Study Guide

Graceling Themes

By Kristin Cashore

  • Marriage

    If you played a word association game with Katsa—our main girl in Graceling—and gave her the word marriage, she'd likely come back with something along the lines of prison. Or cage. Or maybe dungeon. Perhaps even the end of my life as I know it. Her views on marriage? Not all that favorable. Of course, given the status and rights of women during her time and in her culture, we can see why.

    Because of her Grace, Katsa enjoys a certain amount of freedom that other women in her time and place do not. As a noble, Katsa has a place to live and enjoys free room and board—at the cost of doing her uncle's bidding. But even after she leaves Randa's court, Katsa finds herself well-equipped to survive on her own in the wild, and she's perfectly happy doing so. She's such a gifted fighter that she doesn't need a husband for personal protection, and as long as she remains unmarried, her time remains her own. Which is the way she likes it.

    So yeah, it would seem that marriage, instead of conferring any benefits on Katsa, would only serve to restrict her freedom—something she values too highly to give up.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Why does Katsa vow she will never marry? Do you think her view of marriage is valid? Why or why not?
    2. What do you think Po's views of marriage are? If it weren't for Katsa's reluctance, do you think Po would be inclined to marry her? Why might he have different views on marriage than Katsa?
    3. When you look at the way marriage works in society today, do you see any of the problems that Katsa sees in the state of marriage in her time and culture? Explain.
    4. How do you feel about marriage? Do you think you will marry someday? Why do you think you feel the way you do?

    Chew on This

    In Graceling, Kristin Cashore communicates a strong anti-marriage message.

    Graceling isn't anti-marriage at all; it's anti-inequality.

  • Isolation

    Katsa spends a fair amount of her life isolated, partly because of her Grace—which scares the wallabies out of most people in the seven kingdoms—but also because of her choices. And toward the end of Gracelings, after Po sustains his injuries he attempts to isolate himself from pain by isolating himself from others. One thing we learn from all of this isolation is that there's a big difference between isolation by choice (which may be more accurately called solitude) and isolation that occurs despite one's attempts and desires to fit in.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Which would be worse: to be ostracized by others because of a physical trait that you were born with (like Katsa's Graceling eyes), or to be isolated because of choices you've made (like Katsa's decision never to marry or have children)? Explain.
    2. Isolation can be devastating. (See Stephen King's The Shining for an extreme example.) What coping mechanisms does Katsa use to keep the isolation she feels as a Graceling from taking over her life and making her completely miserable?
    3. What other characters, aside from Katsa, experience isolation and how? Whose isolation do you think is the worst? Why?

    Chew on This

    In terms of isolation, the character that suffers the most in Graceling is [Katsa, Po, Bitterblue, Raffin, someone else].

    The choice that Katsa and Po have made, to be together without getting married, is bound to isolate them somewhat from their friends and family.

  • Strength and Skill

    What do you think of when you hear the words strength and skill?

    • Professional Athletes?
    • Stunt Doubles?
    • Shmoop Lit Guide Writers?

    You'd be justified on all accounts, of course. Everyone in that list is capable of some serious heavy lifting, and all of them possess a high level of physical ingenuity. (Hey—keyboarding is difficult, not to mention tough on the wrists. Ever heard of carpal tunnel syndrome?)

    That said, one doesn't have to be a heavy lifter to possess strength and skill. Just as Katsa is adept with her fists and legs, swords and daggers, Po is adept with his emotional IQ. He takes tough situations and cuts through the melodrama like a surgeon cuts through… whatever surgeons cut through. Muscles? Tissue? Anything that's in the way, probably.

    The point is, that while Katsa exhibits superior physical strength and skill in Graceling, Po demonstrates superior emotional strength and skill. And the more time they spend together, the better each one becomes at the other's area of expertise, which in turn seems to help them become better at their own. It's kind of trippy the way that works. Kind of like a Möbius strip.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Katsa has been able to defend herself since she was a wee one, so when she and Po begin training together, the idea is that the training sessions will help to improve Po's fighting skill. Do the sessions help to improve Katsa's physical abilities? How? What else does Katsa get out of these training sessions?
    2. Which strength/skill do you think is easier to improve: physical or emotional? Why?
    3. Which is more important in her ultimate defeat of Leck—Katsa's physical skill or her emotional strength? Explain.

