Study Guide

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

  • Education

    He [Mr. Gitney] did not see my instruction directly, but required that the others spend some hours a day teaching me my Latin and Greek, my mathematics, scraps of botany, and the science of music, which grew to be my first love. (1.2.4)

    Now that is some serious book-learnin'.

    The men of the house feared that too much interaction with the world would corrupt me, and so I was, in the main, hidden away for my earliest years, as the infant Jove, snatched out of the gullet of Time, was reared by his horned nurse on Mount Ida in profoundest secrecy. (1.2.9)

    Reading about Octavian's education is an education in itself, isn't it? Basically, Octavian's comparing his upbringing to that of the "infant Jove," a.k.a. Jupiter a.k.a. Zeus—yes, that Zeus, the god of Greek gods. Octavian as narrator? Not exactly the most humble guy around.

    Above all, brought up among the experiments and assays of these artists and philosophers, I was taught the importance of observation. They showed me how to be precise in notation, acute in investigation, and rational in inference….or, yea, after I saw the philosophers of this college acquire a docile child deprived of reason and speech, and, when she could not master the use of verbs, beat her to the point of gagging and swooning; after such experiments as these, I became most wondrous observant, and often stared unmoving at a wall for some hours together. (1.2.19)

    Did you pick up on that subtle hint of sarcasm? "Most wondrous observant"… of a wall? We're guessing Octavian's not just being sarcastic—he's also leaving something out of his account, something having to do with his "observations" of all these cruel acts and his final "unmoving" "observation" of a wall. Did he do something? Yell? Cry? Rebel? Because the last time we were put in a corner, staring at a wall, it wasn't because we were being good. Just saying…

    03-01 said, "Your mother advised you poorly. This is not to deny her considerable charms; but in future, you would be well advised to attend less carefully to her every word."

    She protested, "He is my son."

    "Let us say rather," said 03-01, "that he belongs to all of us." (1.2.34-36)

    Yikes. So Mr. Gitney (or 03-01) basically tells Octavian not to listen to his mother. We bet that wouldn't fly with your mom, and it doesn't exactly fly with Cassiopeia either. No learning at mama's breast here… It's all about the men.

    When I was five and was taught subtraction, 03-01 showed me how to weight the golden chamber-pot and subtract its weight to determine more easily how much I had passed in the day. By such lessons did I become acclimated to scientific calculation in even the meanest function, so learning the secrets of tare and gross. (1.7.6)

    Here's all you need to know about this lesson in "scientific calculation": Octavian learns math from weighing his own crap. We're guessing that's not how you learned math.

    I thought of those months—playing at her 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 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)

    Hey, Mr. G may have all the digits on Octavian, but as Octavian points out, all that data isn't going to tell us or anyone else about what Octavian's experiences were like. That kind of information, dear Shmoopsters, is the stuff of literature, not science.

    "Why are we called by names, when all others have numbers?"

    "For the reason that you are the experiment, and all the rest of this… the house, the guests, the servants…all are in service of that pursuit of truth. You are central to the work; we, but the disembodied observers of your progress. (1.11.56-57)

    Mr. G has just informed Octavian that he gets a name because he's the guy who matters; the rest of them are all "disembodied observers." But what about when Mr. G. punishes Octavian for doing things he shouldn't do (like sneaking into the room with all the records on him)? Is that being a "disembodied observer"?

    He gave a canny look, and explained slowly, "We are providing you with an education equal to any of the princes of Europe… We wish to divine whether you are a separate and distinct species. Thus, we wish to determine your capacity, as an African prince, for the acquisition of the nobel arts and sciences." (1.11.61)

    So… Octavian's education is really all for the education of the scholars… which seems a little self-serving of Mr. G, no?

    I asked Dr. 09-01 how far it was around the Earth.

    He considered. "We have estimated some twenty-five thousand miles."

    I tallied upon my fingers. "Then," ventured I, "in that man's life, he has walked backwards around the Earth three and a half times?"

    Dr. 09-01 was very pleased with this, and laughed, tugging upon my lapel, saying "Indeed! Or a third of the way to the moon!"

    I delighted in the thought of the man plowing backwards through the seats, the cord stretched before him, or stalking the deserts of Cathay or the Indian jungles, oblivious to tigers, pausing for his tobacco in the shadow of some heathen shrine or suspended near a mountain peak. (1.18.4-8)

    How cool is Dr. 09-01? We know you're wondering why your math class can't be like Octavian's—all about wandering in the outdoors and exploring the world through calculations and pure creative imagination. Before you get jealous, though, we'll remind you that Octavian's enslaved, plus things pretty much just go downhill from here for him.

    He stood above me, held the book aloft, and in a loud, even piercing tenor, declaimed: "Hoc anno, servus nomine Eunis qui a paucis esse magus dicebatur in dominos suos coortus est." He looked down at me; and I began to translate—"In this year, a freeborn slave named Eunus, reputed a magician, rose against his masters…"—while he continued his bellowing over me—"et manu conservorum comitante, hos contra urbes in Siciliae finibus duxit"—until my voice was as loud as his—"…gathering a force of fellow slaves and leading them against cities in the region of Sicily…"—and together, we shouted of servitude, arms, and Rome. (2.2.18)

  • Women and Femininity

    At other times, they made portraits of her dressed in the finest silks of the age, smiling behind a fan, or leaning on a pillar; and on another occasion, when she was sixteen, they drew her nude, for an engraving, with lines and letters that identified places upon her body. (1.2.6)

    "They" happen to be the men of the house, and the woman here is Octavian's mom, Cassiopeia. This all sounds lovely doesn't it? Only if you read a little closer, the men are actually turning a nude drawing of Cassiopeia into one of those medical posters of the human body that you see in a doctor's office—you know, the ones with all the body parts pointed out. In this case, we're guessing they're using the poster to help them "understand" the black female. If this passage seems a little off and freaky to you, you're not wrong.

    Increasingly, I was in awe of her majesty, and did not know what I might say to please 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 eighth, year, I became aware of how dull my wit was when confronted with her beauty, how drab my bearing; and so, gradually, I came to stand in relation 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. She smiled upon me to chasten the others, to spurn their envious glances at me when I was taken by her up to bed. (1.9.6)

    Yes—that's his mother Octavian's talking about. And yes—the whole description of their relationship seems a little incestuous, but we're not going to dwell on that so much as the fact that Octavian clearly idolizes his mother like she's the Madonna (as in Virgin Mary, not the pop singer although—hey—that could work too).

    We're not entirely sure why this is, though, since she doesn't seem to coddle him; in fact, she seems a little distant most of the time. But maybe that's why she's so appealing to Octavian and all the other men—she creates distance, which maybe makes her into more of an object than a person.

    "This is no banter, sir. This is no game." I could hear the fury in her voice. "This is no jest, no frolic, no badinage. I was a princess, once; I am a princess still. Royal bloom 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." (1.25.102)

    It's clear here that Cassiopeia doesn't think of herself as a slave. But what's extra cool about this scene is how she upends our expectations. Prior to this scene, everyone goes to see an opera about a Spanish conquistador and the Incan princess he dominates. It seems like Anderson is setting us up to view Cassiopeia the way the Incan princess is portrayed: weak, submissive, impractical, foolish—too in love.

    But Cassiopeia completely reverses the power dynamic between Lord Cheldthorpe and herself. She shows herself to be anything but a submissive princess, even if she has to rely on an elitist argument about her "royal blood" to stand up for herself.

