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Nutshell by Ian McEwan Discussion Questions

Instructor: Shanna Fox

Shanna has been an educator for 20 years and earned her Master of Education degree in 2017. She enjoys using her experience to provide engaging resources for other teachers.

This novel takes readers on a journey that mirrors Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', but it takes the story from a startlingly unique perspective. Use these discussion questions to challenge your high school students' thinking about 'Nutshell'.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan's Nutshell is an unconventional reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. From a narrator who is in-utero to a modernized twist on the murderous concoction used to kill John, this novel has twists and turns that take readers down a familiar path in an unusual vehicle. Use these discussion questions to help your high school students having meaningful conversations about point-of-view, compare the novel to the original Hamlet, and investigate the essential themes of the book. You may want to use them to engage in a one-on-one conversation with a single student. Alternatively, you can provide a list of questions to student teams or host a whole group discussion.

  • Note: Since this book is a reinterpretation of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', students will need a working knowledge of that literary text to answer some of these discussion questions.

Narrating from the Womb

  • The narrator of this novel is a nameless in-utero fetus who will eventually be born to Trudy Cairncross. Why do you think McEwan took this unique approach to narrating the story? Do you think his choice was an effective one? What was the narrator privy to that another narrator would not have known about? How does this knowledge help move the plot forward?
  • Do you think that before babies are born, they have thinking skills? Do they understand the experiences of their mother, as this narrator did? After birth, a baby's only form of communication is nonverbal, such as crying, cooing, or babbling. Does this indicate that their thinking skills have yet to develop or are the limitations only related to communication?
  • How does the narrator feel about each of the characters encountered throughout the novel? Discuss each character individually and in detail. Address his loyalty to John and his often contradictory emotions toward his mom, Trudy.

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