Reading guide for The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill

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The Butterfly Cabinet

A Novel

By Bernie McGill

The Butterfly Cabinet
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Hardcover: Jul 2011,
    240 pages.
    Paperback: May 2012,
    224 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. How did you feel about the dual-narrator structure of the book? Did you want to hear more from Anna? Were there any other characters whose narration you would have liked to read as well?

  2. What parts of the book took you most by surprise? What were your favorite moments?

  3. Who do you think was the most conflicted character in the book? Why? How about the most tragic?

  4. Maddie said to Anna, "Everyone should have a person in their life to tell them stories of their birth." (p. 7) Who is that person for you? What are some of your favorite stories about you as a child?

  5. Who do you think was the more reliable narrator, Harriet or Maddie? Why?

  6. Harriet describes her parenting philosophy, stating: "It is a kindness to teach them as soon as is possible that they cannot always do as they would, without regard for others. It is for their own safety and their own self-preservation." (p. 149) Do you agree? Do you think Harriet adhered to this method of parenting? Why or why not?

  7. Harriet states, "I watched with relief as Harry and then Thomas and James were sent off to school, regretted only that the others were too young to go." (p. 151) How does this confession affect your perception of Harriet as a mother? Do you feel any sympathy for Harriet?

  8. Discuss the relationship between Harriet and her mother. What behaviors did Harriet learn from her mother? In what ways do you think Harriet's mother influenced Harriet's personality and parenting style?

  9. Maddie wrote about the legend of Molly Bradley: "There was always a point behind those stories we were told. Dark warnings as to what could happen to a girl who didn't guard herself: keep your coat buttoned up tight; stay out of the dark of the hedges; don't talk to the tinkers, they'll turn your head; be wary of men." (p. 128) What were the purpose of these stories? Based on what you read, how did these stories influence Maddie? Were you ever told any kind of "cautionary tales" as a child?

  10. Do you think Maddie was in the right when she wrote the letter to the Cruelty Society? What do you think you would have done in the same situation?

  11. The press acted as a Greek chorus of sorts in Harriet's trial. At one point, she described the papers as saying, "'There is still one law for the rich and another for the poor.'" (p. 71) Do you think Harriet was treated differently because of her social status? Do you think a similar distinction between "rich law" and "poor law" exists today?

  12. Consider Harriet's conclusion that "the whole process of the trial must be designed to humiliate the defendant. Since one is not permitted to speak, what other reason can there be for being present?" (p. 174) Discuss the differences between the judicial system Harriet went through and the one in place in America today. Do you think the modern American system is any more fair or more kind than the one that Harriet experienced?

  13. Reread the paragraphs starting with "I took the carriage to Coleraine, into Stewart and Hamilton..." on page 210. In revisiting Harriet's side of Charlotte's death, do you see any moral wiggle room in her account? Can you sympathize with Harriet at all?

  14. Harriet's trial for Charlotte's death set out to determine, as Harriet described, whether "wickedness or evil intention had motivated my actions." (p. 179) Harriet went on to say, "I meant to punish her, certainly. I meant to correct her behavior, without doubt. I did not mean to injure her, not in any way. I was trying to teach her how to save herself." (p. 179) Do you believe Harriet?

  15. The final opinion of the jury was that "the crime had been committed through a mistaken sense of duty" (p. 180). Do you agree? If you were on Harriet's jury, how would you have ruled?

  16. Maddie asked Anna, in reference to her taking the key to the wardrobe room, "Is a lie always something you've said that's not the truth, or can it be something you've never said? Can a lie be a truth you've never told, not to anyone? Not in the confessional, and not in the witness box? Is it any defense to say you were never asked?" (p. 125) Do you think that, in keeping the key story secret, Maddie lied about her culpability in Charlotte's death? How do you personally define a lie?

  17. Harriet often described her life in fairly despondent terms, writing, for example, "My whole life spent in the way of myself: working in my own shade, not able to crawl out from underneath it, obliterating with my own being what I have been striving so hard to try to achieve." (p. 52) What do you think Harriet was striving to achieve, and what was she fighting against? What do you think was the source of Harriet's profound unhappiness?

  18. Consider Harriet's love of butterflies. Why do you think Harriet was so drawn to the creatures? "How hard the smallest of creatures will try for life," she writes. (p. 139) Do you see the butterflies as a metaphor for something or someone else?

  19. Harriet described the wallpaper she bought for the sitting room where she kept her butterflies as "an extraordinary design of white dove and gilt cage with a background so dark as to be almost black. Unexpectedly, when... the light caught it near the window, the narrow bars of the cage all but disappeared, leaving only the gilt base and the bird apparently freed, about to take flight, while in the darker corners of the room the flickering firelight picked out the gilt and showed the bird to be exquisitely caged." (p. 52) What symbolism do you see in this passage?

  20. After Maddie told Anna about how Harriet died - she fell from her horse - Maddie added, "Since we're in the business of telling the truth, Anna, I'll tell you this. Feeley said she was the best horsewoman in the country, and no horse that he knew of would dare to throw her off if she didn't want to be thrown." (p. 139) Do you think Harriet committed suicide?

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. Visit a butterfly museum or butterfly zoo with your reading group, and see if the butterflies inspire you in the same way that they did Harriet: "The colors, the markings, the scales on the wing, each one different, each one unique: the wonder of nature transfixed," she writes. "[Butterflies are] a piece of earth made heaven-bound. To look at a butterfly is to remind us of what we are and of what we will be again." (p. 121) After your trip, do you see Harriet any differently?

    • Visit en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_zoo#United_States or www.butterfly-houses.com for lists of butterfly zoos in the US, or Google "butterfly museum" or "butterfly zoo," followed by your hometown, to find local alternatives.

    • If you can't visit a butterfly museum, go to the photo gallery at www.butterfliesandmoths.org/gallery to see a wide variety of beautiful close-up photos of butterflies.

    • You can also visit the American Museum of Natural History's butterfly website at www.amnh.org/exhibitions/butterflies/cams.php# and click on "Click To View Our Live Butterfly Web Cam" to check in with the tropical butterflies at AMNH in real time.


  2. The theme of passing stories down from generation to generation is central to The Butterfly Cabinet. Reach out to an older family member or friend and ask them for a story that they want to pass down to you. If you have contact with younger generations, reach out to them and tell them a story from your memory that you want to keep in the family. Or, if you prefer, write out a family story - either one you've heard or one you want to share - and bring your writing to book club. Once you're all together, share your stories!

  3. Though The Butterfly Cabinet in its entirety is fictional, the author used a true story for inspiration. Do a bit of research on the real-life story and the historical backdrop that inspired The Butterfly Cabinet, and bring your findings to the book club. Possible topics include, but aren't limited to, Cromore House; the Montagu family; Annie Margaret Montagu; the history of the Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; Grangegorman Prison; the history of lepidopterology; and women's rights in late-1800s Ireland. Refer to the Author's Note for more ideas. Once you're together, discuss how the real-life story differed from the fictionalized one. How did your understanding of the novel change after connecting it to concrete historical events?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Free Press. 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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