Study Guide

Octavian Nothing, aka Octavian Gitney, aka Prince in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party

Octavian Nothing, aka Octavian Gitney, aka Prince

The first thing you need to know is that there's more than one Octavian. Okay, not literally—it's just that Octavian grows over the course of this book, and his circumstances radically shift, so in this way it's almost like we get to see Octavian shed identities and step into new ones on more than one occasion. Sound confusing? We promise it isn't—stick with us, and you'll be acquainted with our main man in all his forms in no time.

The Rational Storyteller

First there's Octavian the narrator. He's the main voice in the novel, so you can't miss him, even though you never actually see him, per say. Octavian the narrator is all about guilt and control, especially control over his mind.

Take Chapter 23 for example. Chapter 23 is three sentences long, and each sentence is devoted to rehabilitating his mother's image (which he thinks he tarnished earlier when he showed her mean side). It starts with some serious guilt-tripping:

And yet—I malign her. O vain, treacherous, self-anguishing heart: Recall instead how, on other evenings, she and you chased fireflies, Lord Cheldthorpe clapping. (1.23.1)

Looks like somebody feels like he's dragged his mama's name through the mud and wishes he hadn't, doesn't it? To set things right, the chapter ends with more pleasant memories of his mother:

Recall how she could draw the birds to her with butter and song. (1.23.3)

He's reminding himself of her merits, sure, but he's also making sure readers understand that, when all is said and done, his mother is a good woman. This is markedly different from the woman Octavian portrays earlier, who tells him not to be a child, saying, "'He has never been a child […] and I see no reason he should begin now'" (1.22.26). When she says this, even the College men in the room are stunned into silence by Cassiopeia's harsh words to Octavian.

What's important about this isn't so much that Octavian feels conflicted about how to portray his mother, it's that—as our narrator—he can't help showing what really happens. So even though he struggles with the guilt he feels around portraying people he cares about in a negative light, for us as readers, he comes across as a credible source of information. Ain't no shame in the honest narration game, Octavian.

It seems reasonable to presume that this narration style—one of dutiful, if personally complicated, reporting—is connected to the education in classical rational philosophy Octavian receives as a young boy at the College. Above all else, Octavian has been trained to reason—instead of feel—and he's not afraid to show it. Try reading a few pages of his story without coming across some philosophical or scientific reference; we bet you can't—but betting aside, this consistently shows his preference to hang out in his head instead of his heart.

And the thing about this affinity for reason over emotion, is that it isn't just something Octavian's taught—it's something he excels at. So instead of responding with anger and dismay when Octavian learns he's spent his life as the subject of Mr. Gitney's grand experiment on African people, Octavian responds with intellectual clarity. So while we wouldn't blame him if he punched a wall after learning the truth about his life to date, instead he responds like this:

Revolving my thoughts upon this curious state, I resolved thus:

I would not fail 03-01. I would not fail my mother. I would prove the superior excellence of my faculties.

From that day, my studies took on a new intensity. And I played the violin like a very devil. (1.12.5-7)

We're not so sure we would have been so forgiving of Mr. Gitney, but this is a logical (read: emotionless) response to something—slavery—that defies logic. Octavian's pretty much like: You want to study me? Get ready to have your mind blown. And then he makes sure that happens by pushing himself extra hard in his studying and music practice.

Lest you worry that Octavian is missing a heart, though, worry not—he's so good at reasoning that he's able to find the limits of, well, reasoning. Check out the moment he realizes that everything about his life has been sorted into data in large tomes on Mr. Gitney's bookshelves, and understands that all that data misses the truly important moments in his life:

I thought of those months—playing at [Cassiopeia's] knees; or her telling me tales of the Governor's wife and lap-dog, the barking, the stains, the hullabaloo of servants; I considered the nights of my childhood when she sat by my side and stared down upon me; and I recalled that earliest image, standing with her while men burned bubbles in the orchard like the ignition of cherubim. Such scenes as these, I had no doubt, were not extant in the volumes there, slipped between the quantification of my appetites; thus I might read of the weight of peach cobbler I had eaten on a certain night when I was five, but not recall the blush of evening as I walked with her a half an hour later among the garden herbs. (1.11.34)

Yeah… that's a long passage. Octavian (as the narrator) isn't known for his conciseness though, so this excerpt gets at both his flair as a storyteller and shows him as a highly rational character. As Mr. Gitney meticulously documents, Octavian recognizes that all the data he collects misses the larger picture. Those books can't contain Octavian's memories and feelings—those things that make us human and not animals—the emotional and subjective moments that turn into memories and deeply influence our identities.