    Mr. Sharpe betrayed an early dislike for my mother, whose arts and airs excited in him nought but irritation. He spoke to her flatly, turned to the side; then swiveling to survey her heighth rapidly, he delivered his determinations respecting her inquiries, and was done with her. He engaged in no flirtation. He said he would not, at present, allow for expenditure on any dresses of fine stuffs, but rather recommended she brood on worsted and prunella twill. He would not brook special dishes being prepared for her at suppertime. He could not abide her luxuries; and when she wore the blood-speckled dress to shame him, he revealed no interest or consternation. (2.4.5)

    While Mr. Sharpe has a point financially speaking, it makes sense, of course, that Cassiopeia would be angry about these changes to her daily life. After all, she's being forced to change the way she presents her sexuality, which, if you recall from the Lord Cheldthorpe chapters, was her driving appeal—and main point of over—with men. Without her clothes, who is she?

    "It ain't all in English," he said. He took it from me, turned the pages rapidly, and passed the volume back to me. He thumped on the page. Bono explained, "They put some of those passages in Latin so the ladies couldn't read them. I got a most acute interest to know what they say." (2.8.24)

    Bono's talking about a pornographic book that's half in Latin, half in English. His point—that the Latin serves to prevent ladies from reading the book (since women back then generally weren't literate in Latin)—is key. Sexual knowledge was something men—specifically white men—owned and had access to. And the thing about sexual knowledge, of course, is that it's also knowledge about the body, especially a woman's body, including valuable information about body parts and how reproduction occurs.

    In fact, later on Bono has Octavian read scientific books on the woman's body—also knowledge that women didn't have easy access to. If you think about it, it's just strange that men would have access to more knowledge about a woman's body than a typical woman. Doesn't seem quite right does it?

    I watched him, burning with shame at my complicity; but there was no way out of this arrangement, should I wish to continue my education. And so I began reading—without joy—my tongue sunken in my mouth. "The monk…was of so great a girth…that the girl would have been crushed beneath him…Thus she mounted atop him…and he penetrated her from beneath…"

    This became a feature of my evenings. I read in secret volumes from the library, and, in return, once a week perhaps would translate filth or chirurgical surveys of the womb and parts of reproduction; and so, through these crimes, my studies continued in secret. (2.8.28-29)

    The context: Bono offers to give Octavian books to read (Mr. Sharpe's banned them from Octavian's education) as long as Octavian is willing to read pornographic literature to Bono. Thus begins Octavian's other education: his sexual education (whether he wants to admit to it or not).

    Her beauty did not fade, but she did not advertise it so in the passages and chambers. She read romances and slept much of the day. Mr. Sharpe employed her in sewing for the household… my mother 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. (2.12.6-7)

    Cassiopeia's a changed woman. Gone are all the nice clothes and fancy airs—Cassiopeia's just like any other slave now. Her drop in status shows how much her sexual identity was a privilege, something the men at the College allowed her to have. It's a little weird, isn't it, that something as natural as sexuality can be so easily given and taken away by men in power?

    "When my mother dances now, sir," said I, "men pull her more tightly to them than they do the other women… taking liberties… or they scarcely deign to touch her. Was it ever thus?" She passed from partner to partner out upon the floor. "I recall her dancing with utmost propriety and a singular beauty." (2.27.9)

    Is Octavian growing up and finally seeing his mother's sexual allure for what it is? Or is it that their circumstances have changed so much? That his mother—now clearly under the command of the men in the house—has to do what they ask of her, including letting men "take liberties" with her while dancing, is pretty rough, though we're not sure whether Cassiopeia has changed or Octavian's just grown in his understanding of what's going on around him.

    I was not looking at my mother, but at a woman who knew me, and I was a man who knew her; she was a girl of thirteen, newly arrived in a frigid, alien country; a woman who had been that girl; who had given birth in bondage, while men with devices and pencils had observed. She had played the harpsichord and painted. She was a woman who had known desire, and who had danced upon the knolls by Lake Champlain. She had flirted with the New World's great virtuosi. We stared at one another, and in that moment, we knew each other for the first and last time. (2.31.48)

    Cassiopeia's on the verge of death here, and Octavian seems to meet her in this moment as her equal—he says of the two of them, "a woman who knew me, and I was a man who knew her." What Octavian means is that he sees all of her—not just a sexual plaything or object, but as a whole person, with a whole life, that is now coming to a tragic close.

    These measures failing, we resorted to an Indian method of which we had heard no little report: We placed the subject in a small underground chamber which we had infused with a great quantity of steam; and after she had come to a prodigious sweat, removed her to the frigid, icy bath; alternating back and forth between them for some time. The results of this were inconclusive, beyond the extraordinary discomfort it apparently occasioned the subject, who protested weakly as we placed her in the steam chamber the first several times; eventually falling silent. She did not speak again before her death. (2.34.5)

    Cassiopeia definitely isn't a sex object now—she is blatantly being treated like an experimental specimen. This passage comes from the article detailing Mr. Gitney's (failed) attempts to cure Cassiopeia. Note how Cassiopeia doesn't have a name in this passage (or the entire article)—she is simply referred to as "the subject." Ugh.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Kindness, humility, piety, respect for other human creatures—these are the great desiderata of all who pursue virtuous action, and it matters not whether those who preach them heed their own advice. (1.3.1)

    We know you're just burning to know what desiderata means—it's Latin for "things that are wanted or needed." So in other words, all those good character virtues are the desirable things for someone who wants to act virtuously. We'll just add that in that same chapter, Octavian's all about controlling emotions and passions, so we wonder: can desiring these virtues be a problem—even a vice—too?

    It boots us nothing to feel rage for things that long ago transpired. We must curb our fury, and allow sadness to diminish, and speak our stories with coolness and deliberation. "Animum rege, qui nisi paret, imperat," quoth the poet Horace. "Rule thy passion, for unless it obeys, it rules you." (1.3.2)

    That sounds all well and good, but isn't Octavian kind of due for some righteous anger? At the end of the day, he was more a slave and an experiment for the men than an actual human being with rights.

    Dr. 09-01, who had rid in the carriage with us, explained, "In the original state of man, we were happy—when we were animals. But when we rose from four feet to two, we became precarious. Now we hold ourselves away from Nature. Bipedal, we teeter always on the brink of collapse, and worry about balance. Gentlemen, it is a great pity that, knowing of our previous felicity and our current distresses, we do not return to our four-footed posture and feel the soil again beneath our hands. 'Tis a damned shame that we do not choose to revert to the blissful state of mammalian repose." (1.5.29)

    We'll just point out that it's hard to ignore the whole context surrounding Dr. 09-01's speech. After all, there are slaves in their midst—Octavian and his mom among them. Even if they're not exactly treated like four-footed animals since they're experiments in education for the scholars, the other slaves are just slaves to the men. It's got to be a little weird to hear this guy spout off on how it's so much better to be an animal when you're a slave, being treated like an animal.

    "'Twas Greek, sir," Dr. 09-01 lied. "I was telling the boy that according to Plato, man is defined," he said, smiling affably and gesturing to the cart, "as a featherless biped with broad nails, receptive of political philosophy." (1.18.22)

    Here's the context: A Customs agent just got tarred, feathered and beaten, and 09-01 is explaining to Octavian why taxation can cause such a violent reaction to a relatively innocent man. Only one of those violent men overhears 09-01's explanation and challenges him to speak up. 09-01, of course, is too smooth and smart to fall into that trap.

    I had no insight; no sense of what to say; was sensible of nothing but the darkness, which was parted, which had resolved itself so that objects there were defined, though they were not objects that could be seen by light, but properties of unbeing; the furniture of negation; and so I sat, perched upon the sofa in our frigid salon; I watched unbeing in the ebon room; and together, our teeth chattered; and outside in the city, the sun rose, and it was morning. (1.26.176)

    Octavian's at a loss for how to respond to his mother after Lord Cheldthorpe's men have whipped them and thrown them into the ice-house. He doesn't know how to comfort her, and instead all he can register is this general sense of "unbeing."

