. (2017). Literary Terms: A Practical Glossary. Chalkface.
Language and style
In reading Burial Rites, students would have encountered the detailed descriptions, vivid imagery, symbols and motifs for which Hannah Kent is renowned.
Direct students to reviews of the novel in which a critical statement is made about Kent’s style. This collection of links to critical reviews (PDF, 106KB). Guide students in their recording of quoted examples from the novel that support or challenge the particular reviewer’s claims. As an extension task, you might also ask students to complete three comments of their own that critique Kent’s style. They could write these statements of review in their journals or workbooks, or pool them in an online location such as OneNote to share and comment on other students’ critique comments.
Symbolism and motif activity
Guide students in completing a summary table such as the one below that requires them to analyse some of the novel’s symbols or motifs, identifying their significance by connecting them to the themes and characters of the novel. Some of these symbols include ravens, hands, light/dark, smoke/fire and ice, etc.
Symbol or motif
Quoted example and page reference
How the example connects symbol and theme
How the example connects symbol and character
Text and meaning
Exploration of themes and ideas
Visual task: themes and ideas
Some of the novel’s themes include freedom, justice, truth, redemption, dispossession, exploitation and belonging. These themes, and others, have been written on extensively by other writers on various sites such as LitCharts and in VATE’s teaching notes, Inside Stories. Encourage students to use these notes, along with their their own background reading and understanding of the novel, to make a study of one theme that can be shared with the class. Assign students a different theme individually or in pairs. Students should then collate examples of images that relate to those themes, presenting them as an A3 poster. They should intersperse the images with quotations from the novel that convey the themes. Students might also benefit from using quotations to create a Wordle for their respective themes.
Studying themes: quoted examples
To consolidate students’ understanding of the novel’s themes, or to support their work completing the visual task above, distribute these quoted examples (PDF, 126KB) to students.
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Optional synthesising tasks
Group students in pairs to create a John Green-like ‘Crash Course’ on Burial Rites. Where it is too difficult to focus on the whole text, assign one aspect to each group of pairs: e.g. characters, themes, style, point of view, setting and language. Students are to present their analysis in an upbeat way to engage a contemporary audience of their peers.
Encourage students to complete a journal entry that reflects upon the after effects of Agnes’s death. That is, after Agnes is executed, what becomes of Tóti and the family at Kornsá?
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Ways of reading the text
1. A gendered reading
A gendered reading approaches a text through a lens of equality, specifically, gender equality. It examines whether men and women are portrayed in a stereotypical way or to what extent they are expected to adhere to cultural norms. Such a reading focuses on who is disempowered or punished by contravening gender expectations.
Reading for gender would probe:
- the interrogation or normalisation of ideas of femininity and masculinity
- the limitations imposed by expectations of gender
- how gender can serve as a handicap or an asset
- who is empowered or disempowered by nature of their gender, valued or devalued?
- the degree of social agency enabled by social systems and practices
- the way in which social structures reward or punish particular sexes for their physical features, behaviours and abilities
- the genders of characters represented as active or passive
- how the portrayal of women or men have become features of genres, such as the mad woman in the gothic tradition or the strong, handsome prince who rescues a princess in fairy tales
- the omission or silencing of a particular gender
- whether or not the text endorses or challenges the power structures represented in the text.
Reading the representation of men and women
In reading for gender, students should consider the roles afforded to both genders and how the social system perpetuates power relationships in favour of men. A gendered view would acknowledge the patriarchal power system in early nineteenth century society that enabled men to use their power to their own advantage and exploit women in the process.
Direct students to consider representations of women in the novel, such as:
- women are domesticated (private sphere); men work outside (public)
- women as witches or mad – a threat because they are uncontrollable
- the dangers of female displays of emotion
- women as untrustworthy and manipulative
- women as jealous and possessive.
- How is Agnes’s voice silenced?
- Why are people more suspicious of Agnes than Natan?
- Why is Agnes punished for her promiscuity (monogamous) where Natan is free to be promiscuous? Why is Agnes’s reputation tarnished where Natan’s is not for the same act (a sexual relationship out of marriage)?
- How is Agnes dependent upon men: Natan, Tóti, and Jón for instance – financially and emotionally?
- Men are the decision makers – see when Blöndal arrives to direct Jón to house Agnes.
An optional structure for reading for gender is available here (PDF, 112KB).
The Reading Australia teaching resource for The Natural Way of Things also contains some useful explanations.
Students can then use their notes to write an extended response to the proposition:
- Not all audiences come to the same conclusions when viewing film. Construct an interpretation/reading of a novel you have studied in class.
