Study Guide

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party Analysis

  • Tone

    Serious and Scholarly

    When we say the tone of this book is serious, we're, um, totally serious. The tone in this read is so seriously serious, that you might even refer to it as having gravitas… which—as all fancy Latin words should—leads us to the scholarly part of the tone as well. Octavian as narrator doesn't joke around—he can't afford to, since he's a slave in pre-revolutionary America—and since he's carrying the weight of proving the intelligence of all African people on his shoulders (when it comes to the College, anyway), well, he doesn't leave his academic tone behind in the classroom.

    This passage on the origin of the word slave offer a prime example of Octavian's grave intellectualism:

    The Latin for 'slave'—servus—as rendered in English literally is 'the spared one'; slaves being those taken prisoner in battle, who should, therefore, by all the rules of engagement, have been slain. In antiquity, slaves possessed no rights as citizens because, though spared, they were accounted dead, and as the dead, could not be admitted as living men; and so, for generations, the dead toiled and bred in Rome; the dead taught Rome's children the secrets of philosophy; the dead built Rome's great monuments and tombs; until the Romans themselves joined the dead, and all that remained were tombs, and monuments, and half-remembered terms.

    So were too these men I worked beside: transformed against their will into the dead; and asked to die again so that they might be free. (3.11.6-7)

    First, you know you're in for one of Octavian's serious, extended, philosophical moments when he drops the Latin word for "slave" on you (we were only partially joking earlier when we said Latin words always leads to scholarly stuff). This is because only super-serious, intellectual-types walk around with Latin on the tips of their tongues. Okay, that's not necessarily true, although in Octavian's case it is.

    Then he takes the English translation of slave—"the spared one"—and shows how something that ought to be good (someone spared means someone saved), actually isn't. Slaves are only spared because they don't matter; they're already counted as the dead, even though they're living. And then he takes that ever-cheery topic—death—and connects it to the living dead: those slaves who built Rome.

    Then he connects this lovely thought to his present moment in pre-revolutionary America, where people are "transformed against their will into the dead; and asked to die again so that they might be free." Again something that ought to be an ideal, a noble goal—to be free—gets turned into a negative thing. Which isn't to say it shouldn't be turned into a negative thing—instead we mean to draw attention to how insightful and attentive Octavian is, and to how deftly he picks things apart. It's not always easy to follow him, but if you slow down, he'll kind of blow your mind.

  • Genre

    Young Adult Literature; Coming-of-Age; Historical Fiction; War Drama

    Young Adult Literature

    Octavian Nothing isn't just classified as young adult literature because the young adult gods say so—it earns this distinction by being all about a young boy who grows into his teen years. While these teen years have him fighting the American Revolution and his own enslavement, he still has to deal with typical young adult issues—stuff like identity, education, and losing his mom at a young age.


    Octavian goes from being an awkward and precocious boy, to a young man who knows who he is. As the book ends, Octavian has the maturity to know what's what, like the fact that his friend Private Goring is still kind of a naive, idealistic, white boy who tries to ignore the reality of slavery right in front of him. Plus Octavian has the guts to stand up to Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Gitney, even when he's shackled. He starts the book not even knowing he's enslaved, but as the book ends, his eyes are wide open and he's taking charge of his destiny.

    Historical Fiction

    This one's easy. Octavian's (fictional) story is set against pre-revolutionary America (Boston specifically), when slavery was alive and well and Patriots couldn't stand their British "tyrants" (yes, we put that word in scare quotes because, um, slavery). Though Octavian isn't plucked straight from the archives, the general history in this book is about as true as it comes in fiction since Anderson spent years researching the time period for this one.

    War Drama

    Well, let's see… There's a war going on between the Patriots and the Brits. In fact, a huge chunk of the book is all about the lead-up to the American Revolution and the major battles of that war that fill our American history books. And there's definitely plenty of drama—people die, are enslaved, and more—which is a no brainer since this book combines one serious historical event (the American Revolution) with a serious historical reality (slavery).

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Before we get started, we figure we should write the title out in all its glory, since it's so long that mostly we just refer to the book as Octavian Nothing.Ready, Shmoopsters? Here it is: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party.

    Need a moment to catch your breath? We totally understand.

    The thing about this title, though, is that it's not nearly as complicated as it might seem at first. The first part—The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing—is pretty darn straightforward. The book is about Octavian's, well, astonishing life. As for the Nothing component, well, Octavian can't very well call himself Gitney, can he? That's the name of the man who bought him, so keeping it as his own maintains the ties of ownership. So instead he calls himself Nothing, and in doing so, refers to the lack of history and family he has in addition to claiming ownership of himself.

    We don't know for certain, but we've got a hunch that this name might get formalized in Volume 2. Remember, there's much more to come in the next installment of Octavian's saga. We'll say the same about the Traitor to the Nation part, too, since at this point, England's still officially running the show. As the story ends, though, the United States is on the brink of being born… and Octavian hopes to land a position in the British military orchestra.

