Study Guide

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

By M.T. Anderson


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.

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