    Chew on This

    If not for her training sessions with Po, Katsa never would have been able to defeat Leck.

    Emotional strength, just like physical strength, can be improved with practice.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Graceling is full of disguises, deceptions, and lies—most of them for a good cause.

    Yeah, we know—it's hard to think of lies and deceit in a positive light; but more often than not in this book we find ourselves excusing the characters' duplicity by recognizing it as essential. You've probably heard the expression the ends justify the means, right? The idea being that if the end result is positive, it doesn't really matter what you do to get there. And in Graceling, that seems to be a fair amount of the time.

    The disguises, deceptions, and lies are necessary… except when they aren't. And toward the end of the book we get a good reminder that when lies and deceit are bad, they're very bad—very bad. Disturbing even.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. At one point Po says, "Don't feel too kindly toward me, Katsa. Neither of us is blameless as a friend" (12.91). Katsa, of course, has just hauled off and hit him, nearly breaking his jaw. But what has Po done to potentially injure their friendship? Considering their offenses, who do you think it would be easier to forgive and why?
    2. Clark Kent. Peter Parker. Diana Prince. Bruce Wayne. All of these characters lied about their identities and abilities in order to accomplish great things. But we can't all be superheroes. Still, are there situations when it would be okay for an average, ordinary person to lie to and deceive others? Explain.
    3. Leck's lies, of course, are sincerely troubling, but are there any other lies or deceptions in the book with which you find serious fault? Remember to consider self-deception. Are there any characters that deceive themselves into believing something that could be harmful?
    4. Have you ever lied in order to accomplish something that was ultimately positive and beneficial? When, and how did that turn out for you?
    5. What do you think of the fact that it's trying to tell the truth that ultimately gets Leck killed?

    Chew on This

    If the characters in Graceling had simply stood up to the corrupt kings from the beginning, none of their lies and deceptions would have been necessary.

    Nearly every time a character tells the truth in Graceling, she or he is punished, whereas most lying results in great accomplishments or increased power. Because of this, Kristin Cashore sends the message to her readers that lies and deceit are preferable to truth.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Go back fifty years in the United States and you wouldn't see many men staying home to raise their children, cooking dinner for the family, or washing the dishes. Those tasks all fell into the domestic sphere, and the domestic sphere was a woman's place—not a man's.

    These days that's changed, and those changes are reflected in books like Graceling. To be sure, there are men in the book who probably have no interest in cooking, cleaning, or caretaking, but Kristin Cashore uses her male characters to demonstrate that men come in many shapes and sizes and that there is no one way in which a man must think and behave in order to be a man. In fact, through the character of Po in particular, she suggests that men can cook, clean, and be emotionally sensitive without compromising their masculinity at all. Hallelujah.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Beyond anatomy, what are the qualities that make a man masculine?
    2. Think of all of the male characters in the book (Po, Raffin, Giddon, Oll, Randa, Leck, the sailors on Captain Faun's ship, Ror, and Skye). If you had to rank them from least masculine to most masculine, how would you do it? What qualities would you rely on to create your rankings?
    3. For which male character(s) in the book do you have the most respect and why?
    4. The book seems to hint that perhaps Raffin and Bann are in a romantic relationship together. Does being gay compromise a man's masculinity? Why or why not?
    5. Can women be masculine? Explain.

    Chew on This

    [Po, Raffin, Giddon, Oll, Randa, Leck, or someone else] is the most masculine character in the book.

    Between Captain Faun and Katsa, the two most masculine characters in Graceling are women.

  • Women and Femininity

    To be a woman in Katsa's time and place means to grow up, find a husband, and have children. It means cooking and cleaning and entertaining your husband's guests, and it also means embroidering, crocheting, and darning socks. None of these things interest Katsa in Graceling. At all. Which puts her at odds with traditional feminine roles before we even get to the part about her basically being a super-skilled, super-strong assassin/enforcer/thug.

    But even though she doesn't conform to other people's ideas of femininity, she's still a woman, right? And if she's a woman, she must be feminine—or do those two things not necessarily have to go hand in hand?