    Note that even though Octavian is observing objects in the dark room as "unbeing," he and his mother are also like these objects of "unbeing." That's why, when he writes that "I watched unbeing in the ebon room," Octavian is both watching objects that have no sense of being (a couch, a wall, maybe even his mother) and being "unbeing" himself—it's a moment of recognition and sympathy with a world of objects.

    "Point B. A point of great gravity: No institution, like no fox, may long be sustained on its own flesh. We must devour elsewhere if we are not to devour ourselves, and so perish!" (2.3.7)

    Enter Mr. Sharpe. Here he's addressing the College for the first time, and he's not holding back on his vision for the College (which his people will now be funding). His philosophy? Adapt or die. Unfortunately for pretty much everyone, Mr. Sharpe's vision changes the College into a completely practical institution. There go the operas, the concerts, the cool experiments, the literature… in other words, all the fun.

    "Eh—," interposed Mr. 03-01, rising. He explained to us, "Eh—I am afraid… I am afraid that our system of metric designation has come to an end. Mr. Sharpe, reviewing the practice, had determined that it contributes to hierarchy and rank. So we shall… cast aside our numbers, my friends… like shackles… and instead… names. Names for all." (2.3.14)

    Mr. Sharpe puts Mr. Gitney (03-01) in charge of dismantling the very system of naming he created. Note all the pauses and ellipses—clearly Mr. Gitney isn't comfortable with this new world order. One would think Mr. Sharpe would be all over Mr. Gitney's system because it tries to be objective, neutral, abstract—these are the principles Mr. Sharpe wants Octavian to pursue in his studies later on—but alas, he thinks it's hierarchical and ridiculous.

    He held out the written pass. "This is what they want us to be," he said. "They want us to be nothing but a bill of sale and a letter explaining where we is and instructions for where we go and what we do. They want us empty. They want us flat as paper. They want to be able to carry our souls in their hands, and read them out loud in court. All the time, they're on the exploration of themselves, going on the inner journey into their own breast. But us, they want there to be nothing inside of. They want us to be writ on. They want us to be a surface. Look at me; I'm mahogany."

    I protested, "A man is known by his deeds."

    "Oh, that's sure," said Bono. "Just like a house is known by its deeds. The deeds say who owns it, who sold it, and who'll be buying a new one when it gets knocked down." (2.5.18-20)

    This is a moment of truth passage. Bono has just exposed the problem with the entire College and its relationship to slavery—while the white men of the College go on with their philosophizing, the hard truth is that they still own slaves, so they can ponder all they like on the existence of humankind, but their actions show their own inhumanity. At the end of the day, it's undeniable that they're treating other human beings as superficial objects ("mahogany") in order to support their own dreams. This truth stings Octavian, and badly.

    The African youth stood before us, a gawky and immobile spectacle. He said, "I cannot fight—nor can I refrain—without imputations of savagery."

    And he finished, in a voice not of defiance, but suffused with realization: "I am no one. I am not a man. I am nothing." (2.34.17-18)

    Even though this is a passage coming from Mr. Gitney and Mr. Sharpe's (dry) scientific article on the effect of smallpox on Africans, it's anything but boring. In fact, we'll admit that this passage drove us to squeeze a couple of tears out of our tear ducts. Why? Because this "African youth" Mr. Gitney is writing about is Octavian.

    Octavian's just found out his mother has died and sees her dissected, lying on a lab table. So he responds in silence. But Mr. Sharpe says his silence is a sign of his natural African dumbness, so of course, Octavian responds to Mr. Sharpe in total anger, which just leads Mr. Sharpe to observe that—whoa—now Octavian is really a savage. Sigh. Octavian just can't win, and that's what he points out to the men in the room—it doesn't matter what human response he gives, he'll be seen as a savage animal.

    What's ironic, of course, is that Octavian shows how human he is through his emotional responses. What the men are trying to corner him into becoming is an unrealistic, inhuman robot of a man—or, you know, somebody who probably just doesn't exist.

    Consider, then, the full measure of my sadness, racing this inscription; not merely for Hosiah Lister, but for all of us; consider the dear cost of liberty in a world so hostile, so teeming with enemies and opportunists, that one could not become free without casting aside all causality, all choice, all will, all identity; finding freedom only in the spacious blankness of unbeing, the wide plains of nonentity, infinite and still. (4.11.9)

    Octavian, captured by Mr. Sharpe and now bound and masked, has nothing to do but think, so he's thinking about the conditions of all those slaves out there, including Hosiah Lister, the old slave who fought and died for the Patriots.

    Lister's epitaph is just one line about how—now dead—he has received freedom, and Octavian can't help thinking about how sad and yet how appropriate that epitaph is. After all, as far as Octavian knows, death is the ultimate release, the ultimate guarantor of freedom from bondage.

    We want to point out that Octavian's conclusion—that death gives slaves a freedom of "unbeing" and "nonentity"—is a careful one. What do we mean? Well, Octavian isn't going around saying there's a hell or a heaven, despite all his prayers to God earlier in the book—he is still a scientist in the end, and a scientist should not conclude beyond what the evidence shows him or her.

    He can only conclude, therefore, that whatever comes in death is what he sees—which are corpses, no longer conscious and responsive to an identity or human state of being. It's a point in the novel that subtly shows the fine line Octavian walks between religious faith and scientific reasoning.

  • Visions of America

    He spake that evening of America, saying: "My friends—this is a continent that beckons with its mighty crags, its thunderous rivers, its gloomy forests, so filled with unknown life. Yes? God has spread here a mighty canvas, stretched and ready for the artist's hand. Everywhere there is bounty, demanding to be plucked from the tree; and trees, that, in their ancient beauty, beg to be felled and made into ships and houses on the illimitable hills of this land, offered so freely to civilized man. I believe fully, gentlemen, that the Golden Age shall come again in this new Eden." (1.5.39)

    Mr. Gitney's going on about how America is basically a big buffet table God gives to the "civilized man" and that "civilized man" should just go hog-wild and do what he wants with what he's given—like build houses and ships and stuff. His attitude is kind of like that guy who kills all the truffula trees to make thneeds in Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.

    Well canst thou imagine that I could not hazard our little portion on such a dangerous business, which venture can end only in financial ruin and the destruction of Christians by heathen tomahawk and the tricks of barbarous Deviltry. I should not be sorry, did the Lord sweep the savages further to the west; but I doubt His divine will shall ever be expressed through Virginians. They are not his especial people. (1.13.12)

    This is from Dr. Matthias Fruhling's letter to his wife, and, just so you know, that "Dr." in front of his name doesn't mean he can't be a total racist… which he pretty much is, if you can't tell already. But what's ironic is that his brand of racism would actually leave Native American people alone. We're guessing if the rest of America followed Dr. Fruhling's ideas, Native Americans would be a whole lot happier about their place in American history.

    My mentor murmured in Latin, "We Americans are not fond of the customs duties. We do not appreciate taxation."

    "What," I asked, "are customs duties for?"

    He answered almost too quickly for me to translate, "These? For the Crown's protection against the French and for the extermination and rout of the Indians so we might settle. We forget men must be paid to kill. Even an act as simple as leveling a village is costly; rapine is not cheap; and children, I am afraid, will not burn themselves." (1.18.20-22)

    Octavian's talking to Dr. 09-01 here, who's trying to explain to Octavian why a Customs Inspector is being tarred, feathered and beaten in front of them. 09-01 is also pointing out an interpretation of taxes that remains relevant today—you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who's exclusively pleased with what the taxes they pay funds.

