Study Guide

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

By M.T. Anderson

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 N****es 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.

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