English & EAL

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Lisa Tran

December 15, 2017

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The following blog post (updated 02/10/2020), is a mix of the video transcription, along with some new pieces of advice and tips. Happy learning!

[Video Transcription]

Hey guys. Welcome back to Lisa's Study Guides.

Right now, it's in the middle of December, and I know that most of you should have finished school by now, and you're enjoying your school holidays. Because it is summer holidays, and most people aren't really studying right now, this is for the truly keen beans, the people who are reading the text before the school starts, which, by the way, you should be doing. I'll pop that video in a card up above and so if you are studying Burial Rites, then this video is for you. If you're not, as always, it doesn't really matter because the type of advice that I will be giving would definitely be relevant to any text, because it's more about your thinking and how you actually go around approaching essay topics.


Burial Rites is about this girl called Agnes, and she is the last person in Iceland to be sentenced to the life sentence. This book covers the last few months of her life, living with these people who she's sharing her story with. She has been sentenced because she has murdered Natan. And although we first initially hear that she has murdered this guy, when we start to hear her story develop, that's when we start to see that there are shades of gray. That she did have reason behind what she did, and you can start to feel quite sympathetic towards her. At the same time, though, and this is what today's essay question will be about. There's a lot to do with the patriarchy. Agnes being not just a woman, but an intelligent woman, was something that was looked down upon, and people were scared of that. That's just to give you a little bit of context so that we can start this essay topic.

Essay Topic

Today's chosen essay topic is:

Women have no power in Burial Rites, the patriarchy dominates their lives. To what extent do you agree?

Step 1: Analyse

The first step, as always, is we look at keywords. What are the keywords here? To me, they are women, no power, patriarchy and dominates. These words really stand out to me, and these are the words that I feel are necessary for me to focus on in order to answer this prompt properly.

The second step that I do is I define keywords. So what I do here is I try to understand what the keywords mean and also their implications.

  • Women, is our first keyword. it's easy just to say, "Oh, women includes this character and this character." But we can start to think about more so the implications as well. So don't just think about the major characters like Agnes and Margret, but also think about the minor characters like Sigga and Rosa.
  • No power. So to me, no power means to lack freedom. It's not necessarily no power like you know I'm not strong and this is why we need to actually define the words because many words have multiple connotations or they have multiple meanings. So you need to figure out, "Okay, how am I going to find this word so that I've got the right focus for the rest of my essay?" This is silly, but what if you, halfway through your essay, went, "Holy crap, power could also mean electricity, and I didn't talk about electricity." So electricity is not part of Burial Rites, but it's just something to get you thinking. You know you don't just want to dive straight into the essay, assuming you know what the keyword means and what it entails. Actually spend time to define it, so that it's a lot clearer for you, too. So I've also added that no power means a lack of power compared to men. So because it is a patriarchy, the fact that they have no power is very much sort of linked to the fact that it's male-induced.
  • The third keyword is a patriarchy, so a male-dominated society, which means that an analysis of male characters is also required to fully understand male and female interactions. If you have an essay where you only talk about the women, then you're maybe only answering it 50%. To really add extra value to what you're saying and to really solidify your points, talk about the men because everyone influences each other one way or another.
  • The last thing is I would also add, 'to what extent'? When a prompt says, "to what extent?" to me, it means that some sort of challenge is required here. It's probably not enough if I just completely agree with it because it's only suggesting that the extent does end somewhere and that you need to go beyond it.

Step 2: Brainstorm

While in this video I don't cover the brainstorm process, you can learn more by reading up on my THINK and EXECUTE strategy, which has helped thousands of students achieve better marks!

Step 3: Create a Plan

My third step is I plan out key arguments. So this is how I'm going to break down this essay prompt. I am going to do two body paragraphs where I agree and one body paragraph where I disagree. So this should mean that I'm only agreeing to a certain extent. Here's a video about this type of essay structure and response:

Body paragraph 1:

So my first body paragraph is yes, under male authority, the women are robbed of freedom and power. My example for that would be Agnes, who is the protagonist. She is a woman who's being sentenced to death for murdering Natan, more about him later, and, as a result, society condemns her and she's robbed of her identity and freedom. "Everything I said was altered until the story wasn't my own." The metaphor of a story represents her being stripped of her experiences and identity, and instead replaced with how others think of her, whore, madwoman and murderess.

Body paragraph 2:

My second body paragraph would be another agreement, but this time I'm going to focus on the men. In this second body paragraph, my argument is men hold exploitative power over women. One, Natan, the person who was murdered, toys with all his whores, demonstrating male dominance in 1820s Iceland. All his workmaids are stranded, shipwrecked with nowhere else to go, highlighting women's hopelessness in changing their situation. Additionally, there's Blondal. So Blondal is a government authority and he's torn when commanding Lauga, Lauga, not too sure how to say that. You guys let me know. "I'm sure you would not question me," which is also another example of women's subordinate status.

Body paragraph 3:

The third one is one where I disagree. Here will be that there are rare instances of female empowerment in the novel. The first one will be Rosa, the poet. So Rosa has an affair with Natan, but Kent praises Rosa and she's described to be a wonderful woman and beautiful. Rosa transcends patriarchal structures, as she is assertive, headstrong, going against social codes in an act of female empowerment.

The second one will be Agnes. Her storytelling and ability to express what she is inside allows her to gain a voice in the patriarchal world that has silenced her. Through her storytelling, she asserts her self-worth and dignity and despite the fact that she has been locked down, she is being treated like crap by the men, her ability to hold herself strong and to be able to face her death with dignity means that with some sense, at least from within, that sense of empowerment has not been completely diminished.

If you found this blog and video helpful, and would like to see Burial Rites essay writing in action, then I recommend you check out How To Write A Killer Text Response below!

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