    Music hath its land of origin; and yet it is also its own country, its own sovereign power, and all may take refuge there, and all, once settled, may claim it as their own, and all may meet there in amity; and these instruments, as surely as instruments of torture, belong to all of us. (2.10.4)

    If you swap "music" for "America" in this passage, you basically have the American dream in a nutshell: an America that's for anyone, even if that person is from some other place. So the question is, then, why doesn't Octavian describe America the same way he describes music?

    It was a catalogue of horrors. Page after page of Negroes 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 coffees, bent over on the wharves.

    Mr. Gitney burned Bono's fashion catalogue an hour later.

    "Let us rid ourselves," he said, "of this noisome object."

    But I could not rid myself of it. It was the common property of us all. (2.13.17-20)

    This is a vision of America that doesn't fit into Mr. Gitney's view of what America (or slavery) ought to be—to him, everything should be about the moon, the stars, and lots of data. But clearly that's not reality, and—as Octavian points out—the ugliness of reality is something that belongs to everyone; it can't just be burned away.

    We heard the countryside was full of insurrection. In every town, Loyalists and rebels rose against each other. Men were beaten; some were shot at in jest. The spirit of Anarchy spread everywhere his light and agitated wings. (2.17.3)

    Note how distant this whole scene seems to everyone at the College, including Octavian. It starts with "We heard," which automatically removes Octavian from a close understanding of the war. There's also a balance in the sentence "Men were beaten; some were shot at in jest." But that's the College, for you—the College isn't comfortable with the live action nature of History.

    "It is easy for dreamers to speak of abolishing slavery," said Mr. Sharpe. "It is easy for women of leisure to sit in their mansions, singing harpsichord-tunes about slave-girls and reading sentimental novels of injustice. They have no knowledge of common realities—how the market works. They give no thought to the Africans themselves —- to the chaos and riots which should ensue, the starvation, the burning of public buildings, the invasion of Indian tribes, if the people of your nations—"

    "What nations is that?"

    "Perhaps you should tell me."

    "Am I not an American?"

    "Are you not? To what nation do you belong, then?"

    "I belong," I answered in a voice shrill and tight, "to the nation of whosoever—without profit—pursues the good and the right." (4.12.42-47)

    There you have it: the two core competing visions of what America should be about in this book. For Mr. Sharpe, America has to run according to its capitalist principles, which means that—yeah—slaves are American, but only insofar as they are part of the cogs in the wheel of a prosperous American economy. Octavian, on the other hand, presents a vision of America that history textbooks try to present: an idealist's hope for America.

    The only thing is, Octavian's smart—and bitter enough about his enslavement—that he doesn't name America as that nation.

    "We have labored too long under a government that has sought to curtail exchange; such interference is unnatural. We shall see a brave new day, Octavian, when the rights of liberty and property are exercised, and when all men are free to operate in their own self-interest. And as each individual expresses his self-interested will, so does the democratically voice speak, the will of the common people, not kings or ministers; and when the self-interest of every citizen speaks together, then and only then does benevolence arise." (4.12.64)

    How does America's people "speak" democratically? If you're Mr. Sharpe, it's all about money. Money—or the "exchange" of it, the pure pursuit of "self-interest"—is what allows people to show their will.

    Another way to think about it: Mr. Sharpe's gesturing toward consumer capitalism—the freedom to buy and own what you want, and in that buying, you reveal what you want out of your nation. If that's a BMW or the latest H&M dress, then that's what the nation is supposed to help you pursue. Anyone who gets in the way of that? Watch out. (You've seen what Black Friday at Walmart is like, right? Expand that to a global level.)

    "Look about you, Octavian. 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 main bad guy of the book, but that doesn't mean he's completely wrong. He has a point about that "pastoral" scene because it's true—consumption goes on even in the most natural settings, especially when human beings are involved.

    […] I thought on the word freedom, and could picture nothing that it might be, nor the years; nor whether I would one day sit beside my river; nor whether I would hang, nor fight, nor what man I would be, nor what woman I would take to wife; nor what would be the fate of this nation, birthing like a Caesar, tearing its mother midst blood and travail. I knew only the rain and the old man who toiled to keep pace with me; and I knew our goal. We left the Patriots behind us. (4.12.163)

    This is the final "vision" of America the book leaves us with, and it's definitely not the typical spiel you hear about the amazing birth of our nation. Nope—Octavian's ready to leave it all behind and go to the Brits. He has no vision left (all those "nor"s); he only has the moment.

  • coming-of-Age

    When, at about that time, I perceived that others did not have their leavings weighed so, it made a great impression upon me; and I had an even greater sense of my mysterious importance in this murky scheme, the unaccountable preciousness of everything I did to those who strove to watch over me. (1.7.6)

    This is one of those moments when you're not sure if you're supposed to laugh at Octavian or if you're supposed to cry for him. Octavian's basically telling us that he used to think he was hot shmoop for getting his poop weighed everyday (on a gold plate no less)—after all, no one else got that kind of treatment.

    Of course, we know it's just because young Octavian is like a lab rat to the scholars, and especially to Mr. Gitney. Yeah he's special—because he's a scientific experiment to them. But young Octavian's just too naive at this point to know any better.

    He said, "You can—this once—start crying." I moved not a hair. He said, "That will be the last time in your life when you're free." (1.10.41-43)

    Bono's just finished telling Octavian the real deal about Octavian and Cassiopeia's arrival in Boston, basically dropping the truth bomb on him that they're slaves. This is the first time that Octavian totally appreciates this fact, which is why Bono tells him that he's allowed to cry because how Octavian was before—totally oblivious to his slave status—gave him a false freedom. Now that Octavian knows the truth, there just ain't no going back to feeling free again.

    In the days that followed this conversation with Bono, I began to look about me with new eyes—that is to say, with eyes from which the scales had new-fallen, where bedazzlement was harsh and all about me; and I saw for the first time and understood that in our house and the houses we visited, there were black and white, bonded, freed, free-born, indentured, enslaved, and hired. (1.11.1)

    Octavian's all grown up now, even though he's still a boy. He can't un-see what he now knows to be true—that not only is he a slave, but so are many of the black and white people around him. Or if they're not slaves, they're "hired" help for the white scholars they serve.

    >"Sir —," I said, "you shall be glad of my success?"

    He smiled. "Of course I shall," he said. "You are a good boy."
    I asked, "Shall I someday be called by a number?"

    He looked fondly upon me. He said, "That, Octavian, is something to aspire to." (1.11.66-69)

    We're not so sure being a number is what Octavian or anyone should aspire to, but Octavian's not going to argue with Mr. G—after all, every boy needs a father figure, and for better or worse, that's Mr. G at this point in his life.

    My mother turned to me. I watched to see the mask, and if it would lift. "Octavian," she said coldly, "don't be a child."

    There was a silence.

    "But," said 09-01, "he is a child."

    "He has never been a child," my mother said, "and I see no reason he should begin now." (1.22.26-29)

    Talk about bringing us (and Octavian) down to reality. Cassiopeia's upset that Octavian's being a heel about her flirtation with Lord Cheldthorpe, but in her anger, she's pointing something out that the other (white) men around Cassiopeia and Octavian just don't get: The whole idea of a childhood is a total luxury, and it's something that Octavian—like any child born into slavery—just doesn't have.

    So even though Octavian appears to be a child, his whole childhood is an illusion because, at the end of the day, he's a slave without the freedoms of a typical (white) child.

