Study Guide

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

By M.T. Anderson

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.

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