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2. An eco-critical perspective
Eco-criticism or environmental criticism reads through a lens of sustainability. It privileges the earth and nature with the view to preserving or guarding the precious resource that is the environment. An eco-critical reading examines (reads) genres from an environmentally conscious perspective and interrogates the novel with respect to its representation of nature, farming and conservation of the environment. In eco-criticism, the defence of nature is inextricably connected to a pursuit of justice.
Guide students through a whole-class investigation into representations of the environment.
Instruct your students to form groups of three to four and assign each group one of the following points of focus.
- nature as a healer, e.g. the herbalist Natan and his interactions with nature (p. 235)
- nature as transportation, e.g. horses as travel
- nature as a danger/threat, e.g. the wilderness of Iceland, the frontier to be conquered. Include elements of weather
- nature as a source of sustenance, e.g. enabling survival through food and agriculture – the cow is a comfort to Agnes (p. 289)
- nature as utility, e.g. wooden board (p. 43), dried sea weed in pillows (p. 59)
- nature as seasonal and ritualistic, e.g. the slaughter (pp. 202–207).
In their groups, students are to consider to what extent the novel either reinforces human dominance of the environment or values the natural world. Students should find examples of how these elements of nature have been represented in the novel, asking:
- Is nature silenced in the text? If so, how? When?
- In what ways is the text earth-centred?
- How do representations of nature constrain our understanding and interaction with the environment?
- Does the text acknowledge the indebtedness of culture to nature? If so, how?
- What are the tropes and myths about nature that are embedded in our environmental imaginations?
- What are the relationships between human beings and the natural world?
- Is the exploitation of nature concealed in hegemonic naturism?
Students can present their findings to the class as a group discussion and share copies of their notes and examples to gather a collection of points to be able to analyse the text and to present an eco-critical reading. A structure for their notes is available here (PDF, 103KB). Students can then use their extensive notes to write an extended response:
- Referring to at least one text, discuss how reading practices open up new possibilities of meaning and interpretation.
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3. An intercultural perspective
An intercultural reading focuses on respect for all cultures. It is a lens of cultural understanding that privileges values of cultural unity and seeks opportunities to validate cultural understanding and communication. An intercultural reading of Burial Rites would acknowledge, for instance, that Kent’s narrative centres an otherwise marginalised ‘other’, centralising both Agnes’s story and an Icelandic history, looking beyond national identities and local discourses for that central story. Kent is writing back against the local silencing of Agnes’s story by voicing it globally. It is a resistance against the marginalisation of women, particularly one such as Agnes who is ostracised because of her illegitimacy (born without a father in a patriarchal society and patronymic naming system) and dependent upon men for survival.
Explain to students that while stories set in foreign, distant lands have the potential to exoticise Iceland as the ‘other’, Kent’s Burial Rites can be read as harnessing the cross-cultural similarities and themes. Representations of ‘the other’ construct subjects, characters, beliefs or practices as different – so different from the established, dominant way of being that ‘the other’ by its very nature is ‘foreign’, ‘strange’ and marginalised. This is not a benign process, for more than this, ‘othering’ is a form of disempowerment, exclusion and potentially condescension. Encourage students to consider the infantilisation or exoticisation of cultural groups deemed strange, foreign or different in literature they have read. But, specifically to Burial Rites:
- How does Kent work against exoticising the Icelandic culture? Or doesn’t she?
- How does she centralise a previously marginal story?
- How does she privilege a previously excluded narrative and give voice to the previously silenced?
- In what ways can Icelanders be read as ‘othered’?
Comparison with other texts
Versions of the text in other modes, media and context
The (1995) film, Agnes by Egill Edvardsson is useful for study as an adaptation of the context and some of the themes in Burial Rites. Direct students to read Sandra Brennan’s synopsis of the film here. They can also read David Stratton’s review here. Having read both articles, invite students to highlight those aspects that the film has in common with Kent’s novel.
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Aspects of genre
Historical fiction and Out of the Silence
Historical fiction is set in the past and uses historical records to construct imaginary worlds and characters around the people and historical events documented in those archives. The historical novel genre has dominated Australian fiction since the 1980s. While some historians criticise the use of history in creating fiction, the complex relationship between fiction and ‘the real’ makes historical fiction appealing to contemporary audiences. The different social and moral landscape of the early twentieth century is the setting of Out of the Silence, for example, a novel in which author Wendy James creates characters based on historical figures, Maggie Heffernan, the working class girl who became a young mother capable of infanticide, and Vida Goldstein, a suffragette and defender of women’s rights. James uses history to explore life today through ‘our human past’, in particular, the lives of women. This is comparable to Burial Rites in that Hannah Kent uses a story of history to explore relationships, status and female agency in the past to comment on how that past transpires in the present and future.
