Reading guide for Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

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  • Hardcover: Apr 2008,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2009,
    288 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!


In The Aeneid, Vergil's hero fights to claim the king's daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. In this novel, Lavinia is given a voice and perspective all her own, which she uses to tell both the story of ancient Italy's first great people—the Latins—and of the great hero Aeneas's final years spent as her husband and king to Italy's people.

Against the backdrop of a half-wild world of gods and prophecies, great halls and muddy villages, Lavinia grows from a young girl of carefree joy to a young woman haunted by the madness of her mother and the responsibilities of her father. As is her duty, she meekly entertains the attention of suitors who would marry her to gain her father's crown, until a strange vision-dream of a poet reveals her unexpected future. Embracing her fate, Lavinia struggles against those forces that threaten her father's hard-won peace and her foretold marriage to a foreign hero who has yet to land on Italy's shores.

is a book of love and war, generous and austerely beautiful, from a writer working at the height of her powers.

Discussion Points

  1. On page 3, Lavinia says that "as far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all. Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in genealogy." How does Le Guin address the concept of immortality—and the role of poetry in creating it—throughout the novel?
  2. Lavinia says that, like the farmers who lay their bodies against the hard earth of Gaia, the Earth Mother, she, too, knows what it's like to have a hard mother. What other examples of "mother" imagery can you identify throughout the book? Compare and contrast the various parent-child relationships found between these characters.
  3. When Lavinia describes herself as meek and silent, do you think she has a low opinion of herself, or is she just being humble? Or is she being ironic? What finally enables her to speak strongly and without fear, to her mother and to others?
  4. What did you already know about the Greeks, early Romans, or Etruscans, and what did you learn about them through Lavinia? Identify and discuss some of their practices and beliefs. Do you think these cultures are more similar than they are different? Do you think the characters of the novel would agree with you? Why or why not?
  5. Lavinia makes use of a very fluid notion of time and materiality, especially with regard to the early Latins' views on death and rebirth, the material world and the Underworld. How does this worldview influence the actions of the characters of the novel? Did it alter your own way of thinking at all? Why or why not?
  6. The Latins, Trojans, and other people of the ancient world believe strongly in the meaning of omens. What omens are received throughout the course of this story and what do they signify to the people who read them?
  7. Like Janus, the two-faced god, the ancient world is experienced as an expression of duality. Identify some of the dichotomies described throughout the novel and how they influence the plot of the novel. As a technique, how do they influence the telling of the story?
  8. On page 103, Lavinia says, "Things were going as they should go, and in going with them I was free." Using examples from the novel, describe how a belief in Fate can be freeing. Do you agree or disagree with the concept that a predetermined life provides more freedom than one in which nothing is set? Why?
  9. Similarly, how does a belief in Fate affect the characters' ability to make choices or to determine which of their actions are right or wrong? How does this issue affect Aeneas in particular?
  10. Lavinia as narrator often tells of what is yet to happen, moving into the future of her life with Aeneas, then returning to the most prominent thread of the story as a linear narrative of her past. What effect does this moving backward and forward in time achieve? How does it affect your reading experience?
  11. How do the roles of men and women differ from each other in the Latin culture? If arranged marriage was the norm in your culture, would you say that a self-respecting woman should resist it or not?
  12. Despite Latinus's reign of peace, the young Latins manage to instigate a bloody war against the Trojans by inflaming their countrymen's fear of the foreigners. How do you see this "fear of the other" perpetrated in modern cultures? When the poet recites a long list of deaths, what is the purpose of the speech and what does it have to do with the book as a whole?
  13. The people of ancient Italy are ruled by kings and queens of many types. Compare and contrast the styles of leadership exemplified by Kings Latinus, Turnus, Aeneas, and Ascanius; also compare and contrast the models of queenship portrayed by Amata and Lavinia.
  14. As Le Guin notes in her afterword, Lavinia takes place in the world of Vergil's Aeneid. We scarcely meet the familiar classical gods in this book. When Aeneas refers to the goddess Venus, for instance, Lavinia doesn't know what he is talking about, since she knows Venus only as a star. Yet Lavinia's people are deeply religious, worshipping daily, and seeking guidance from powers greater than humans. If the early Latins did not believe in gods as people, what did they believe in and why did they worship?

Other questions that might be interesting and open up discussion

When does Latinus behave like a king, and when doesn't he?

Why does Aeneas suffer so intensely from his battle fury, when heroes such as Achilles are admired above all others for exactly the same thing?

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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