    As far as the Pox Party is concerned, it references the major turning point for Octavian in this installment of his life story. It is the pox party that leads to his mother's death, and in doing so lays bare for Octavian the stakes of a life of enslavement. It is the thing that catalyzes him away from the College for good, and in doing so, truly sets his coming of age in motion.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Let's get one thing crystal clear before we do any further: There isn't an actual ending to this book since it's only the first volume in a two-volume series. So if you're looking for the typical payoff of a satisfying ending, get thee to the nearest library for the second volume—because you're not going to find things wrapped up neatly in this one.

    That said, what you have instead is a really exciting cliffhanger because Dr. Trefusis and Octavian have just started crossing the Channel from Roxbury to Boston.

    No big whoop? Oh, but it is. You see, the Brits now hold Boston, which means that our Batman and Robin-esque duo (we can't say which is which though) have just traded one hostile territory (The College of Lucidity and Mr. Sharpe) for another. What this means for Octavian's quest for freedom from slavery, however, remains to be seen. As he points out:

    I thought on the word freedom, and could picture nothing that it might be, beyond freedom to die; I knew not what the hours held; nor whether I would hang, nor fight, nor what man I would be, nor what woman I would take to wife; nor what would be the fate of this nation, birthing like a Caesar, tearing tis mother midst blood and travail. (4.12.163)

    He's only seen black slaves "freed" through actual death, so no wonder he's at a loss as to what he should imagine or hope for. However, he does know one important thing: "We left the Patriots behind us" (4.12.163). This is super important, because leaving the Patriots behind means Octavian and Dr. Trefusis are willing to switch sides. Is that an act of betrayal? Are they traitors? Can you be a traitor when your nation betrays you first? Is America even your nation if you're a slave in the first place? So many questions.

    For what it's worth, the second volume is titled The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves. It doesn't tell us much, but it leaves us with a hunch that this swim Octavian and Dr. Trefusis are taking as Volume 1 ends won't be their last.

  • Setting

    Pre-revolutionary Boston: The College of Lucidity

    The College of Lucidity is where it's at. The men of the College investigate whatever scholarly pursuit they want; they hold parties; Octavian and Cassiopeia hold court like royalty.

    But even so, the College isn't all fun. It's a dark place too, because behind "a wall of some height" (1.1.4)—a wall that "keep[s] us all from slipping away and running for freedom" (1.1.4), are all sorts of strange, cruel experiments on both animals and enslaved humans alike, particularly Octavian and Cassiopeia.

    Even so, the College is still in Boston, and that makes the College a lot more connected to the world than it might otherwise be. Guests arrive all the time to visit, and the scholars go in and out, between the city and the house.

    More to the point, Octavian gets so much of his education from walking the actual streets of Boston with Dr. Trefusis. So even though Mr. Sharpe claims that the College is way too isolated from the world, that's actually not totally true, especially if we compare the Boston house to the Gitney house out in the boondocks of Canaan, Masschusetts. Which—surprise—we will do now.

    Canaan, Massachussets: The Gitney House

    The Canaan house is like the Boston house, only all wrong. It's like a pale imitation of what the College used to be, with ample space (2.17.11) and a lush garden landscape (2.24.4), but without the same intellectual activity.

    This is partially because the Canaan house is a country house, isolated from the heartbeat of Massachusetts—Boston, the urban center. And while it's not like the College men were ever super-political or completely engaged with the goings-on in Boston, in Canaan everyone can't help but be distant from current news, especially about the war.

    Note, for example, how Octavian emphasizes how they all "heard" about the war:

    We heard news—which word could not but quicken the blood—of common men rising in the thousands to empty the rural law courts of corruption and expel the un-elected favorites of government. We heard of troop movements in the countryside to seized powder and shot. We heard of free elections cancelled for fear of who would win. (2.17.12)

    There's no eye-witnessing of the war, even though stuff is clearly happening in the countryside too—all they get is news, passed along by others. The College crew is sheltered by the large, country Gitney mansion and land; all of they have to do is "sate inside" (2.20.5) and let the war go on around them. Because of this, the Gitney house can be seen as a "microcosm" (2.24.1), a smaller world that reflects the larger environment but that also remains isolated from it.

    The Gitney house is also, by the way, the ultimate sign of death and bondage for Octavian. Who can blame him? It's where his mother dies and gets dissected; it's also where he finds out that the whole pox party they hold at the house is really an experiment on African slaves and their reaction to the smallpox vaccine. It's no wonder that Octavian can't stand the fact that he's caught and returned to "that house" (and he really doesn't mean that in a good way) (4.5.1).

    The Beginning of the American Revolution, Massachusetts

    Mud, rain, grasses, hills, the bay—that's what we know of Massachusetts through Private Goring's accounts of the war. We're not saying it's all boring and the same—it definitely isn't that—but what you do get is the drudgery of it all, of having to deal with nature in order to fight the Brits, especially since the Patriots march… a lot.

