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The Garden of Eden
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.
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.
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