Study Guide

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party What's Up With the Epigraph?

By M.T. Anderson

Advertisement - Guide continues below

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.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party What's Up With the Epigraph? Study Group

Ask questions, get answers, and discuss with others.

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

This is a premium product

Please Wait...