WATCH: This Mary Chapin Carpenter song is like ‘good medicine’
Discussion questions for ‘Circe’
Our December pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Madeline Miller’s “Circe.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read the book over the next month. You can also submit your own questions for Miller on our Google form. She will answer reader questions on the PBS NewsHour broadcast at the end of the month.
WARNING: Spoiler alert on questions further down.
- Before reading “Circe,” did you know the character of Circe from Homer’s “Odyssey”? If so, what do you remember about her?
- From the book’s beginning, Miller makes her gender critique of Greek mythology clear. The goddesses, for the most part, are beholden to the gods. Circe’s father “believed the world’s natural order was to please him.” Why is this critique important? What is Miller trying to tell us?
- What do you make of Miller’s voice in the book, at times adopting a more formal style, and at other times more contemporary?
- A recurring theme in the book is the meaning of mortality. Circe cares for mortals, is born with a mortal’s voice, even yearns to be one of them. Yet she also sees their frailties, telling us that mortals must deal with death as “best they can.” How does it make you reflect on your own mortality?
- How is this book subversive?
- One of Circe’s first lessons in the book is: “Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two.” What does this mean?
- As a book club, we read “An Odyssey” by Daniel Mendelsohn earlier this year. It was a memoir about a father and son’s transformative journey in reading the Greek epic poem together. “Circe” is a very different take. But does it share any of the same themes?
- Much of “Circe” is about finding yourself despite how others may perceive you or try to contain you. Circe’s brother tells her: “Not every god need be the same.” What did you learn about finding yourself in this book?
- How does Circe transform over the course of the book? Do you attribute it to her hard work devoted to pharmaka, her loneliness on the island, or something else?
- “Most of what passed as cleverness was only archness of spite,” Miller writes, in one of many times she describes the gods in the book as not just powerful, but also petty. Why do you think she describes them this way?
- The Minotaur, Artemis, Daedalus, and the Furies all make guest appearances. How does Miller’s retelling make you think of any of them differently?
- When Circe is discovered to be a witch, she is treated very differently than her brother. Why? Did this book make you think about “witch hunts” or the persecution of women as witches?
- At one point, Miller writes that gods do not care if a person is good, wicked, or beautiful — only that they have power. And yet power, it seems, corrupts the characters in this book. What did you learn about power by reading “Circe”?
- When a sailor rapes Circe, she starts turning men who land on her island into pigs with a spell. In Homer’s “Odyssey,” this transformation is perhaps Circe’s most famous scene in that tale. How did Miller’s reimagining cause you to think differently about that story?
- In Circe’s relationship with Odysseus, only he tells her stories and she never once tells him about her life. Why is that significant?
- Why does Circe’s guilt over Scylla matter? Why is it meaningful that Circe transforms her from a murderous monster into a stone?
- How does Circe’s experience of motherhood compare to others in the book? To her own mother? To her sister, Pasiphaë? To Penelope?
- Do her lovers, both mortal and immortal, have anything in common? What is it about Telemachus that she finds worth trading her mortality?
- What would you do if you had millennia to live on a deserted island? How would you spend your time and energies?
- Were you surprised that Circe drank a potion to become mortal? Do you think that she succeeds?