    But what we also understand is the way the Patriots strategize, using the landscape around them. Take this mission Goring's company has:

    The Parliamentary Army, it was known, graze a great Bustle of Livestock on the Grasses of Hog & Noddle's Islands. We was to assemble on the Shore of Boston Harbor & meet Others shortly before Low Tide & then together we cross to Hog Island & from there, to the farther Island, Noddle's. When the Channel between Hog Island & the Mainland was at its lowest, we was to drive the Livestock off the Islands over to Chelsea, with the squatter Animals poled over to the mainland on Scows. (3.13.2)

    Translation? The Patriots are going to drive the Brits' livestock from two islands, across the Channel, and to the mainland—that way they can cut off the food supply going into British-controlled Boston. Sound tiring? Complicated? You don't know the half of it—for the men, it's a ridiculous ordeal-turned-battle that lasts from morning till night.

    You know who doesn't complain though? Yep. Octavian.

    Why? Because as far as he's concerned, all this marching means one basic thing: his physical freedom. This is something he really pines for when he's shackled and masked, after being caught and returned to Canaan.

    It's also why the Massachusetts' landscape may kind of feel like a blur (especially if you're not a native of Massachusetts). For Octavian, it's not the landscape that's important; it's his ability to just walk:

    That I longed or rather thirsted to put my arms out straight, to swivel my legs—with a physical ache not simply the discomfort of the musculature—this may be said without surprise; yet it was the simplicity of this need which confounded me so. (4.7.5)

    Having a path to freely walk on is more than enough for Octavian.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?


    With an anxious air, I say to him, "My dear Émile, what shall we do to get out of here?
    Émile: I don't know. I'm tired; I'm thirsty; I'm hungry; I can't go on.
    Myself: Do you think I'm in any better state than you? Don't you think I would cry too, if I could dine on tears?

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or On Education 

    What's up with the epigraph?

    Tough love. That's all you need to know about Émile and, for that matter, Octavian Nothing.

    Okay, that's not all you need to know, but it's a good place to start for figuring out what Part I of this book is all about.

    First, let's just get Émile straight. Émile is Rousseau's attempt at a philosophy of education. What's the best way to teach and raise a kid? If you're Émile's tutor, it's about getting Émile to forget about his physical pains and focus on solving the problem at hand; it's about preparing the kid to survive the hardships of the world. In other words, the tutor is definitely not into coddling the boy.

    The same can be said about the men at the College, especially Mr. Gitney. Mr. Gitney is all about turning Octavian into your perfect little mini-Gitney: objective, observant, and scientific. Question is, when is tough love too tough and not enough love? Are Mr. Gitney's instructional methods (like experimenting with poisons on Octavian's dog or throwing cats off a roof) too harsh, or are they necessary to turn Octavian into the intelligent, strong character that he becomes?

    We're not telling you the answers to those questions—you've got to figure this stuff out for yourselves. Call it our form of tough love.


    "Ipsa scientia potestas est." ("Knowledge itself is power.")
    —Francis Bacon, Meditationes Sacrae

    What's up with the epigraph?

    Ever here the phrase knowledge is power? Fun fact: That phrase comes from this quotation by Francis Bacon.

    Another fun fact (let the good times roll): If you think that Bacon means knowledge gives you more power, or that knowledge is the end all be all of getting power, you're probably wrong. That's because this quotation is actually about the power of God and all the different ways humankind gets it wrong about God's power.

    In fact—according to Bacon—even folks who think that God is powerful because of what God knows, forget that God's power has more to do with how God's will works and acts through people and events. God's full power, as far as Bacon's concerned, isn't about being the way Gitney or the other scientists at the College are—it isn't about observing things in order to expand personal knowledge—nope, God's power comes from acting on knowledge.

    So you might say that the College kind of fails because it acts out the wrong interpretation of Bacon's quotation. The College crew knows a lot, but since they don't actually do much with their research, they have limited power, especially in comparison to their wealthy investors.
    On the other hand, if we do go by the typical reading of Bacon's quotation, we can't deny that knowledge is a (very) important form of power. This is especially true when Mr. Sharpe limits Octavian's education to an experience akin to memorizing a dictionary.

    In fact, think of Part II as one huge power struggle between those who have access to knowledge and those who don't have access to knowledge. One huge hint: the white men aren't always the one in power either.


    Nature, in her menagerie, preserves Animals in six different forms:
    MAMMALIA, covered with hair,         walk on the earth,           speaking.
    BIRDS,            covered with feathers,   fly in the air,                   singing.
    AMPHIBIA,    covered with skin,         creep in warm places,     hissing.
    FISHES,          covered with scales,      swim in the water,           smacking.
    INSECTS,       covered with armour,    skip on dry ground,         buzzing.
    WORMS,        without skin,                 crawl in moist places,      silent.

    Charles Linnaeus, Systema Naturae

    What's up with the epigraph?

    Keep Papers Coming Or Flunk General ScienceKing Phillip Came Over For Good Soup… Any of this sound familiar? Are you having flashbacks to biology class?

    You can thank Linnaeus for that. Not for the memory tricks, silly—those are all your bio teacher's brilliance—but for the thing we all had to memorize at one point: the classification system for our natural world. You know: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. So what you see in the epigraph for Part III are the main classes of the animal kingdom, in order from most developed to least developed. Linnaeus was definitely all about hierarchies.

