Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
In her remarkable follow-up to the widely acclaimed The
Secret Life of Bees
, Sue Monk Kidd tells a beautiful and haunting story
centered around forty-two-year-old Jessie Sullivan, a woman in quiet crisis
whose return home to the island of a mermaid saint becomes a pilgrimage to
self-awakening. In this powerful exploration of mid-life marriage and the
intersection of the spiritual and the erotic in the feminine soul, Kidd
illustrates the sacredness of belonging to oneself and the healing mercy of love
Jessies journey begins in the winter of 1988 when she receives
an early-morning call from her mother Nelles close friend Kat. Nelle has
inexplicably and deliberately severed her own finger and Kat is calling to ask
Jessie to return home to Egret Island, South Carolina, to care for her.
Though Jessie has been somewhat estranged from her mother for
the last five years, she departs immediatelyrealizing that despite the
disturbing circumstances awaiting her, she feels relief in leaving and having
some time away from her husband, Hugh, a psychiatrist. Jessie loves Hugh, but
twenty years into their picture-perfect marriage, with their only child away at
college, she has begun to feel a groundswell of restlessness or, as she puts it,
"the feeling of time passing, of being postponed, pent up." Understanding
herself primarily through her relationship to her husband and to her daughter,
she is baffled by her discontent, by her sudden resistance to creating her small
"art boxes" that have been her only tenuous link to the passion she once had to
be an artist. She has lost "the little river of sparks" that runs through life,
but mostly she has lost her deep connection to herself.
Once on Egret Island, Jessie finds herself ill equipped to
handle her mothers continuing erratic behavior, much less to comprehend what
lies behind her enigmatic act of self-violence. She senses that its related to
her fathers deatha death that is still surrounded by unanswered questions
thirty years later. As she tries to piece together Nelles tormented past,
Jessie reconnects with the two women who, along with her mother, once formed an
inseparable female trio, bound together by rituals and secrets only they shared.
When Jessie finally discovers the truth about Nelle and her fathers death, it
unlocks a dark, painful secret. Its revelation, however, will begin to heal the
relationships in both womens lives.
Near Nelles home is a Benedictine monastery that houses a
mysterious and beautiful chair carved with mermaids and dedicated to Saint
Senara, who, legend says, was a mermaid before her conversion. The abbey and the
chair have always been special to Jessie. There, she meets Whit, a junior monk
who sought refuge at the monastery after suffering a devastating loss. Only
months away from taking his final vows, he isnt completely certain whether he
has come to the abbey in search of God or in search of immunity from life.
Jessies powerful attraction to Whit awakens an immense sexual
and spiritual longing inside her, as well as a pulsing new sense of aliveness.
Amid the seductive salt marshes and tidal creeks of the island, she abandons
herself to the long-buried passions of her body and the yearnings of her
creative spirit and embarks upon a descent into her own uncharted and shadowy
depths in search of a place inside herself that is truly her own. Torn between
the force of her desire and her enduring marriage, Jessie grapples with
excruciating choices, ultimately creating a "marriage" with herself.
In this novel Kidd takes on the darker, more complex elements of
the psyche and human relationshipsspiritual emptiness, infidelity, death,
mental illness and euthanasiawith a steady gaze and compassion not often found
in modern fiction. Above all, The Mermaid Chair
is a book that embraces
the sensual pull of the mermaid and the divine pull of the saint, the commitment
to oneself and the commitment to a relationshipand their ability to thrive
simultaneously in every womans soul. Kidds candid and redemptive portrayal of
a woman lost in the "smallest spaces" of her life ultimately becomes both an
affirmation of ordinary married love and the sacredness of always saving a part
of your soul for yourself. Discussion Questions
- How does a woman like Jessie become "molded to the smallest space
possible"? What signs might appear in her life? What did Jessie mean when she
said part of the problem was her chronic inability to astonish herself?
