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.
In Graceling, Kristin Cashore communicates a strong anti-marriage message.
Graceling isn't anti-marriage at all; it's anti-inequality.
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.
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.
What do you think of when you hear the words strength and skill?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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?
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.