MLA Gold Award Site

Reading guide for The Binding Chair by Kathryn Harrison

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Binding Chair

or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society

by Kathryn Harrison

The Binding Chair
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Apr 2000, 312 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2001, 352 pages

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Plot Summary

As the 19th century waned, China began to buck Western Imperialism, Russia was experiencing a revolution, and the nations of the world inched toward the first global war. With these epic events as the boisterous backdrop, Kathryn Harrison has crafted an ironic, lyrical, shocking novel about the secret lives of women, the universal search for home, and ultimately, the power we have to direct the course of our own lives -- and the lives of those we love.

The center of The Binding Chair is May Li -- an upper class Chinese woman who, as a child, was subjected to the ancient ritual of foot binding. Exotic and beautiful, complex and compelling, May Li's childhood was consumed with preparations for marriage. May accepted its inevitability, even indulging in romantic fantasies about her potential mate. But when the rich silk merchant to whom she was delivered turned out to be a sadist, May breaks free from her husband's house, goes to Shanghai, changes her name, supports herself as a prostitute, and masters the English language. May has a plan: to land a wealthy English husband, procuring for herself security, love, and an escape from her Chinese heritage. Opportunity arrives in the unlikely form of Arthur Cohen, the Jewish philanthropic brother-in-law of a wealthy businessman. Arthur goes to the brothel with a specific purpose -- to emancipate a victim of foot binding. Instead, he is utterly captivated by May's tiny, fleshy appendages and marries her.

May's affect on the Cohen family is hypnotic and total. Arthur's niece, Alice, fixates on her mysterious opium-smoking aunt. Dolly, her high-strung mother, attempts to squelch their relationship by sending Alice to boarding school in England. The separation only intensifies Alice and May's connection. Alice crusades to fix May's crippled feet. May crusades to prevent Alice from becoming trapped by the passion that so often ensnares the young. May, Alice finds, revels in hobbling around on her deformed feet. In turn, Alice is enthralled by the rush of her own life, of new love, of the exotic. Alice's and May's stories are brilliant counterpoints to one another, illustrating that while two individuals may be born in a different time and place, the profound questions that compel them to spend their lives searching for answers are universal.


Discussion Questions
  1. Discuss May's relationship to the foot binding ritual. Did you perceive her as being a victim? Do you think that May thought of herself as a victim? Why or why not?
  2. If you could identify one event as being the one that influenced the path that May's life took, what would it be?
  3. How did the third person narrative affect the tone of the novel? How would it have been different if the reader had seen the world specifically through May's eyes, or even Alice's?
  4. Was Dolly's impulse to separate May and Alice well founded, or was she being hyper-vigilant? Would you characterize May and Alice's connection as a healthy one?
  5. If May's feet had not been bound, would Arthur have loved May? If not, does that diminish his love for her? Do you think that May was in love with Arthur, or do you think she needed him?
  6. Why didn't May want to wear the orthopedic shoes?
  7. The Binding Chair teems with characters, and all of them are somehow connected to each other. How did this support the themes in the novel?
  8. Was the conclusion of the novel satisfying? Why or why not?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Victoria
by Daisy Goodwin

"A hit…The research is impeccable, the attention to detail, perfect." - The Sunday Mirror (UK)

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Second Mrs. Hockaday
    by Susan Rivers

    A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war.

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win No Man's Land

No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien

Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.

Enter

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Ruler of the Night
    Ruler of the Night
    by David Morrell
    Amateur sleuth Thomas De Quincey is back in a mystery set in Victorian England. This time, he and ...
  • Book Jacket: A List of Cages
    A List of Cages
    by Robin Roe
    Robin Roe has written one helluva young adult debut novel. Alternating first person narratives by a ...
  • Book Jacket: Homesick for Another World
    Homesick for Another World
    by Ottessa Moshfegh
    The frizzy, freaky, funky, and frazzled all pile on in this much anticipated short story collection ...

Word Play

Solve this clue:

H W S W T Devil S H A L S

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.