    Kind of like some other people we know… like Mr. Sharpe (even though says he isn't), Mr. Gitney, Southern slave-masters in general. You know where this is going right?

    Part III is all about the way this order gets completely messed up. War is starting, and the hierarchical system that's been in place stops behaving and starts becoming a mess. Kind of makes you think about how shaky systems and hierarchies are… you know, like those that support slavery.


    In this world we are condemned to be an anvil or a hammer.
    —Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary

    What's up with the epigraph?

    Even if you've never heard Voltaire's line, you've probably heard some variation of it. In life, you're either the hammer or the nail… Sound familiar now?

    No matter. The point is, that in life you're either beating another person down or you're the one being beaten. We know—it sounds a little bleak, kind of like being between a rock and a hard place, or something like that.

    The funny thing is though, that it's supposed to be, well, funny. Voltaire's line comes from the Philosophical Dictionary, a satire about—among other things (it is, after all, a dictionary)—tyranny. Voltaire is weighing the pros and cons of two different types of tyranny: the tyranny of a single ruler or the tyranny of a group of people. He opts for the former because even "a despot always has his good moments".

    And it just so happens that Part IV (and the whole book) kind of does the same thing. It weighs the difficulty of beating a group of tyrants (say, the Brits, or American slave-masters in general) and the difficulty of (spoiler alert) escaping Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Gitney. On top of that, the whole ending is—like Voltaire—pretty funny, especially with Dr. Trefusis thrown into the mix.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (9-10) Mount Everest

    If you think young adult = easy read, then think again. Not only is this book several hundred pages long, but it's also written in 18th-century English. No joke—M.T. Anderson spent years reading 18th-century literature just so he could get the voice of his characters just right.

    It's not just the language though. The book is steeped in religion, philosophy, and literature—and we're talking serious classics like Plutarch's Lives. If you just went "what's that?" then consider it your preview of what it's like to read this book.

    But we don't want to scare you off. Like climbing the actual Mount Everest, you'll need persistence—but once you get to the end, your mind will feel like it's exploding, in a really good way. Plus the plot is a true page-turner, which helps pull you along even when you're feeling a little overwhelmed.

  • Writing Style

    Verbose; Descriptive; 18th-century

    Tell it Like it Was

    This book is wordy. Like really, really, really, really, really wordy. (See? We can be wordy too.)

    But joking aside (sorry to disappoint—we know we've got a killer sense of humor), all that verbosity, that loquacity, bordering on logorrhea (better break out that SAT list—or better yet, click here) is necessary. But you don't have to take us at our word(s) for this one—we're happy to explain in more detail.

    See, this is how educated people spoke and wrote in 18th-century America. And since Anderson is trying to write the story through Octavian's first-hand account of his life, it's important that the whole thing seem believable as an actual 18th-century text. Given how well educated Octavian is—and how important it is to be recognized as such (be sure to read his analysis in the "Characters" section for more on this)—it only makes sense, then, that he would tell us his story in this style. Check out this passage for an example:

    It was not for many years that I read an article he penned on that occasion, and found that Cloud had been memorialized; and, furthermore, grew to understand through this brief chemical treatise, frank in its disclosure of experimental methodology, that I had murdered my dog by my own hand; for that excellent and affectionate creature had been poisoned by the same food I gave him daily, Mr. 03-01 admixing an experimental mercurious compound into the meat and rice to determine whether it was fatal to mammals. (1.4.6)

    Anderson could have had Octavian say something like, "Mr. 03-01 made me an accessory to my dog's death. He experimented with poisons on my dog; my dog died"—but it just doesn't have the same effect. That 18th-century style makes Octavian of his time, and makes sure we never forget what era we're hanging out in.

    Objects in Mirror May be Closer than They Appear

    While it may be hard to believe that anything is omitted about Octavian's experience from the eighty-five word sentence excerpted above (yes—it's one sentence, and yes—we counted the words), something is glaringly absent: his feelings. We almost don't notice this, though, amongst so much language. The wordiness, then, has the added effect of creating a sense of complete revelation on Octavian's part, while diverting our attention away from what he doesn't share. Because let's be real—there's no way this wasn't a major bummer to find out.

    Plus, even if we weren't super sleuths when it comes to feelings, Octavian comes out and tells us he cried (although not in so few words, of course). He says:

    It is indicative of the rigors of scrutiny to which I have always subjected myself that though I can recall none of the tremors of my breast, none of the calamity of spirit that must have occasioned, I do recall the floods of tears I shed as I ran through the house—the scolding I received from a footman—and at last the complaint I made to Mr. 03-01. (1.4.4)

    Note how that entire passage starts with "it is indicative of"—that there's some scholarly tone if we've ever seen it. And the thing about this scientific language is that it makes the memory appear less traumatizing—again we see words piled up to protest feelings. In doing so, however, the writing style just reminds us of how Octavian is intellectualizing the past.