While Gitney obsesses over examining the humanity of African people, of sizing them up against white people and animals alike, Octavian knows that his humanity is undeniable and un-provable in data sets. So the question is, then, why doesn't Mr. Gitney? Looks like the student/slave surpassing the master, if you ask us…

Octavian the Speechless

Octavian may have a way with words that would put President Obama to shame, but that doesn't mean Octavian doesn't know when to shut up. In fact, what really marks his voice—and literally the book—are all the scratched-out parts scattered amongst the pages. Have you ever seen anything like it in a book? Most likely the answer to that question is no, since it's a really unusual maneuver to make in a book. As a rule, they aspire to be legible, after all. It's good for sales.

So why all the crossed out parts, especially since we can't really read them? One reason: All those dark scratches show Octavian's total, unspeakable pain. How, after all, do you express your feelings as rational thoughts when you see your mother dying, and then her corpse open and dissected for the sake of "research" by the hands of some men who own her and you? This experience defies logic, refuses to be contained by words—there is only great and powerful grief and anger.

We know, by the way, that Octavian is angry because Mr. Gitney and Mr. Sharpe's article on smallpox tells us so:

At this, the child produced a scream of startling savagery and attempted to do violence to Mr. Sharpe. (2.34.14)

And while Mr. Gitney and Mr. Sharpe's article goes on to describe Octavian as "savage" and assess his response to seeing his mother split open on the examination table as "proof of the boy's degeneration back into his natural state" (2.34.15), as readers we recognize both the universal humanity in Octavian's response, and the fundamental racism in Gitney and Sharpe's interpretation of it. They may be trying to author his story, but we see right through their flimsy version.

This authorship of Octavian's life by other people—specifically white men—is an intensely important piece of the puzzle that is Octavian's actual experience, and it is brought to the fore in the middle of the book when Octavian remains literally speechless. As his story is told through the documents of other people—letters, articles, and such—the book performs the silencing and lack of autonomy Octavian experiences. Our narrator disappears for a long stretch, leaving us uncomfortably in the hands of the white men who hold power over his life.

Which goes to another reason why these heavily scratched-out passages appear in the book. They are a way of expression in their own right, a refusal to share what Octavian knows to be true, that sends a bold message: language itself can be a trap. As Octavian states when he stops struggling against the men in the lab during Cassiopeia's dissection:

"I cannot fight — nor can I refrain — without imputations of savagery. […] I am no one. I am not a man. I am nothing." (2.34.18)

Fighting, speaking—none of it helps his case when he tries to show his feelings about his dead mother. Every time he opens his mouth, his words can be twisted against him, used as proof against not only himself, but all black people. So every time we stumble across a passage where Octavian has scribbled his words out, we can see it as him taking his story back, as him pulling some of his life off the table and refusing to let it be interpreted, dissected, or worse.

Importantly, these crossed out passages stand in total contrast to Octavian's super-wordy account for the first half of the book. This doesn't just heighten our understanding of the scratched out lines as a refusal to play the white man's game, though—it also shows us a serious shift in Octavian and his understanding of his place in the world. While he starts the book pretty content, as he comes to fully appreciate his identity as an enslaved person, he becomes increasingly protective of his story, which is pretty prudent given how dangerous life is for him.

Octavian the "Other"

About that middle section though—the part where all you can get about Octavian is through the words of other people, and his powerlessness is performed: Just because these perspectives on Octavian are biased, and often quite racist too, doesn't mean we can't learn anything about Octavian or how he matures from them.