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Think of the female characters in the book (Katsa, Bitterblue, Captain Faun, Helda, Po's mother). If you had to rank them from most feminine to least feminine, how would you do it? What qualities would you use to determine where each of them belongs in the rankings?
    2. What is it, beyond anatomy, that makes a woman feminine?
    3. Do any of the male characters in the book possess feminine qualities? Explain.
    4. Can men be feminine? Why or why not?
    5. Is it possible for a woman to have no feminine qualities whatsoever? Elaborate.

    Chew on This

    Now that Katsa has met someone she loves and trusts, it is likely that she will one day decide that she wants to have a child with Po.

    Considering the qualities traditionally considered to be feminine, in many ways Po is a much more feminine character than Katsa.

  • Power

    Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent," and that's essentially what Po keeps telling Katsa about her role as Randa's enforcer: Randa can't make her hurt people. He can't make her do much of anything. (Who can?)

    Unfortunately, over the years Randa has manipulated Katsa into believing that she has no power of her own and that she has no choice but to do as he says. Thankfully Katsa begins to realize that she does have choices. (We always do, you know, it's just that sometimes one of the choices is really unpalatable… Still, it's a choice.)

    As Katsa begins to make her own choices, she begins to take control. And as she takes control, she gains power. The thing about control though, is that like most things, it's good in mderate amounts. Why? Because you can't control everything. And if you try to you'll wind up losing power by limiting your choices. It's kind of a funky balancing act, this whole choice-control-power thing, and it's one that Katsa's trying to get a handle on in Graceling.

    Questions About Power

    1. For many years, Randa has used Katsa to help keep his subjects in order. What do you suppose happened when Katsa left? Do you think anything changed?
    2. In Chapter 12, Po repeatedly tells Katsa that she is a large part of the reason Randa is so powerful. Had this occurred to you before Po began to discuss it with Katsa? As you read about the mission she completed with Oll and Giddon in Chapter 4, as well as Katsa's flashback to her first ever mission for Randa, did it ever occur to you that without her, Randa would be much weaker?
    3. Can you think of other situations in which a person who appears to have a great deal of power is actually only able to remain powerful so long as the people beneath him or her continue to play their parts? Try. And then explain.
    4. Are there situations in which you feel powerful? What do you think makes you powerful in these situations?
    5. Are there situations in which you feel weak or powerless? Are their choices you could make that might change those situations?
    6. Po tells Katsa that she is the most powerful person he's ever known. Do you think he's right? What is it that gives Katsa such great power? Who do you think is the most powerful character in the book and why? Who seems to be the weakest? Why?

    Chew on This

    [Katsa, Po, Leck] has the most powerful Grace.

    One of the reasons Katsa is so powerful is that she has no obligations to a spouse or to children. Having a family considerably decreases one's personal power.

  • Identity

    Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I fit in? A lot of young adult lit deals with these types of questions. Why? Because it's a pretty prominent theme in the lives of young adults as they navigate their way from child to adult, from dependent to independent, from royal thug to kingdom protector. (What do you mean you're not familiar with that last transition?)

    In Graceling, Katsa is no exception to the general rule here—but she is a little different when it comes to the specifics. For one thing, she's a Graceling who has completely misunderstood her Grace. And for another, she's had a manipulative uncle messing around with her identity for the last ten years.

    So instead of wondering what she'll be when she grows up or where she wants to go to college, Katsa spends half her time trying to convince herself she's not a monster and half her time chastising herself because she thinks she is. Plus she's a young woman who doesn't want a husband or children in a time when the roles that women are supposed to aspire to are wife and mother.

    So when it comes to identity? Yeah—Katsa's kind of having a crisis.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Katsa has done some things in her life that, in a different time and place, would land her in prison. She's killed more than one person and maimed and injured plenty of others. But we still like her and think she's a good person. What's going on here? Are we having an identity crisis?
    2. Do you think a person's identity—who they are at their core—can change over time? Why or why not? And how does that seem to play out with Katsa? Has she changed over the years, or has she always been the same person, whether she was killing people or rescuing them? Explain.
    3. What matters more when it comes to identity: the way other people see us or the way we see ourselves?
    4. When does Katsa's opinion of herself begin to change? What things do you think help her to begin questioning her identity? And what is it that finally allows Katsa to view herself in a different light?

    Chew on This

    Katsa may be having an identity crisis, but her identity never changes; she is the exact same person at the end of the book as she is at the beginning.

    Even without Po, Katsa would eventually have defied Randa, left his court, and figured out the truth of her Grace.