    It's that tension between the facts of the memory—a scene we can't help imagining because of how detailed and descriptive Octavian/Anderson is—and the abstraction of that memory that mirrors one of the defining struggles within Octavian.

    Mind Versus Body

    The writing shows a split between the mind (so many words, and so much philosophizing) and the body (crying, sobbing, a dead dog)—and in doing so, the inability of either to completely tell a story. The mind and body need each other in this book.

    So rather than fold to one side over another, the writing in the novel continues to seek a way of unifying the mind and body into a powerful, and arguably more humane, whole. The descriptions get us to understand the physical tortures that existed in the College and at large in pre-revolutionary America, while the verbiage gets us to see how even smart men like Mr. Gitney and adult Octavian could—with all those words—stop feeling for the plight of living beings, animal and human alike.

    Necessary Wordiness

    It's fine and dandy for us to give Octavian a bit of grief about hiding his feelings behind so many words when he understands he was tricked into killing his own dog, but since this book is a slave narrative at its heart, the wordiness also manifests as descriptive language. And when this happens, it is absolutely essential to the work of the book. Octavian's story doesn't just have to show his intelligence; it has to show the horrors of slavery, so that readers understand as well as possible about the horrors it inspires. And this, Shmoopsters, requires some serious wordage.

    Here is only one of many examples from the text for your consideration:

    It was a catalogue of horrors. Page after page of Negroes in bridles, strapped to walls, advertisements for shackles, reports of hangings of slaves for theft or insubordination. He had, those many months, been collecting offers for children sold cheap, requests for aid in running down families who had fled their masters. For the first time, I saw masks of iron with metal mouth-bits for the slave to suck to enforce absolute silence. I saw razored necklaces, collars of spikes that supported the head. I saw women chained in coffles, bent over on the wharves. (2.13.17)

    Holding back on the language in this passage would be to hold back from describing some of the horrors of systemized slavery. So while there are plenty of moments when Octavian (as our narrator) uses words to keep his cards close to his chest, here he uses them to make sure readers don't miss a key point to his story: Slavery is absolutely horrible.

  • The Dragon's Skull

    "Some Nightmare Tadpole"

    There's no way around it: it's definitely weird that Octavian wants to wear a dragon's skull over his head—and that he "cried and sobbed until they allowed [him] to sleep in the room with the monster" (1.6.13). But you know how symbols work, Shmoopsters: When something catches your eye—which the dragon skull most certainly does—it's usually trying to tell you something beyond what meets the eye.

    So why does Octavian want that skull on his head? We think it has something to do with what he imagines he looks like with the skull on:

    […] my head in its long-rotted cranium, my body curled behind it as if it and I were some nightmare tadpole waiting to burst from the murk and reinstate its reign upon the genteel fields of Earth. (1.6.13)

    Note the use of the subjunctive here—"as if it and I were." This is basically a blatant way of introducing an imagined impossibility. In other words, Octavian will never actually be "some nightmare tadpole waiting to burst from the murk" because he's human—but that doesn't stop him from imagining becoming what the skull makes him look like.

    Think of it like dressing up in a costume for Halloween so that you can go around scaring people. You'll never actually be a scary witch or Frankenstein, but isn't it cool to pretend? And if you spend your days feeling kind of invisible or investing in politeness, the chance to scare people might even feel pretty thrilling and powerful. When Octavian wears the dragon skull, he imagines being born again as a powerful creature—a creature who can reign, instead of being reigned over the way Octavian always has been.

    How the Tadpole Becomes a Frog

    His vision is also kind of like a coming-of-age story. Young Octavian is like that tadpole just waiting to "burst from the murk" and become the adult frog that can "reinstate its reign upon the genteel fields of Earth." That, by the way, is also some heavy foreshadowing, even if Octavian doesn't exactly "reinstate [his] reign" over Earth—he does learn to fight, to go from tiny tadpole-boy to a grown young man who escapes his slave-masters twice. That takes some serious guts.

    "Survival Through Adaptation"

    If you're a biology buff, there's also a slight whiff of evolutionary theory floating in the imagery too. After all, at the heart of the symbol is the transformation between tadpole and a creature who walks the earth. While it's dangerous to have biology and race hang out too closely together—after all, these are the very basis of Octavian's childhood as an enslaved science experiment—we can understand the evolutionary transformation referred to in the excerpt above as a sort of reclaiming of the ways in which science is used against black people, and Octavian specifically.

    In other words, if people want to treat Octavian like a living experiment, a human specimen, then he is claiming himself as a model of evolutionary success—someone who goes from a nightmare to ruling the earth.

    Not convinced? Consider this: Cassiopeia later recalls how Octavian responded to her when she teased him about how the skull might bite him. According to Cassiopeia, he said "'Do not be afraid, Mother. Know you whose skull this is? Mine. I would not bite my own self'" (1.26.158)—in other words, Octavian already is as powerful as a dragon. He is just waiting to "burst from the murk" still—but when he does, well, look out world.

  • The Transit of Venus

    Ah, Venus… Goddess of Love, sex, romance—all things female and attractive. She's about as irresistible as they come, though she packs a mean punch too when folks get on her bad side. Sound like anyone from our book a bit to you? If you're thinking of Cassiopeia, then go ahead and give yourself a gold star, because you're on the money with this symbol.

