Reading guide for The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

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The Betrayal

A Novel

by Helen Dunmore

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore X
The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2011, 336 pages

    Sep 2011, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker
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Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  1. Set in post–World War II Russia, The Betrayal chronicles life in Leningrad ten years after the infamous siege. Begin your discussion of this novel by considering how the city itself affects and shapes the characters' lives on both a physical and a spiritual level. Consider Anna's quote: "Our city is like that... We love it, but it doesn't love us. We're like children who cling to the skirts of a beautiful, preoccupied mother" (p. 261).

  2. Dunmore writes with compassion, celebrating the simple things in the life of a society that has known true horrors. What does Andrei mean when he wants "to live out an ordinary, valuable life" (p. 14)? In the context of the time and place of the novel, what does this mean? Why is it so important to be ordinary?

  3. The redemptive nature of love lies at the heart of the narrative, buoying Andrei and Anna forward as they struggle to survive the daily grind. Find other instances throughout the novel where love - be it parental, familial, or romantic - bravely pushes forth shoots of hope and compassion among the grim circumstances of life.

  4. In speaking of compassion, how far would you agree that it propels Andrei into danger, into the hands of Volkov?

  5. "He recognizes it already as one of those moments that has the power to change everything" (p. 5). Looking back at Andrei's conversation with Russov in the hospital courtyard, discuss how closely his dire imaginings turn into reality. Despite his very concrete misgivings, why then does Andrei take on the case of Volkov's son? Does he really believe that everything will be fine?

  6. Especially effective is the mood of quiet paranoia surging through the novel, reaching its crescendo in Andrei's arrest. Examine how Dunmore captures this in the thoughts and actions of her characters.

  7. Find examples throughout the novel of the ways that Stalin's rule and emphasis on society and "collectivism" has entered the human psyche. One of Dunmore's strengths throughout the novel is to rise above stereotypes in depicting these people. Discuss the role of the neighbors; the Maleviches, and the principal at Anna's nursery school, Larissa Nicolayevna Morozova. Do you feel any kind of sympathy for them? How have Anna and Andrei become like them?

  8. Volkov's very name - from "volk" in Russian - brings fear into the lives of those around him. In his dealings with Andrei at the hospital, does he ever show only his paternal anguish or is it impossible for him to separate himself from his position in state security? Are you ever able to sympathize with him as a desperate father? What about Gorya's mother?

  9. Discuss the constant specter of the siege of Leningrad, the memories of the dead. Anna, especially, is reminded of the past on a daily basis. How does it affect her in the ways she lives her life on a practical level and on an emotional one? Would she ever want these memories to leave her if she could make them do so? Do you consider these memories as a negative or positive in her life? Why do you think we learn so little about Andrei's past? Did it bother you to only know about Anna's memories?

  10. Anna's memories about the siege inevitably relate back to her father and her questions about her relationship with him. Even ten years after his death she is still defending herself against him, still trying to please him. Why is this? What does it mean to her when she buries her father's writings? How does Andrei's arrest lead her to a better understanding of her father, and ultimately a closer relationship with their uneasy shared past?

  11. "Anna believes that it's not a question of remembering or of forgetting. The past is alive. It claims what is its own." Discuss what she means by this.

  12. Talk about the place of optimism in the novel. How far would you agree that the author sees it as a necessary part of the human condition, as a means of survival? Consider the instinctive hope during the siege that things would be better in Leningrad afterward. How do people deal with the harsh reality of post-siege Leningrad? Are some of the characters more optimistic than others? Anna, Andrei? How does it affect them? Discuss how optimism is responsible for their downfall but also perhaps, ultimately, their salvation.

  13. Anna's younger brother, Kolya, lives with her and Andrei as a "son." Discuss this situation and the impact it has on all three. What about the strained undertones of Anna and Andrei's desire to have their own child? Would you say there is a great difference between their two generations in the way they view life, Russian society, the future?

  14. What does the dacha represent for Anna and her family? Why do they all seem to become different people there? Talk about Kolya's transformation when he moves there to live with Galya. How likely is it?

  15. How far do you agree with Anna's words as she buries her father's writing, "We didn't choose any of this" (p. 124)? How realistic is it to think that they could have avoided the whole situation?

  16. Anna's childhood friend, Julia, plays an interesting role in the novel, one that is not clearly revealed until the end. Her life seems to be one of ease with a husband whose work is approved by Stalin himself. Yet, what is it that sets her apart from being a Malevich or a Morozova? What are your feelings about her when you first meet her? Do you trust her? Why does she tell Anna that she is so lucky (p. 68)?

  17. Discuss the relevance of the story of the mountain king that Andrei reads to Anna just before his arrest. Anna takes the story to mean, "You can't care about everybody." How prescient are her thoughts in light of what happens after the arrest?

  18. The scene of Andrei's arrest vividly brings the terrifying outside world into Anna and Andrei's most intimate, private life, ripping apart the life they have carefully cobbled together. Discuss the ways in which tiny domestic details speak of intrusion and violence, of the cruel indifference of the police state. Talk about Anna and Andrei's reactions, and the volumes it speaks about who they are.

  19. Find instances throughout the novel of kindness, of humanity slipped into the dreary fabric of everyday conformity. How far would you agree that it is possible to divide the characters of the novel into two groups: those who will risk a part of themselves for others and those who won't?

  20. What were the most striking images for you in the prison scenes? Was it the physical violence perpetrated against fellow humans or the inhumane living conditions? Why was it so important for the guards to keep Andrei in solitary confinement? Discuss the psychology behind such a method. Consider also the contrast in the lives of the prisoners and those of the women in the administrative offices. What does Andrei find hardest about prison life?

  21. Talk about the scene at Lubyanka when a prisoner collapses into Andrei's shared cell and Kostya, the foreman, shouts out, "Where's the doctor? Over here! Make way for him" (p. 251). Why are these words so important to Andrei at that moment? Think about them too in the context of the whole novel.

  22. When Andrei meets Volkov again at the Lubyanka prison he meets two very different Volkovs - one before the phone call that will change Volkov's life and one after. Discuss the complex nature of Volkov's character, and his relationship with Andrei. Do you think that he really does care about Andrei? Talk about Andrei's understanding of the situation: "Andrei can't help feeling something - not warmth, not sympathy, but a kind of recognition perhaps" (p. 290). What are your feelings toward Volkov at this moment? When he takes his own life?

  23. On leaving her home to head out to the dacha to join Kolya, Anna reflects on everything the apartment has meant to her over the years: as her home that she shares with Andrei and Kolya; her childhood home, the one she lived in during the siege, the one where her father died. What does it mean to her when she realizes that "she's part of this apartment's life, but never the whole of it" (p. 261)? Is she saddened or liberated by this thought?

  24. When Volkov says about his dying son, "Gorya is better off out of this shit," it's hard not to disagree. Yet Anna and Andrei's baby becomes, in many ways, a reminder of the simple joys of being human and a symbol of a better future. Talk about the ways in which Anna's unborn child takes control of Anna's actions, honing her instinct for survival. Do you think her story, her actions, would have been very different if she hadn't been pregnant?

  25. Talk about the ending of the novel. Did you find it satisfactory to know that Andrei would make it home to his family or would you have preferred to see the reunion with his loved ones - and his new baby? Why do you think Dunmore ended the novel in this way, moving from the individual story to the story of a nation?

  26. In retrospect would you consider The Betrayal, with all its Orwellian undertones, to be a bleak novel or is there a convincing message of hope? Is it really possible for the characters to believe in a brighter future? Consider parallels with the fairy tale about the mountain king.

Guide by Lindsey Tate

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Black Cat. 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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