    I have no desire to speak of the next several years, the years that conveyed me from childhood to youth. I take no pleasure in their memory. (2.12.1)

    Who doesn't want to forget those awkward pre-teen years? Although we'll concede that Octavian probably has even better reasons for not wanting to remember those years… you know, slavery, war, Mr. Sharpe…

    Empedocles claims that in utero, our backbone is one long solid; and that through the constriction of the womb and the punishments of birth it must be snapped again and again to form our vertebrae; that for the child to have a spine, his back must first be broken. (2.14.49)

    The moral of this story is that suffering is an essential part of growing up. Whether this is true or not isn't really the point because, in Octavian's case, he simply doesn't have the choice—this philosophy was what he was born into, and his life as an enslaved person won't afford him a different experience.

    On the road, I passed Prince in his 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)

    If you're Private Goring, you think Prince (a.k.a. Octavian) has completely grown up from sullen runaway slave to a man with a God-given purpose. We'll just point out that this optimistic view of Octavian may well have some truth to it, but Goring does make assumptions about Octavian (especially considering he never gets a chance to talk with Octavian about Octavian's newfound joy).

    My companion Mr. G—ing hath a generous heart—a heart so filled with light that I could scarce desire to cloud it—but he did not think on this much when he came to visit me in the evenings. He little noted the lists of slaves made up by regimental commanders, that no runaways should enlist, or the careful tallies of monies to be paid to men who stayed at home and sent their bonded Negroes to the wars instead. He little noted the notice that was taken of Negroes who over about the camp at night. Had he seen such, his heart would have melted; he should have bellowed with outrage; and for that, may God bless him; but still, it would have been the outrage of a white man, unthreatened by these hypocrisies. (4.9.16)

    And so begins Octavian's "traitorous" path… He turns on Goring (in the nicest way possible, of course) and points out Goring's hypocrisy in addition to the hypocrisies of the Patriots' cause. It shows Octavian's growing independence of thought, and his ability to think critically about all his relationships—even the good ones.

    "I belong," I answered in voice shrill and tight, "to the nation of whosoever—without profit—pursues the good and the right."

    "Then," said Mr. Sharpe, turning from me, "you are a member of an even more bedraggled and inconsequential diaspora than I had imagined." He poured his tea into his saucer and sipped it loudly. I rose from my chair and, like one distempered, began shouting, "This is insupportable!"

    "Octavian," said Mr. Gitney, with a note of warning.

    "These crimes—"

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


    "It is 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." (4.12.47-57)

    We know this conversation doesn't seem like the most positive way to show Octavian's growth, since Mr. Sharpe does put the mask back on Octavian's head after this exchange, but it's important to note that this is the first time Octavian has verbally stood up to the people who own him.

    It's the first time that he has expressed his opinions and his impeccable logic in a way that is succinct and powerful, which is why Mr. Sharpe has to shut him up with the mask. There's just no other way Mr. Sharpe could ever overcome Octavian's supremely rational line of argument.

  • Family

    Of my origins, I know only the stories my mother told me; and she did not speak often of the past. When I was small, she would, when allowed to come to my bedside, tell me softly of her nation; but when I was seven or eight years of age, she spake no more of it, and if I asked, told me that I was fast becoming a man, and men have no need of mothers' tales. (1.8.1)

    If this paragraph tugs at your heartstrings, then you're right where Octavian wants you. You're supposed to feel sorry for Octavian because he's basically denied a solid knowledge of his real family and ancestry. We'll just point out though that what follows this paragraph is an extensive, detailed story of his mother's origins. So she does manage to tell him a fair amount, though the truth of it is questionable (it includes a throne made out of an orchid).

    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 sate, 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)

    So… Octavian's mother used to be a princess in a part of western Africa. Sounds believable, right? And she used to sit on a throne, made of one huge, tropical orchid… Wait—is she telling Octavian the truth? Because we're pretty sure that even the hugest, craziest monster orchid isn't going to be big enough to support the weight of a human being, even if that human being is a small child.

    There, in Oyo, she lived in a blissful state with her brothers and sisters, the royal family; and there, in the palace of orchids, she fell in love with a prince from a neighboring state when he came to pay respects to her father.

    The marriage of princess and prince, both struck with love, would have proceeded unhindered—for my grandfather the King approved the match—had a prince of another kingdom not jealously desired my mother. […]

    My mother was snatched from my father; they were parted amidst smoke and the weeping of women; and she was dragged away. My father was slain. The rival brought her before him, and demanded she offer her hand in marriage. She refused, and said she would sooner die than submit to his loathsome caresses. He kept her for some weeks, and then, seeing that she would not capitulate, sent her off to the coast in exile. (1.8.2-5)

    It is impossible to know the truth of Cassiopeia's origin, but what matters more than whether she was a princess or not is the fact that she gives such a grand history to Octavian. In doing so, she offers him a family history of power and worth, which stands in stark contrast to his personal history of being born into slavery.

    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)

    Octavian's not talking about some girl he's got a crush on—he's talking about his mother, Cassiopeia. Freud would probably have a field day with Octavian.

    But this is the grossest filial ingratitude; there is no object in the world that should inspire greater affection and enchain the heart of man more than that wellspring of all that is sweetest, that dear first progenitor, a mother; and if I speak now in that way that makes her seem the coquette, I do so only because there is no preserving a spirit in lying about them. (1.9.10)

    Octavian's a total mama's boy who thinks it's totally appropriate to call Mom his greatest love. But note: he tells us this right before he tells us that he can't front—his mother's a total flirt. It might not be the usual observation a man makes about his mother, but his intention—honoring her memory most fully—is pretty sweet.

    She laid her head down upon my lap, burying her face in my chest, and I patted her head; and after a time, lying there as she clutched, I felt that I was become her mother, and she my son. (1.9.14)

    Prior to this point, Octavian's been going on about how much he adored his mother like he was one of the scholars who admired her. So when we get to this part of the chapter, it's a bit of a reversal—and not just because he tells us he feels like the mother and she, his son. The sweetness and intimacy with each other is foregrounded. After all, they really had no one else other than each other, so it makes sense that—when vulnerable—his mother turned to him for comfort.

    My mother turned to me. I watched to see the mask, and if it would lift. "Octavian," she said coldly, "don't be a child."

    There was a silence.

    "But," said 09-01, "he is a child."

    "He has never been a child," my mother said, "and I see no reason he should begin now." (1.22.26-29)

    Cassiopeia basically reminds Octavian (and everyone else, if they're listening—though her point certainly goes over 09-01's head) that Octavian has only ever been a child in age because he's always been a black slave first. The freedom of childhood isn't even a relevant possibility for a kid like Octavian.

    I recall the thought: He knows the way to her heart is through me. And this, rather than causing me distress, that I might be used for the man's amorous ends, filled me with great pleasure and pride. He knows well the way to her heart is through her son. Her son is the thing that makes her happier than any other thing. I entertained the thought again and again; I broke the surface smiling, and gasped for air. (1.24.3)

    Can we just point out how incredibly optimistic and generous Octavian is here? Lord Cheldthorpe's totally using him to get into Cassiopeia's good graces, but Octavian doesn't mind how he's being used because he knows a more fundamental truth: his mother loves him the most, and everyone else needs to get in line behind him.

    I had stopped brushing a boot, and regarded her fixedly. She came to me and put aside the boot, and held on to me as though I were not a boy of some stature, but an infant, and she rocked me; singing me a crying song, again and again, that she was sorry; she was sorry; she was sorry that she had not—

    But she couldn't find a verb which could describe with decency what had been demanded of her. (2.12.16-17)

    What a rough spot for Cassiopeia: In rejecting Lord Cheldthorpe's "proposal," she finds herself feeling guilty about not selling herself to him and, in exchange, getting a better life for Octavian than the one that comes his way. The choice between compromising the small bit of personal integrity she's been allowed to have and providing for her son is, arguably, not much of a choice at all.