    Cassiopeia and Lord Cheldthorpe Sitting in a Tree…

    Like the slow transit of the actual Venus—it takes the College men over five hours to see Venus eclipse the sun—the romance between Cassiopeia and Lord Cheldthorpe takes a while to develop and pass through its different stages: attraction, flirtation, physical contact, and—finally—dissolution.

    Even Lord Cheldthorpe—who's definitely not the brightest guy around—knows that "'Venus… is the planet of love'" (1.25.14); but this book belongs to Octavian, so let's check in with our main man to really understand the symbolic work this planetary trajectory does in the story.

    What's With the Drama Anyway?

    Unsurprisingly, it's Octavian's philosophical—and somewhat romantic—take on the transit that reveals the deeper meaning of it as a symbol.

    On one hand, the whole Venus deal just seems like one huge, dramatic spectacle—maybe even too dramatic for someone as rational as Octavian. Check out how he describes it:

    It is with awe that I treat of the event—so minute, so silent here upon the Earth—but there—one can scarce imagine the roaring of that vast orb through those frigid depths, tumbling, flung through the plane of our orbit; the glaring heat, the searing glare of Sol—and the gargantuan prodigality of that body, consuming its own substance ceaselessly while planets whirled like houris, veiled and ecstatic around the throne of some blast-turbaned, light-drunken king. (1.25.1)

    Sure Octavian feels "awe" at the whole thing, but his description of the sun (or "Sol")—with its huge, physical mass and the way other planets revolve like "houris" (read: virginal young women) around it—sounds a lot like the way Cassiopeia flirts with Lord Cheldthorpe. It's all a little too much, kind of like a Harlequin romance cover playing itself out right in front of everyone. All the descriptors—vast, glaring, searing, gargantuan—signal excess, and it almost seems like Octavian's a little embarrassed by the spectacle

    Now let's look at how Octavian relays a scene between Cassiopeia and Lord Cheldthorpe:

    My mother laughed at [Bono's] jest, and seemed to agree that Cheldthorpe was a prancing fool; yet she did not shun any opportunity to converse with His Lordship; nor did she make an unfavorable impression upon that lively individual, having all the graces of intellect, as well as the beauties of her person, at her command. She did not avoid him when he returned, slicked with sweat, from the hunt; she did not excuse herself when over wine by the campfire His Lordship told his tales of what the day had brought. I saw by her gaze that she did not find his person unattractive. (1.22.3)

    Though it seems perverse to say this—since Cassiopeia is clearly brighter than Cheldthorpe—if we understand him as the sun and her as Venus eclipsing it, then we understand that Cheldthorpe is the one with the power. The sun, after all, controls Venus's orbit. So the adoration of the sun that's referenced in the first excerpt, and mirrored in Cassiopeia's response to Cheldthorpe in the second excerpt, exposes the ridiculousness of the power structures in place.

    In other words, by all accounts, Cassiopeia with her beauty and intelligence should be running this show… but instead Lord Cheldthorpe is because he's a rich white man. The excess from the first passage no longer looks so much like admiration when we think about it in this light—instead it looks a lot more like desperation to survive.

    An Anachronistic Aside

    Do you know who Saartjie Baartman is? She is also known as Sara Baartman… or the Hottentot Venus. Though alive slightly later than the time period of this book (1789-1816)—she was enslaved and taken to Europe, where she was displayed as an oddity. People paid to see her partially naked body and she was generally used to support the racist belief that white Europeans were superior to black people, and even assessed as a living link between humans and animals.

    Though Baartman never comes up in our book—she wasn't alive yet, so it wouldn't make sense for her too—it seems fair to assume that Cassiopeia as a character is at least a shout-out to this real world woman. Not only are they both aligned with Venus, but upon their deaths (and Baartman may have died of small pox, just like Cassiopeia, though people aren't certain) both women were dissected.

    In other words, they are both women who spend their lives being marveled at, only to have the fundamental disrespect of their situations highlighted by the way their bodies are treated after death. Men may swoon over Cassiopeia, but she is a captive, not a free woman or their racial equal—and her subtle alignment with Baartman makes this abundantly clear.

  • The Garden of Eden

    Eden, for Geeks…

    Where is the Garden of Eden? Yes, yes, we know it's in the Bible. But if you're one of the College men when the book first begins, then chances are decent you'd answer that question with, well, the College. That's because the College—pre-Mr. Sharpe—is kind of awesome, especially if you're a total geek. But let's think this through.

    What makes the College so darn Eden-esque is that it's a non-stop learning party for the men who work there. If Eden is paradise (and according to the Bible it most definitely is, Shmoopsters), then the College is the ultimate hang-out for the band of geeks who conduct experiments, make observations, and generally spend their time exploring knowledge together.

