Burial Rites by Hannah Kent Discussion Questions

Instructor: Shanna Fox

Shanna has been part of the whirlwind world of teaching middle school for 20 years. She has a Master of Education degree in instructional design.

'Burial Rites' is based on the true story of a woman executed in Iceland. Sifting through such heavy content with your high schoolers can be a daunting task. Use these discussion questions to help students understand character, theme, and symbolism.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman in Iceland to receive the death penalty and be executed. The themes and characters are complex, and the book carries the reader through flashbacks that reveal details of her history. Help your high school students process the characters, themes, and symbolism of the novel by using these discussion questions. You may want to use these questions to engage a student one-on-one in a meaningful conversation about this work of historical fiction. Alternatively, you could provide this list of questions to student teams or host a discussion with a whole group of students.

Questions about Characters

  • When Agnes arrives at the Jonsson's farm, Margret and her daughters are not fond of the idea of hosting a criminal. How do their relationships with Agnes grow and change throughout her time there? Do you think that the Jonsson family becomes the first family to not abandon Agnes? Why or why not? When does Margret change her mind about Agnes? Why does Steina take to Agnes so quickly? Does Lauga grow to care for her, as well? What does she do to show her compassion? Provide details to support your answers.
  • How does Margret's relationship with Toti help her heal from her childhood wounds? Why does she need him during this time in her life? Why does she ask for him specifically? Do you think she made the right choice for a spiritual advisor? Why or why not?
  • Sigga's death penalty ruling was appealed and overturned. Do you think she should have served her sentence like Agnes and Fridrick had to do? Was Sigga unfairly influenced by Fridrick and Agnes? Do you think she felt betrayed by Natan as Agnes did? Do you think she would have sought revenge on her own or did she follow Agnes's and Fridrick's lead? Which one of the three - Agnes, Fridrick or Sigga - was most responsible for Natan's death? Share your reasoning.
  • Agnes is sometimes referred to as Agnes the Axe Murderer or Bloody Agnes by the townspeople. Does their opinion of her change as they get to know more about her? When does this change occur? Do you think these nicknames were fair and appropriate, considering her crimes? How do you think she felt about them? Do you think they affected her? Use examples to support your answers.

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