    And then, this she offered to me, my one truth: "Our language," she said, "is not spoken, but sung… Not simply words… and grammar… but melody. It was hard… thus… to learn English… this language of wood. For the people of your nation, Octavian, all speech is song. We watched each other's eyes. We were as strangers, in that moment—as intimate as strangers—for strangers know more of us, and can judge of us more without reproach than ever those we love. (2.31.49-50)

    Cassiopeia's on the verge of death, and in this last moment, she gives him the one thing Octavian has been asking from her: some knowledge, some clue, about his homeland and people. Why, then, this whole thing about being as "intimate as strangers"? It's a tough moment. Is he trying to say that he doesn't love her like family because he sees her as a stranger? Or is he trying to say that he's learned to let her go—as a stranger who no longer judges her?

  • Slavery

    At length, he said, "I was in my mother's womb when she was bought. My master purchased me and her, one price. My name's Pro Bono. For free. They got two, my mother and me, for the price of one." (1.10.21)

    That's Bono, explaining to Octavian why he wants to change his name. We don't blame him—his name's a constant reminder that free may be in his name, but that he's far from being truly free.

    He said, "Surely it don't have anything to do with them selling the sickliest slaves up New England way after no one buys them down South."

    He shook his head. "No," he said, "she walked down the gangplank with page boys and trumpets." (1.10.36-37)

    Bono's setting the record straight for Octavian. Cassiopeia probably didn't get to "choose" Boston; Cassiopeia was a slave, like all the other slaves on that boat—unwanted in the South and so sent up the coast to New England. Bono's point is also a reminder that—yep—the North bought slaves too.

    In the days that followed this conversation with Bono, I began to look about me with new eyes—that is to say, with eyes from which the scales had new-fallen, where bedazzlement was harsh and all about me; and I saw for the first time and understood that in our house and the houses we visited, there were black and white, bonded, freed, free-born, indentured, enslaved, and hired. (1.11.1)

    Octavian's just figured out that he's a slave. Sure, he's not the typical slave, but Mr. G still owns him and his mother, and that knowledge isn't something he can forget. In fact, it alters his worldview and—lo and behold—all of a sudden everything is like a shade of slavery.

    To combat this situation, he requested that one of the slaves periodically creep to his door when he was absent, and hurl it quickly open, to determine whether the desk remained, or whether, with no one to perceive it, it had simply given up and dissipated. (1.14.7)

    Mr. 09-01 is definitely not your typical slave master—he makes his slaves check whether or not something solid can actually disappear into thin air when no one's looking at it.

    Some minutes later, Bono came in with the footmen, and bound my mother and me, and took us outside, and we were lashed to the horse-post. The moon was gibbous that evening, and the air cold. There was a chill to the cobbles beneath my bare feet that made them arch.

    My mother's back was bared. They pulled her shift from her shoulders, and for the first time I saw her exposed, as she had been in the engraved figure hung upon the wall.

    For an hour, they left us there before coming to inflict their punishment. We were all but nude in the night's chill. We shivered tremendously, and did not look at one another. (1.26.115-118)

    What this passage shows is the shame that exists between Cassiopeia, Octavian, and—later on—Bono. They all have different reasons for their shame: Cassiopeia, for her naked vulnerability; Octavian, for seeing his mother naked; Bono, for having to do the dirty work of binding them to the stocks (he can't even look Cassiopeia in the eye later on). That's an emotional experience that will remain even after all that physical pain heals.

    The first few nights, heart moved with sympathy, the cook sent up in secret soothing delicates and stews, supplemented with heavy spirits to draw off the pain, and whispered comfortably things such as, "Tell the dear to rest well, and that we know her woes"; my mother returned the dishes peremptorily as being too cold, too liquid, too morose, too dry. She demanded other dishes, special preparations, sauces glacées, a blanquette of veal seasoned with oysters, chapon Flandrois in white wine, pluck and numbles rubbed with Ceylon herbs. (2.2.3)

    Someone thinks she's high and mighty… Cassiopeia isn't about to let the cook or any of the other slaves feel like they and she are alike. After all, Cassiopeia's a princess; she's royalty. So she's different from them. Of course, everyone knows what's really up—Cassiopeia can try to disassociate from the other slaves, but that's not going to make her any less of a slave (something her cut-up back knows all too well).

    He stood above me, held the book aloft, and in a loud, even piercing tenor, declaimed: "Hoc anno, servus nomine Eunis qui a paucis esse magus dicebatur in dominos suos coortus est." He looked down at me; and I began to translate—"In this year, a freeborn slave named Eunus, reputed a magician, rose against his masters…"—while he continued his bellowing over me — "et manu conservorum comitante, hos contra urbes in Siciliae finibus duxit"—until my voice was as loud as his—"…gathering a force of fellow slaves and leading them against cities in the region of Sicily…"—and together, we shouted of servitude, arms, and Rome. (2.2.18)

    This is a key turning point in Octavian's education because it's the moment when his teacher is basically telling him to rise up against slavery. What makes this scene even more poignant is the text they use: it's a classical Latin text, a language teacher and student both understand and feel passionate about. 09-01 is showing Octavian how there's historical precedent for a slave rebellion; that it's an action sanctioned by classical history and literature.

    On some heads, this demotion from scholar to servant simplified my lot, for as I passed from childhood to youth, it would have been increasing awkward for me to act as a lordling in that house, merely reading and playing the violin while the others toiled around me; luxury would have pained me. I now saw their stares when I was favored, due to my experimental status, and so it was preferable to work alongside them; after a time, my lessons with Mr. Sharpe seeming to all—myself included—not so much like a privilege as a more peculiar and arcane chore, as we viewed the grooming of the silkworms or the supper of the asp. (2.6.7)

    Octavian's showing us a dynamic that we ought to be pretty familiar with—after working alongside the other slaves, Octavian just wants to fit in. He gets how weird it is to be treated differently, even if that treatment is special. Do you think he'd have the same attitude toward his studies—"a more peculiar and arcane chore"—if he were still with Dr. Trefusis though?

    It was curious to aid in my small ways with the preparation of the meal, turning the spit or shaving the sweet-potatoes, and then to run and dress for dining, when my presence was required at table; to sit amidst the chatter of those who never saw the yams skinned or the luncheon-fowl with its head on; Bono over my should silently serving me morsels I had just cut into a bucket an hour before. (2.6.8)

    How truly strange for Octavian: He's basically forced to exist in two totally different classes—master and slave. That's got to be a bit of a mind bend.

    It was a catalogue of horrors. Page after page of Negroes 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 coffees, bent over on the wharves. (2.13.17)

    Yep, there you have it in a nutshell: slavery. Enough said.

  • Suffering

    I took new interest in the torpedo-fish with their crackling shocks; in the turtles that paced beside yardsticks; in the mice sliced end to end, that their gestation might be viewed.

    They were my brethren. (1.12.2-3)

    So… if these animals are Octavian's "brethren" and if they're going through all sorts of torture (even death) for the sake of the scholars' science experiments, then what does that say about Octavian's suffering, which is—at this point—mental instead of all about physical abuse and torture?