    But at the College of Lucidity, it's like Eden gone wild. There isn't a restriction on knowledge—unlike the biblical Eden, which is decidedly pretty anti-knowledge—nor is there any shame in any intellectual pursuit. To be clear, shame is exactly what Adam and Eve get tuned into once they eat that darn apple—but without anything deemed off limits at the College, it's almost like Eden with no threat of a fall (more on that whole fall bit shortly).

    Which is why pretty much everyone at the College—including Octavian and even Bono—sees the College as a haven (heaven?) from all the riffraff and trouble outside the College. Octavian sets the scene (and analogy) from the beginning:

    I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. (1.1.1)

    The apple-trees kind of scream Eden, but it's the image of "floating lights" that make the College's garden fanciful, even magical or heavenly. One thing is immediately clear: this is a place that has room for delight and curiosity.

    It's the same scene Bono remembers right before he's about to be sent to Virginia. He and Octavian are wandering in the other garden, at the Gitney house out in Canaan. Bono tells Octavian what he saw and felt that first week he got to the College:

    "[…] they [the scholars] lit some kind of gas on fire….I thought they was gods. I thought, Now I'm walking in heaven, and it won't ever matter what happens on Earth. Together, we looked at the apple-trees against the winter sky." (2.18.31-34)

    For Bono, the Garden is even more a mix between Eden and some pagan version of Eden: a place where humans can get near the freedom and power of being gods.

    The Fall

    Of course, that may be the problem with the College, which—by the way—Cassiopeia introduces, straight-up, as Eden to Lord Cheldthorpe (1.19.24). It's lack of limits on human knowledge and exploration—on human power—leads to its downfall, although not necessarily because of what they seek (though there is a whole lot of racism coursing through their studies).

    The College falls because this learning free-for-all takes money, and lots of it. As Mr. Sharpe tells Octavian at the end:

    "We are all part of a web of finance and exchange from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Consider the most pleasant scene of pastoral repose. It is nothing but a vision of consumption." (4.12.65)

    Mr. Sharpe may be the bad guy in the novel, but he's also not totally wrong here in his exposure of the College as an inextricable part of a web of consumption. While it may seem like it's all fun and games and exploration on the College's grounds, the reality is that consumption still lies at its core—and while Mr. Sharpe is referring to money, we can see that one of the main things the College devours are the lives (and ultimately bodies) of enslaved people.

    How do you like them apples?

  • Narrator Point of View

    First-person (Central Narrator)—Octavian

    Why So Distant?

    Octavian may be our main guy, but even he's kind of at a distance from the whole story. That's because he's narrating his childhood from the perspective of an older guy.

    For this reason, we get a lot of philosophical breaks (or, depending on how fond of philosophical musings you are, you might also call them tangents) mixed in with his memories throughout the novel. It's kind of like listening to a really smart—but also really narcissistic and long-winded—uncle go on about why he became who he is. Take this early example of distant narration:

    By such lessons did I become acclimated to scientific calculation in even the meanest function, so learning the secrets of tare and gross. When, at about that time, I perceived that others did not have their leavings weighed so, it made a great impression upon me; and I had an even greater sense of my mysterious importance in this murky scheme, the unaccountable preciousness of everything I did to those who strove to watch over me. (1.7.6)

    If your attention totally faded out while reading that passage, don't blame yourself. The passage is a little dry and long—a.k.a. told in the narrator's preferred style.

    Revenge of the Nerd

    However, the long-winded, dry nature of the passage does accomplish one major thing: it sets the tone of the narrator's voice and character. Octavian the narrator, in other words, is clearly a really smart, totally rational guy.

    And that is key to the novel. So much of Octavian's young life depends on how successful he is at being intelligent (as measured by white men who value the classics and a classical education) because by doing so he proves that any African person is a rational and intelligent human being, on par with white people. No pressure or anything, though (not).

    So if you feel like Octavian kind of gets in the way of his own storytelling, that's purposeful. After all, there's no better proof of Octavian's mature, rational mind than an adult narrator, fully in control of expressing his character through unrelenting command over the narrative.

    Wannabe Control Freak?

    Here's a prime example of Octavian trying to assert his control over the narrative. When he describes how his mother snapped at him over his refusal to play music for Lord Cheldthorpe and her, he kind of tries to take back what he tells us by reimagining his mother in a better light. Check it out:

    Recall instead how, on other evenings, she and you chased fireflies, Lord Cheldthorpe clapping.

    Recall her decorating cakes near the refracting telescope, her dress in the wind.

    Recall how she could draw the birds to her with butter and song. (1.23.1-3)

    All of a sudden, Cassiopeia isn't the cold mother who shames him verbally—she's the caring, free-spirited, domestic mom of every kid's dreams. At the same time, since Octavian repeats recall so many times, the whole moment feels forced—because it is. Octavian is showing us the effort he is making to remember his mother in a different light, demonstrating the control he can take over his thoughts. It's a way of highlighting his wounded pride, his mother's brief moment of bad mothering, and his effort to forgive—as well as how in charge of himself he is.

    Which is all to say that you can't completely trust Octavian's portrait of his youthful self. Octavian—as an adult narrator—is just too invested in showing off his brains, his devout, good-boy nature, and emotional complexity. He wants desperately to be right, which makes sense given his upbringing, and it's important to remember that this influences his storytelling.

