Reading guide for A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

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A Great and Terrible Beauty

by Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2003, 416 pages
    Mar 2005, 432 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Despite visions and a special destiny, Gemma is not so unlike the other girls at Spence in her feelings of alienation and her yearning for acceptance. Gemma’s need to fit into her new school leads to her being locked in the chapel in the middle of the night. Would you have made the same choice? Have you ever done something you didn’t want to do, to get someone to like you? Have you ever taken advantage of someone who wanted you to like him or her?

  2. The Realms are a place where anything seems possible. Each of the four girls wants one thing above all else: Felicity desires power, Pippa seeks love, Ann wants beauty, and Gemma craves self-knowledge. Does any of the characters achieve her goal by the end of the story? Why or why not? What would you want?

  3. Gemma says of Felicity, “I don’t yet know what power feels like. But this is surely what it looks like, and I think I’m beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and teachers and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It’s not that they want to protect us; it’s that they fear us” (p. 207). What kind of power is Gemma talking about? What is it that she thinks the parents and teachers and suitors fear?

  4. Women. Power. These two words conjure many images and emotions, and they appear throughout A Great and Terrible Beauty. What connections does Libba Bray draw between the two words? How does she characterize the Victorians’ view of powerful women? How do you think powerful women are viewed today?

  5. Bray paints the Victorian age as a time when appearances must be kept up at all times. Appearances matter more than reality, and anything interesting is kept a secret. For example, Gemma’s family hides the nature of Virginia Doyle’s death to avoid scandal. Likewise, in the Realms, appearances are deceiving. Gemma, Ann, Pippa, and Felicity believe their dreams are coming true–but is that really the case? What do you think the author meant by drawing a parallel between reality and paradise? Is it ever really possible to escape or change reality?

  6. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said, “Bray brilliantly depicts a caste system, in which girls are taught to abandon individuality in favor of a man’s wishes, as a deeper and darker horror than most things that go bump in the night.” Do you think Gemma has achieved a certain freedom by the end of the novel? Are her supernatural powers responsible for bringing about this freedom? Do you think she would have been such a rebel if it hadn’t been for her magic?

  7. In Diary of an Author on, Libba Bray says, “Why do we do this to our girls? Why do we spend a lifetime whittling them down into bite-sized nuggets, something easily digested that will upset no stomach? Why can’t we allow them to ask for what they want?” Does the novel answer that question? If so, how? Do you believe that conditions for women have improved over the past hundred years?

  8. The girls of Spence have a great deal of adult supervision, but there is a glaring absence of parental love. What role does this absence play in Gemma’s and her friends’ lives and the choices they make? Do you think Pippa would have made a different choice had her parents behaved differently? How would Gemma’s and Felicity’s lives be changed if their fathers were available–in Gemma’s case mentally, and in Felicity’s case physically? What about Ann?

  9. It’s a dream, only a dream,” Gemma thinks of her sexually charged encounter with Kartik (p. 219). Why do you think Gemma stops the fantasy when she does? Why do you think the author chose to make this scene a dream rather than a reality? Do you believe this makes Gemma’s experience any less “real” to her?

  10. The Realms’ answer to Gemma’s desire for self-knowledge is Virginia Doyle. Why do you think Gemma must understand her mother in order to understand herself? Gemma concludes, “I’m going to have to let her go to accept the mother I’m only just discovering” (p. 394). How are the two mothers Gemma refers to different? Why does Gemma have to forgive her mother first if she is to understand her?
  11. Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers. 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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