This is especially true if we consider what Goring writes about Octavian (a.k.a. Prince).
First he describes Octavian as "this curious Fellow Prince" (3.9.6)—not a big deal right? And assessing Octavian as "curious" isn't inherently racist—he's not exactly an ordinary kid, what with his violin virtuosity and such.

Things start to get interesting, however, as Octavian opens up to Goring and the world around him. On one hand, what Goring shows—an Octavian full of positive change and purpose—is a good thing. If you care about Octavian, then Goring's account probably warms your heart. But on the other hand, Goring's description may show more about Goring than about Octavian. For example, he writes:

On the Road, I passed Prince in its Detachment. He spied me & held out his Hands to me. They were blistered & red with his Blood; & for the first Time, Shun, he smiled full upon me; for he has finally found his Cause & his Work. (3.20.19)

Note that Goring tells us exactly why Prince (that's Octavian to you, Shmoopsters) smiles at him, because—of course—Prince has "found his Cause & his Work." But how does Goring really know this? It's not like Octavian has the opportunity to tell him why he smiles in passing before Goring writes his letter. No—Goring makes an assumption that Octavian is finally feeling joy from his work on behalf of the Patriot cause because Goring believes in the cause so much.

Goring wants to believe that the Patriots will bring liberty to everyone, including the slaves, and he prefers to think that he and the Patriots are the enlightened ones—but that's not at all what Octavian actually thinks. What does Octavian truly think about "the Cause"? Let's see:

Indeed, we worked side by side, white knuckles as scored and darkened as brown; and yet as we labored for liberty, applauded by men in silk waistcoats who came to observe our unity and diligence, I noted thus: The Africans amongst us risked our lives for liberty, and yet had no assurance liberty would be ours; our pay, in many cases, came not to us, but to our owners—for it was reckoned that we belonged to them, and so our labor was theirs, so they should receive compensation for our absence from their farms, their dining-rooms, and their cellars. (4.9.11)

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Cause for Liberty and Justice for All… but that's Octavian for you (and he's right in his cynicism too). Whatever he shows to Goring and other people doesn't even scratch the surface of who he actually is—a deep thinker, without any of the naive idealism afforded the white men he encounters along the way.

It's an example of what W.E.B. DuBois calls the "second sight" of the African American; it's the ability to see what the world is like through a white person's eyes and through a black person's eyes… to see, and thus know, doubly.

The Rationally Angry Black Man

What does all that deep perspective do for Octavian by the end of the book?

Short answer: he grows up.

"Grown up" for Octavian looks a lot like a man who no longer needs to hide or fear his emotions; he's a man who can channel his feelings—especially his anger—into a verbal sparring that leaves his opponent (namely, Mr. Sharpe) flustered.

Take the tail end of the final argument between Octavian and Mr. Sharpe. Octavian points out the undeniably flawed logic Mr. Sharpe shows when he tries to argue that Octavian's labor belongs to him and that slavery is right:

"They are not crimes," said Mr. Sharpe. "Your escape is a crime."


"It is the theft of my property. Your labor belongs to me."

"When did I sell it?"

"Your body belongs to me."

"When did I—"

"Good God! How!" yelled Mr. Sharpe, striding to the door and unlocking it. "Put the mask back on him! I do not need to argue points with a specimen." (4.12.53-59)

See what we mean? The only way Mr. Sharpe can beat Octavian in this argument is to physically shut him up. He can't beat Octavian at logic because Octavian is clearly right: he never sold his labor to anyone; he never gave the right to his body up. Mr. Sharpe knows this, and so does everyone else in that room. In a sort of shout-out to his classical education, Octavian honors his feelings by using the ever-rational Socratic method—and when he does, we see his head finally taking care of his heart.

As Volume 1 ends, we encounter an Octavian who's grown past the feelings of awe and gratitude that marked him as a young boy, and also an Octavian who's developed past his boycott of the English language and the need to stay silent. It's an Octavian who knows how to use words efficiently and pointedly, which means that though the next steps in his journey are wildly uncertain, he's significantly better equipped to handle whatever comes his way than he was when this installment in his saga started.