The genre of the Gothic is most commonly known as characteristic of Romanticism and the Victorian novel. While Gothic fiction was introduced by Horace Walpole in 1764, various elements of the Gothic were evident as early as Shakespeare. Elements of the Gothic include:
- an outsider or lone figure
- a remote or desolate setting
- a gloomy atmosphere and sense of haunting
- the awesome power of nature including the destructive effects of fire
- curses or prophesies
- expressions of intense and extreme emotion
- the supernatural.
Direct students to locate examples of the Gothic in Burial Rites. Reading it alongside Jane Eyre might produce similarities such as the incarcerated woman considered mad, (Agnes and Bertha), the threatening power and gloom of nature (northern Icelandic winter and the Moors), the fire that destroyed the homes.
A more contextually similar novel for comparison might be Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker. While revenge and justice are effected quite differently in the texts, there are similarities in the lone female figure (Agnes and Tilly), the remote setting (1830s Iceland and 1950s Dungatar) and the destructive effects of fire.
Kent expands her themes of isolation, mistrust and oppression in her second historical novel, The Good People, which takes the reader into the remote and boggy valleys of South West Ireland in the early nineteenth century where suspicion, gossip, folklore and fear confront Nora and her deformed grandson, following the sudden and unexplained death of her husband. A series of bizarre circumstances add to the chaos and mayhem imposed on all characters. In essence, ‘The Good People is a novel about how competing systems of thought – religious, medical, folkloric and, eventually, legal – attempt to make sense of the bad stuff that happens.’ (The Guardian review by Graeme Macrae Burnet)
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Evaluation of the text
Representative of Australian culture?
Burial Rites is not a typical representation of Australian culture primarily because it is not set in Australia. Instead it explores a culture that has not had much exposure, certainly in fiction by Australian writers – if any. It could be argued though that the novel does address issues and concerns that are part of contemporary Australian and Western anxieties. Ask students to identify these in the novel, giving examples to substantiate them. Possible brainstormed responses could include:
- settings with an exotic otherness
- the landscape as a wilderness to be tamed (by men)
- valued cultural pursuits occur outdoors
- xenophobic attitudes – that those who are different are not to be trusted.
Another possible Australian parallel is evident upon examination of how Iceland is represented as a northern antipodean nation, isolated in the northern hemisphere just as Australia is in the south. Iceland might be read as the final frontier, much like the Australian desert or bush, where the harsh climate and landscape produce a formidable threat, which typically produce narratives of determination and survival in the face of a hostile environment. The harsh landscape forces its people to be characteristically tough and resilient.
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Significance to literature and the world of texts
In addition to centring a marginalised ‘other’ and a previously marginalised and macabre story, Burial Rites has made a significant contribution to literature having been published in nearly thirty countries and translated into twenty-eight languages. Burial Rites has also won ten awards and has been shortlisted for eight more. Details of the prizes are available here.
Identifying stylistic techniques for specific narrative purposes
Author Geraldine Brooks describes the prose in Burial Rites as ‘cut-glass’ and ‘crisp and sparkling’. One of the ways in which Kent brings a previously unfamiliar world to life and develops an atmosphere of gloom, is through her similes and metaphors. These features of her ‘cut-glass’ and ‘crisp and sparkling’ prose creates vivid imagery and a beautiful but alienating world.
Using the attached Analysing Language worksheet (PDF, 160KB) direct students to the study of the uses and effects of figurative language in the novel. Assign students one example each, or two per pair. Direct them to locate the quotation within the texts and identify an effect and response.
Synthesising task 1 (creating)
Direct students to their journals and invite them to use figurative language in the re-writing of a section of the novel from Agnes’s point of view. The first section in Chapter 11 where Margrét wakes to a distressed Agnes would work well here. Alternatively, students may prefer to find their own extract (written in third person) that they adapt into first-person narration and use figurative language just as Kent employs. Reassure students that it is just a draft and it is more important that they experiment with similes, metaphors and point of view, than that they create a refined piece of writing.
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Synthesising task 2 (responding)
Direct students to their journals and invite them to use their table of notes from their Analysing Language worksheet (PDF, 160KB) work to write a paragraph or two that addresses the task:
Discuss how language patterns and repetitions contribute to meaning in at least one text.
Synthesising core ideas
Reconsidering the initial response
Direct students to revisit their introductory activities to add to or amend their notes. Some of their activities that may need revising include:
- Analysing the titles as translations: Is Burial Rites students’ preferred title?
- The sagas: does Agnes’s story warrant comparison with the sagas?
- Reading the epigraph: how does it act as a device to foreshadow or foreground?
- The character of Agnes: is she an archetypal murderess?
- Are Blöndal and Natan villains or just antagonists? If they are villains, does that make Agnes a hero?
- Analysing the construction of themes: do students have anything to add to the themes table?