    I revolved in my head passages of ancient texts that recalled how Britons had been slaves. Horace, writing of their subjection; or the Venerable Bede, describing how Saint Gregory the Great, pope and punster, had come across some British slave-boys in the market, and had found them so fair he sent a mission to convert their race to the Christian faith. (1.26.118)

    Here's some context: Octavian and his mother have just been dragged out into the courtyard naked; they're about to be whipped for fighting with Lord Cheldthorpe. At this point, they're naked in the chilly night air, just hanging and waiting. The only way Octavian can deal with the suffering is to use the full power of his mind, to think about anything other than the fact that he and his mom are naked, in full view of each other, and hanging from posts.

    This is a trick Octavian continuously turns to as he faces physical pain—detaching his mind from his body—though, as he later admits, it doesn't work all that well.

    They came behind me. I would not grimace; I would not flinch; indeed, I would show nothing — considering, as the Stoic Phrygian slave, crippled by his master's blows, hath writ: "Beyond the last inner tunic of my frail body, no one has authority over me. If I love too much this pitiful flesh, I have sold myself as a slave, for I have shown through pain what can be used to master me."

    So say I now, resolve standing tall in seclusion; but then, the rod cut; and, weakened by agony's chains, ambushed by astonishment, I could not forbear exclamations of torment.

    I barked once, like a dog, then let forth a high whine.

    I am ashamed of my weakness.

    There is no need to rehearse the pain and the humiliation of spirit in such an act. (1.26.131-135)

    The space between what Octavian wants to do in response to being whipped—to show nothing—and what actually happens—barking and whining—only adds to the sense of suffering in this experience. Not only is their intense physical pain, but mental suffering as Octavian is unable to react to this moment the way he wants to. Ugh.

    It was the rawness, the mess upon my back, its suppuration, more than simply the excruciation of the pain, which disturbed me; previous to this, all pain had been enveloped neatly within the confines of the human shell, as within a doctor's bag the spiny instruments, the gouges and tongs, are strapped compactly, an arrangement of agonies. These wounds, however—these stripes bit into the world, and spillt. (2.1.5)

    Just think of it: A doctor's bag should represent wellness and health, but a doctor's tools can also bring pain, even torture (especially back in the 1700s). Well so can Octavian's body, a body that—before the whipping—was all nice and self-contained—a symbol of health. After the whipping though, Octavian's body turns on him; it becomes a lot like those doctor's instruments—all about pain and torture.

    "In the ice-house," I sobbed, "in the ice-house, I defecated." I could not stop from crying. I said, holding up my hands and weeping, "I had to." (2.1.11)

    The pain of being whipped is bad enough, but pooping in the ice-house… that's what really drives Octavian over the edge. We're guessing it has a lot to do with the fact that he couldn't control himself—he "had to" go. It's an embarrassing thing, not being able to control your bodily functions. It's like being a baby again or being reduced to an animal-like state… not, say, the actions of a violin prodigy.

    I missed my studies with Dr. Trefusis inveterately; for reading, once begun, quickly becomes home and circle and court and family; and indeed, without narrative, I felt exiled from my own country. (2.8.2)

    Octavian's expressing a whole different kind of suffering—he's missing the companionship of books and that freedom that comes from imagining stories. We're completely with him no this one: could you imagine a life without any stories? How dull and tedious would that be?

    It was a catalogue of horrors. Page after page of Negroes 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 coffees, bent over on the wharves. (2.13.17)

    Sometimes what young Octavian suffers doesn't seem too bad—this is one of those times, and Octavian knows it. These visions of pure, physical torment are what truly set off Octavian's commitment to rebellion.

    Empedocles claims that in utero, our backbone is one long solid; and that through the constriction of the womb and the punishments of birth it must be snapped again and again to form our vertebrae; that for the child to have a spine, his back must first be broken. (2.14.49)

    Crazy what some of these old philosophers used to think, huh? We'll just point out that all this suffering at birth is another way of saying that suffering, in general, is kind of a birthright of humanity; it's a natural state that allows humans to be what they are. Whether you should believe in that philosophy is something we'll leave up to you…

    We believe that the body hath its rights—to move in a reasonable ambit—to raise, to lower its limbs—but across the face of this earth, there are every day those who suffer unforgivable torments, strapped or chained, confined in boxes or in the holds of ships. May the Lord remind me of this always as I walk free upon paths, and may I thus always give thanks unto Him for the strange, small gifts of gesture, of simple tasks done with requisite care and sphere of action. (4.7.6)

    Slavery often brings up horrific images of intense suffering, like tar-and-feathering or lynching or dismemberment. But here, Octavian focuses on how the shackled body suffers on a really minute level. It's the little, day-to-day things that make being enslaved just as difficult—things like not being able to life an arm or walk naturally.

    I fell then to my knees; I fell upon the floor where my mother had fallen, sick with the fever; and I commenced to vomit through the mask, choking all the while on the dirty and acidic issue which clogged the max and my mouth.

    Mr. Sharpe stood above me, speaking in profile, declaring, oblivious to my convulsions […]. I heaved on the floor by his feet.

    "We have labored too long under a government that has sought to curtail exchange; such interference is unnatural…" (4.12.61-64)

    Octavian's in obvious pain, but Mr. Sharpe just keeps right on talking. More to the point, he talks about how they (the Patriots) "have labored too long" when, right in front of him, Octavian is laboring to breathe. But then what can you expect from Mr. Sharpe?

  • Art and Culture

    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)

    Octavian's all about pleasing people, including Mr. Gitney, even though he's just found out that his entire life has been a scientific experiment to prove the intelligence of Africans. If you ask us, we'd be pretty irritated about being lied to about our lives. But not Octavian. He's an overachiever out to impress, especially when it comes to his music skills. By the way, the whole reference to the devil comes into play again later on in the book when Mr. Sharpe makes him dress up as a devil while playing "The Devil's Trill" at Faneuil Hall.

    Thou hast not heard fiddling, Joan, until thou hast heard this tiny being, legs thin as sumac twigs, produce such tones; which sweet music dazzled not merely in its display of speed and accuracy, but most in its gravity; the child being able to introduce an element of melancholy into even the liveliest of passages. (1.12.5)

    Dr. Fruhling's writing a letter to his wife Joan about how the College generally is a den of sin, except for Octavian's violin-playing. What's interesting about this part is how amazed Dr. Fruhling is that Octavian's a tiny "being" and able to insert "melancholy" into his music. Why italicize those words anyway? Why all the awe over Octavian's "being"-ness or his emotional depth?

    I cannot doubt that at first his interest in her songs was forensic, nothing but fodder for an article to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Philosophical Ephemera of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. As he listened to her Africk monodies, though, their unaccountable rhythms, their outbursts and their alien allusions, he grew passionate about them, and would often importune her to sing them again; which she did not, after she reached the age of sixteen or seventeen. She would always demur, saying, "You would not hear these olden, shrieking things." (1.15.9)

    This is all about Mr. 13-04's (the music teacher) fascination with Cassiopeia's songs from her motherland. It's clear that Octavian thinks Mr. 13-04 likes the music because it's different, "Other," exotic even. It might be worth considering whether Octavian also is fascinated with those songs for their "unaccountable rhythms, their outbursts and their alien allusions"—after all, he doesn't know anything much about Cassiopeia's homeland either.

    "Sir, you, Mr. Painter. Do you see the spots where pictures lately hung, now sold off to pay the debts of your academy's intransigence? I would like a simple mural there depicting the sciences and arts allegorized, sitting on top of Utility."

    The painter hesitated. "Sitting atop Utility? Are they… hurting him? What is Utility?"