    More Than Words

    The one place in the book where Octavian isn't totally trying to show off his intellect? Those scratched-out pages of his manuscript, the ones that come after he sees his mother lying, dissected on a table.

    These passages—heavily crossed-out with angry black marks—are some of the most emotionally truthful and memorable moments in his story. After all, what would we expect anyone to write or say after witnessing his mother's dissection? There are no words for that kind of trauma. Which is why those scratched-out sections are so appropriate—they underscore his pain, and show his refusal to explain and give voice to a horror so fundamentally unspeakable.

    First-person (Peripheral Narrator): Private Goring and Others

    All About Octavian

    Even when Octavian's not narrating his story, he's still (mostly) the story.

    That's because all the other first-person narration comes in the form of letters, mostly from Private Goring to his sister Fruition (yes, that's her name—no joke). Even if they include some info on the letter-writer, the letters generally describe the letter-writer's encounter(s) with Octavian, or at least give a status-update of sorts on our main man.

    Why bother with all these peripheral narrators? For one thing, their letters tell us enough facts about Octavian's location and condition so that we can follow his plot line. No small thing since he really moves around after he escapes the Gitney house.

    The letters also give us a view of Octavian through the perspectives of other characters. Now normally, we'd say that all these other perspectives on Octavian help balance out Octavian's self-portrayal, thereby painting a fuller—and potentially more accurate—portrait of him as a character. Instead though, most of the writers come off worse than Octavian. So their narration does two things: (1) It gives an idea of how white 18th-century Americans dealt with runaway slaves; and (2) it shows off Octavian's good sense and/or good-guy status.

    We've got plenty more to say about these other dudes taking the storytelling reigns for a bit over in Octavian's analysis in the "Characters" section, so now might be a good time to hop on over there if you haven't already.

    • Plot Analysis


      The College of Lucidity, or the Garden of Eden, Boston-style

      An 18th-century, old school, philosophical think tank called the College of Lucidity takes in a teenaged, pregnant slave girl, who goes on to bear the College the perfect scientific subject: Octavian.

      Everything's more or less hunky-dory. The tutors and head of the College, Mr. Gitney, raise Octavian with an intense classical education, while his mom, Cassiopeia, gets treated like royalty (which she claims she is).

      Sure, Octavian figures out that he and his mom are still slaves, but at least he gets to read anything he wants and play his violin.

      Rising Action

      Enter Lord Cheldthorpe, a.k.a. Mr. Moneybags

      The College is in danger of losing its funding, so Mr. Gitney does what he can to court the new Lord Cheldthorpe (the old one died) into backing the College.

      But what Lord Cheldthorpe really wants is Cassiopeia, and she seems to want him back too. It looks like a match made in heaven… until Lord Cheldthorpe asks Cassiopeia to be his mistress. No way is Cassiopeia selling herself out for a position as mistress, though—she wants marriage, and throws LC's offer back in his face.

      This is a high stakes move when you're a slave though, and Lord Cheldthorpe orders Cassiopeia and Octavian to get whipped, and then he withdraws all support for the College.

      But that's not the only curveball: Mr. Sharpe steps in as a representative of a bunch of College investors and saves the College. Only thing is, his idea of "saving" is more like changing the entire purpose of the College, including the College's experiment with Octavian…


      The Death of the Mother

      Life under Mr. Sharpe's rule completely sucks. Octavian isn't allowed to read stories or anything remotely interesting; he also isn't allowed to play freely.

      But then Octavian's mom dies from the smallpox vaccine (which, by the way, they had no choice about getting) at the pox party. This isn't good in its own right, but what really makes this part of the book a major turning point is that Octavian barges in on Mr. Gitney and Mr. Sharpe dissecting his mother's corpse. And while this would be enough to drive anyone mad, for Octavian, it compels him to escape.

      After all, when you have friends like these, who needs enemies?

      Octavian's life is so exciting though, that his story ends up with another climax. (Hey, who says you can only have one? Be rebels and live a little, we say.)

      After escaping, he joins a company of Patriots, who he ends up befriending. Everything's great until Mr. Sharpe catches up to his company and finds out—through Octavian's naive friend Private Goring—where Octavian is.

      A true crisis because you know what that means for Octavian…

      Falling Action

      Return of the Prodigal Son (Sort Of)

      Yep—Octavian's back with the College men, only this time he's shackled and has an iron mask over his face. He can't move or talk, and they leave him like this for a pretty long while.

      His imprisonment gives him a lot of time to curse out Mr. Sharpe and all the other white men he's met in his life so far. It also gives him time to prepare for the final interview…


      To be Continued…

      Dr. Trefusis frees Octavian by drugging Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Gitney at Octavian's final interview (which doesn't go well). They escape the house and decide to flee to Boston. How? By swimming across the Channel, straight into British territory… which is what they're about to do at the book's end.

      It isn't a total resolution by a long shot, and instead offers just enough for you to put down Volume 1 and move on to Volume 2...