Optional synthesising tasks
1. Composing a persuasive text
Direct students to argue for the inclusion of Burial Rites in their state/territory text list for an upper school English course. Guide them in doing so by first discussing as a class the text’s wider cultural value, particularly as it explores a culture that has not had much exposure to Australian readers. What makes Burial Rites relevant to contemporary Australian audiences? They might compose a letter or persuasive speech to argue their case.
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2. Composing an imaginative text
Direct students to return to Hannah Kent’s photo essay of Iceland. Ask them to choose one of the images to use as a prompt in answering the question:
Write an imaginative text that constructs a character who would belong in this scene.
In responding to prompts, encourage them to look closely at the image and consider how ideas for a character might emerge from:
1. Focusing on a detail – as an aspect of the image – which might trigger a story. Encourage students to brainstorm:
- what they notice
- what details they can identify.
2. Focusing on a potential comment that the prompt is making:
- Can the image be read as a critique of a particular way of life?
- How can this critique be woven into a type of character?
3. Composing an essay
At the age of 17 and miles away from home on student exchange, the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir resonated with Hannah Kent: she ‘made me think of my own feelings of loneliness; that I thought of Agnes as a fellow outsider in a remote Icelandic community, and I identified with her in some small way’.
Guide students to discuss, in essay form, how the images of isolation and alienation in the novel shape readers’ responses.
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Rich assessment tasks
Task 1: Panel discussion (oral response)
Students are to devise a panel scenario where they demonstrate their understanding of the novel and the strength of their speaking and listening skills. By way of introducing the task, explain to students that a panel discussion brings together expert panellists from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives to debate contemporary issues. They are facilitated by a moderator who ensures roughly equal contributions from all panellists as well as maintaining a smooth flow of conversation. Students may be familiar with modern examples of panel discussions including those on television programs such as: The View, The Project, Offsiders, Studio 10, Insiders, The Book Club and others.
For further detail about panel discussions, students may benefit from watching, ‘What is a panel discussion?’ Definitions and explanations of panel discussions are also available here as well as further support here.
The panel should comprise of approximately four people including a moderator, perhaps:
- three literary critics discussing the symbolism in the novel
- three students arguing different readings of the novel
- three Icelanders discussing the representation of Iceland – how does it make us look? (This option could be staged in a more modern context.)
- three local gossips discussing whether or not women should behave as Agnes and Sigga did (Use Lauga and Steina as points of comparison or contrast.)
- Blöndal, Tóti, Jón and a moderator discussing the contention that justice was served in the execution of Agnes
- three writers or historians in today’s context debating whether or not Agnes got what she deserved
- Lauga, Steina and Jón interviewed one year after Agnes’s execution.
In their discussions students should seek to expose the relationships and sensitivities amongst characters, particularly those between individuals and Agnes. Where appropriate, they should remain true to the characterisation in the novel.
For instance, in the final option listed above, Lauga would be more socially savvy and class aware than Steina who would be more honest – oblivious to the effects of what she is saying. Jón could be composed and express his desire to protect his family, showing deepest respect for his wife, who is possibly now deceased.
Encourage students to capture and describe the harshness of the environment including the hard work and damp of Kornsá. They may even be able to incorporate some of the symbolic elements of the novel.
In addition to the three directly involved panel members, students will need to appoint a moderator who holds and directs the central threads of the conversation. The moderator is responsible for maintaining the flow in conversation. He or she might be a character too, but whoever takes on this role will need to have a clear and comprehensive understanding of the topic – good enough to follow the discussion – and who is skilled in negotiating social interactions.
Task 2: Letter composition (creative response)
To demonstrate their understanding that Burial Rites relies upon narrative modes other than conventional methods of prose storytelling such as letters and poems, students are to choose a character and write an imaginary letter or diary entry to express their feelings about Agnes to a recipient who is not necessarily in the novel.
For example, they might adopt the persona of:
- Blöndal’s diary confessing his thoughts about Agnes – keep the formality of the era and his position or reporting on Tóti’s visit
- Dagga or Róslin writing to a friend
- Róslin writing to a relative or friend at a nearby town
- Natan writing to Rósa
- Sigga writing to a friend
- Lauga or Steina writing to a friend about Blöndal’s visit or Agnes’s arrival
- Margrét reporting Agnes’s arrival at Kornsá
- Natan’s brother
- Tóti – it is reported that Agnes’s death ‘had broken’ Tóti.
Encourage students to draw on one or more key events from the novel and use that as the purpose of the letter. This means they need to know why the sender is writing and for what reason that sender would bother to communicate about Agnes.
- What would the sender tell the person about Agnes?
- How will details, emotions and reflections be included in the letter?
- Is Agnes the sole subject/purpose of the letter?
It may be necessary to revise letter-writing conventions such as layout of address, date, salutation and paragraphing with your students.