Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
In a way, The Red Queen is two novels - two simmering storylines set
centuries apart yet entwined through one legacy. Showcasing her renowned
imaginative powers, Margaret Drabble now plumbs a collage of worlds,
from the private rooms of a Korean crown princess to a fateful
conference in Seoul that unlocks a scholar's heart and mind.
While on a research grant at Oxford, Barbara Halliwell receives an
unexpected package, shipped anonymously from an online bookseller.
Though she is unable to determine who sent her this gift, she is
intrigued and brings it with her en route to an international
public-health meeting, where she is slated to present a paper. At
thirty-six thousand feet, wishing she weren't in the plane's economy
class, Dr. Halliwell begins reading the mysterious memoir. Written more
than two hundred years ago, it recounts the extraordinary life of Crown
Princess Hyegyong, who lived under a tragic regime that left her a widow
and grieving mother. As the princess describes the details of an era
steeped in ritual and banished emotions, Dr. Halliwell is determined to
learn more, unaware that the princess has chosen her to give voice to
this remarkable story. And as the princess narrates her life, Margaret
Drabble narrates the tender love affair that emerges from Dr.
A novel of abundant wit and arresting turns, The Red Queen brims with
intriguing facets. We hope that the following questions and topics will
enhance your discussion of this mesmerizing novel. For additional guides
from Harcourt, visit us at www.HarcourtBooks.com.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
In the prologue, the author writes, "I have not attempted to
. . . reconstruct 'real life' in the Korean court of the late eighteenth
century. Instead, I have asked questions about the nature of survival,
and about the possibility of the existence of universal transcultural
human characteristics." In what ways is the medium of fiction
particularly well suited to this task? What do the novel's heroines
reveal about the nature of survival and universal experiences?
What do "Lady Hong's" opening paragraphs indicate about
her childhood? Was she a suitable choice for Prince Sado?
In your opinion, did Crown Princess Hyegyong love her husband and
their children? How do her feelings toward her father-in-law compare to
those she expresses about her own father? What seems to be the role of
love in King Yongjo's court?
The princess describes her eighteenth-century culture as exuding
considerable brutality alongside reverence for serene artwork. How does
this particular ruling class reconcile elements of force and fragility?
What other observations were you able to make about protocol in the
The harrowing means by which Prince Sado died, along with the
wrenching consequences of his death, indicate much about hierarchies of
power and perceptions of honor in his heritage. How does the story of
the rice chest affect his widow's narrative?
Why did the princess choose Barbara as her messenger? In turn, why
does Barbara find herself so captivated by the memoir? What does each
heroine think of the other? Does the princess view Barbara as a servant?
What is the effect of the princess's ability to comment on (and
interact with) the modern world? What is her opinion of it? What do you
make of her fascination with Western literature and biographies of other
Discuss the many ways in which the princess's life mirrors
Barbara's. What enables both of them to enter the inner sanctum of a
revered and powerful man? Who are their oppressors? Who are their
liberators? In what ways were their marriages and experiences with
What were your impressions of the Korea seen through the
princess's memories? How did this compare to exploring these locales as
an armchair tourist, with Barbara and Dr. Oo?
What personal fears might have inspired Barbara's presentation,
"Dying By Lot: Uncertainty and Fatality"? Would her findings
offer much comfort to Lady Hong? How does Barbara's approach differ from
Jan Van Jost's "Leaden Casket" theories, which are interwoven
with literary references?
As Barbara encounters the Blue House, a significant aspect of
history is noted; the book has encompassed the presence of monarchy,
dictators, Communism, and a relatively new democracy. Are political
topics reflections of romantic ones in The Red Queen? In what ways do
political systems shape the private lives of ordinary citizens, and of
those in power?
Discuss the significance of the novel's conclusion. Does it
contain postmodern features, true to its title? Have Barbara and Van
Jost's widow raised a daughter who can heal their emotional wounds (and
was that even their intention in the adoption)? What do you predict for
Chen Jianyi's future, when she is afforded the kind of retrospect
granted to Barbara and Princess Hyegyong?
Margaret Drabble's afterword refers to her childhood memory of a
red dress and the experience of being "entrapped" when the
Crown Princess mentioned longing for a red silk skirt. In what way do
these red garments (including those Barbara admires) unite the novel's
generations? What are the implications of this color and the very act of
costuming in The Red Queen?
A Washington Post reviewer once wrote that Margaret Drabble's
fiction often features "women of a certain age and class, educated,
egocentric, strong, unlucky in love." Would this characterization
be true for The Red Queen? What distinctions do you detect among The Red
Queen's heroines and those in previous books by Ms. Drabble?
If you were able to serve as spokesperson for a figure from
history, entrusted with private thoughts like those the princess
bestowed on Barbara, whom would you choose?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harvest Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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