If you're looking for the quintessential woman, look no further. Cassiopeia has it all: looks, smarts, wit, royal blood… and she's a slave who gets to mother her own kid.
How lucky, right? Cassiopeia would have been the popular girl in high school, the girl people love to hate.
Except for that fact that she's—you know—still a slave. And that's something she just can't escape. Not that she doesn't try, at least in her mind.
For example, she tells tall tales about her background. How do we know they're not totally real? Here's a general description of her background that she tells Octavian:
"My mother was a princess of the Egba people in the Empire of Oyo, in western Africa. She told me of the royal throne where she sat, crowned, while her father dispensed law to the people of that country: her throne a single orchid, grown vast through the influence of the tropical heat and rain." (1.8.2)
A throne made of a single orchid, big enough to seat a young girl? Hrm… likely story… We're with her until the orchid part, though.
And when Lord Cheldthorpe enters the picture, and even proposes that she go to London with him as his mistress, it's clear that she has a totally different view of how things ought to be for her. This is her (angry) response to Lord Cheldthorpe's proposition:
"This is no banter, sir. This is no game […]no jest, no frolic, no badinage. I was a princess, once; I am a princess still. Royal blood will mix only with other royal blood. Otherwise, it demeans the line. Tell me what nation you offer me, what alliance, what regal house—or leave." (1.26.102)
The thing about Cassiopeia's alleged royal lineage, though, is that the truth of these stories doesn't matter half as much as what they lay claim to: power, beauty, worth, autonomy. And because of this, Cassiopeia's fabled beginnings are a way in which she refuses the narrative of worthlessness thrust upon enslaved people. She clings to desires and dreams of a better life for herself, no matter how hopeless she's supposed to feel as a slave. In other words, nobody breaks Cassiopeia's stride.
Well, except Mr. Sharpe. Once he enters the picture, it becomes painfully clear that Cassiopeia isn't herself anymore when she:
[…] wore not the finery of former days, but sober garments of simple linsey-woolsey in sad colors. Seated in the Negro gallery amongst other servants, Indians, and white boys banished for whispering and tricks, she appeared no different, no more peculiar in her circumstances, than any lady's maid. (2.12.7)
The disappearance of physical flair mirrors the loss of Cassiopeia's spark more generally. As Octavian points out:
Her manner was languid, and her gestures without that gayety which had so marked her before. Some vital principle in her was compromised. (2.12.7)
Yup—this is most definitely not the same Cassiopeia from the start of the book. This is a woman who has tasted defeat and can't seem to shake it from her mouth.
It's not that Cassiopeia couldn't be taken down a peg or two; she definitely has an attitude of superiority in the first part of the book, even over other slaves. For instance, after her whipping, she keeps sending back the cook's special meals for her in exchange for something even better:
She demanded other dishes, special preparations, sauces glacees, a blanquette of veal seasoned with oysters, chap on Flandrois in white wine, pluck and numbles rubbed with Ceylon herbs. After two meals of this, the cook frowned and sent up half a loaf of salt bread, as instructed. (2.2.3)
In an act of sympathy and generosity, the cook has been preparing special meal for Cassiopeia—and yet Cassiopeia isn't gracious about this gesture, instead demanding even finer food for herself. While we thrill when she acts confidently in the presence of white men, her sense of superiority over people who are essentially in the same plight as she is sort of unsavory.
In some ways, though, it's Cassiopeia's sense of superiority that makes her broken spirit so difficult to witness—the change in her character is kind of like watching a slow death. So much so, that by the time she dies from her smallpox vaccine and lies dissected on the table, Cassiopeia just seems like a minor, flat character in the background. It's pretty brutal.
No wonder Octavian goes a little crazy when he sees Cassiopeia dying and then dead—after all, she isn't just his mother; she embodies passion and life while she's alive, so much so that even young Octavian falls under her spell:
Increasingly, I was in awe of her majesty, and did not know what I might say to release her. I fear now that I failed to engage her; that I was too sallow a character. Indeed, as time went on and I reached my seventh, and then my eight, year, I became aware of how dull my with was when confronted with her beauty, how drab my bearing; and so gradually, I came to stand in relation to her as another admirer, seeking a few words, a kiss, a sign of favor. I vied for her attention only as one man of many. (1.9.6)
That's magnetism for you, Shmoopsters. When even your own son views you as your suitors do, well, you know you're something special. If you think Octavian's admiration and slight crush on his mother is a little weird, well… we're with you there, but just remember, she's the only woman in the College who gets to appear as a full-blown woman, wearing dresses, doing her hair, and accessorizing. All the other women are kept in the background, slaves in drab dresses. No one else can compare to Cassiopeia in this book, and no one else is meant to.