- Jessie comes to believe that an essential problem in her marriage is not
that she and Hugh have grown apart, but that they have grown "too much
together." What do you think she means by that? How important is it for Jessie
to find her "solitude of being"? How does a woman balance apartness and
togetherness in a relationship?
- How would you describe Nelle before and after her husbands death? What is
your interpretation of the mysterious factors that led her to cut off her
finger? What do her fingers symbolize? How does the myth of Sednathe Inuit
mermaid whose severed fingers became the first sea creaturesshed light on
Nelles state of mind?
- Jessie feels that she has found a soul mate in Whit. Do you find this word
inviting or repellent? When we speak of looking for a soul mate, what do we
mean? Is there really such a thing?
- Why do you think Whit came to the monastery? Would you describe him as
having a crisis of faith? In what ways does he vacillate between falling into
life and transcending it? What do you think of his decision at the end about
whether to leave or to stay?
- Islands are often places of personal trial and distillation of selfsuch
as Shakespeares The Tempest or Fieldings Lord of the Flies.
What are the emotional islands upon which each character is stranded? What is
the significance of the Egret Island setting? How does each character finally
escape the island of his or her making? What does the trial on the enchanted
island reveal about each character?
- St. Senara only becomes a saint once an abbot hides her fish tail and
prohibits her from returning to the sea. On one hand, she has lost her wild
nature and freedom to swim away, but on the other hand, she has gained
sainthood among the humans she has grown to love. What is the significance of
this tale in Jessies life? When she leaves her husband to return to Egret
Island, is she the wild mermaid or the stranded saint? How does the duality of
the mermaid and the saint play out in womens lives? Can a woman contain both?
Why do you think mystics and poets have drawn comparisons between sensual
delight and godly delight?
- The mermaid chair is a central image in the novel. What does it symbolize?
What role does it play in the novel? In Jessies life? In her fathers? How
does it become a place of dying and rebirth for both of them, literally and
- How would you describe Jessies relationship with her father? How did
having an absent father affect her? How did it affect her relationship to
Hugh? What do you think Kidd was suggesting by the image of the whirley girl?
- Jessie breaks away from creating her tiny art boxes and begins to paint,
finding her true gift. Why is she unable to take up her authentic creative
life before this? What role do her paintings play in her metamorphosis? How
does Jessies series of paintings of diving women reflect her own experience?
What role does the motif of diving play in the novel?
- The novel celebrates the hallowed bonds of women and suggests how a true
community of women can become a maternal circle that nurtures a woman toward
self-realization and helps her to give birth to a new life. How do Kat,
Hepzibah, and even Benne play a role in Jessies transformation? What has been
the importance of female communities in your own life?
- In perhaps the most moving and cathartic moment in the novel, Jessie goes
to Bone Yard beach and speaks vows of commitment to herself"Jessie. I take
you, Jessie . . . for better or worse . . . to love and to cherish." What
does it mean to make a "marriage" to your self? Paradoxically, Jessie
discovered that belonging to herself allowed her to belong more truly to Hugh.
Does an inviolate commitment to oneself enhance ones commitment to a
- In your mind, was Jessies fathers death a sin? Jessie isnt sure if
choosing to end ones life in order to spare oneself and ones family extreme
suffering was horning in on Gods territory and usurping "the terrifying power
to say when," or whether it was usurping Gods deep heart by laying down ones
life as a sacrifice. What do you think?
- The Mermaid Chair suggests that a love affair may be a common response
to a marriage that has lost its way, but that in the end it is not a solution.
In what way do you think the novel is a cautionary tale? Why do you think
Jessie is unable to heed the warnings from Kat and Hepzibah? How could Jessie
have found awakening without betraying her marriage?
- Upon her return home, Jessie says, "There would be no grand absolution,
only forgiveness meted out in these precious sips. It would well up from
Hughs heart in spoonfuls and he would feed it to me. And it would be enough."
Why does Jessie return to Hugh? Why is Hugh able to accept her back into his
life? How has their relationship changed since she left for Egret Island? How
has Jessie changed?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.