    "Perhaps an ox," said Mr. Sharpe. "With an humble countenance." (2.3.19-21)

    Wonder what bad art might look like? Just imagine Mr. Sharpe's mural. Sure, the painter might make the whole thing look amazing, but the idea of it just kind of goes against the whole idea of art for art's sake. In Mr. Sharpe's world, the arts only exist if they have a practical purpose—a utility.

    By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one's familiar walks and avenues; while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness; and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways; immobile and thus unfettered. (2.8.2)

    We couldn't have said this better ourselves. Octavian's explaining his love for books to us, a love that's even more pronounced since—at this point in the novel—he isn't allowed to read any books with a storyline under Mr. Sharpe's orders. Which brings up this thought: note how eloquently Octavian's words are. Would he be so eloquent about the significance of books if he were still allowed to read them? Is he this poetic, in part, because he misses them so much?

    Cheerful and gay. Sweetness and light. These words stood before me like a rebuke of everything I loved in music. I held them before me as we pulled up by Faneuil Hall. I took my teeth around them as I sat behind a column at the theater, waiting to step out and play. I meditated upon them when I made my way out before the orchestra, before the silent multitude of Boston's finest citizens. I gazed before me, and, holding the bow aloft above the strings, envisioned Mr. Sharpe's gray face, turned to the side, as he instructed me, "Remember beauty. Sweetness and light. Cheerful and gay"—and I began the sonata. (2.9.33)

    Could you imagine anyone telling Prince (as in the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, not Octavian) how to play or sing his music? No, right? Especially if the person doing the telling has no clue what good music is. But this passage is setting us up to think that Octavian—who hates what Mr. Sharpe is asking of him—is going to do just that—play "The Devil's Trill" sweetly and lightly. But of course that's not what happens (insert evil cackle)…

    It is, however, with pleasure that I write—and at the time, with pleasure that I marked—that many in that convocation had found my rendition not without merit; though I cannot imagine that their compliments were not due in part to their pity for my obvious distress, rather than any sympathy for a performance distorted by pride and pique. Young men pressed my hand, vowing I had spoke more of the vile institution of slavery in my few moments of sonata than all the preachers in Boston in a year; I bowed my head and thanked them, though I little believed myself responsible for stirring their sympathies. (2.9.44)

    Who knew that a performance Octavian considers "easy blasphemy" (2.9.41) could sway an audience so much? We wonder though—what do these people who congratulate Octavian find so amazing? The brilliant performance? Or the black slave boy performing? Or are those two things inseparable?

    Music hath its land of origin; and yet it is also its own country, its own sovereign power, and all may take refuge there, and all, once settled, may claim it as their own, and all may meet there in amity; and these instruments, as surely as instruments of torture, belong to all of us. (2.10.4)

    Octavian's going on about the power of music the way people can go on about the all the great possibilities of America. That's because to him, music really is welcoming, and in a way that American hasn't been to him. Music has no boundaries, as shown by the fact that all these African slaves are playing with him in a band, at Faneuil Hall.

    The afternoon sun was cast across the floor. Where the bowing and leaping should soon commence, there the old man slid and spun by himself, his arms fluttering, making pretty courtesies to chairs; pausing for a pas de Basque; his heels thumping; executing secret glissades in beeswax.

    Silence and sunlight were his partners. (2.22.13-14)

    Octavian is watching one of the other slaves, an old man, wax the floors in preparation for the pox party. But waxing isn't just what he's doing; he's dancing—specifically (at least to Octavian) ballet. Hey… work doesn't always have to be just work. Finding and creating beauty can happen in even the worst situations. In fact, maybe that's when grace and beauty are most necessary.

    And then, this she offered to me, my one truth: "Our language," she said, "is not spoken, but sung… Not simply words… and grammar… but melody. It was hard… thus… to learn English… this language of wood. For the people of your nation, Octavian, all speech is song." (2.31.49)

    Cassiopeia's last words to Octavian are a true gift: they tie him to his homeland and show him that all his musical talent may not just come from the scholars at the College. Not that we're saying he's naturally talented because of his Oyo background, but Cassiopeia's words comfort him because it shows his own language and culture to be full of beauty and art too.

  • Warfare

    So little did I imagine, as I stood on the warm shores of that lake beside an English lord and heard the crickets sing, that only nine months hence, the Empire should receive its first blows; that I should hear bells rung all night, and cries of "Fire!" and lie awake in my frigid bed unable to warm myself; while outside, in the square near the Customs House, a crowd of hundreds would gather, shouting abuse at the Redcoats who stood on guard there; that this mob, full of false assurances that the King's soldiers could not fire upon citizens, would yell their spiteful taunts—"Fire! Fire at us, you cowards!"—"We ain't afraid!"—"Molly-boy! Bugger! Shoot for the heart!—throwing fragments of ice and trying to knock the bearskin hats from the soldiers' heads. The crowd would surge forward; surround the Redcoats; one would raise a plank to beat in a soldier's head—whereupon a private stumbled, felled by thrown wood—and the soldiers, at long last, fired into the crowd. (2.11.8)

    Just a few lines later, Octavian's going to quote Seneca and tell us that waiting for the war is worse than war itself. But this description of the first scene of war—the scene that starts it all—makes us go hmm… Note that Octavian's account of the scene gets totally broken up by the shouts and general chaos he remembers hearing outside his window. The whole thing is tough to follow because that's what war is like: chaos. In other words, definitely not fun.

    The next day, two of them were on display, one in an apothecary shop, another lying on a table in a nearby tavern. Bono went to see the latter corpse, paying threepence.

    "That ain't much," he said, "to pay to see history."

    "Worse than war," saith Seneca, "is the dreadful waiting for war." (2.11.10-12)

    There's some truth to Seneca's quote, even though we're guessing that people in the middle of a war may not feel quite the same way as Seneca. Dreadful things do happen in the waiting of war… like displaying corpses

    I did not hear of this charade until the next day, and did not understand its purport; rather thinking it a pleasant interlude from the more brutal games of the Sons of Liberty. There was something almost gentlemanly about it, a hint of sport. Dr. Trefusis and I walked along the wharves and spake of disguise, color, substance, and the solidity of matter. (2.16.2)

    The "charade" Octavian's referring to here is the—and we mean theBoston Tea Party. But from Octavian's perspective, this incident isn't anything more than a "pleasant interlude," something that actually seems "gentlemanly." It's funny how this is the event that makes it into our history books, isn't it? How we don't usually read about the violence of the colonials in the lead up to the Revolutionary War…

    We heard reports from Boston. The body politic was so disordered that all government seemed suspended. Soldiers patrolled through the streets, apprehending Negroes out at unseasonable hours on suspect errands. Groups of rebels, communicating by eerie whistles, carried out a nighttime justice, descending on informants silently. There was continual outcry against the troops by some—soldiers scuffling with boys, their heel-marks in the slush; girls surrounded by lanky privates.

    We went about our business in the countryside, in a town of slow undulating fields and great clouds.

    On the Canaan town green, the militia practiced loading and firing their muskets. We sate inside, and jumped with the reports of guns in the distance. Their officers claimed, with supercilious air, that they practiced speed and marksmanship in case the French should invade; but we all of us knew for what eventuality they prepared. (2.20.3-5)

    Canaan is basically the boonies, which is why Octavian stresses the fact that they "heard" about the war rather than experiencing it more intimately. These passages show the difference between the way the war affected (at least at the beginning) the countryside and the city. In Canaan, the College people are so distant from anything real that they can sit inside the house and be unaffected by all the goings-on outside.

    "Octavian, there is word up and down the coast that the British are attempting to convince slaves to take up arms against their American masters. The citizenry is terrified. You are lying here amongst us, your bodies too dark to see until it is too late." He smiled. "That is what they say. They fear you will all turn murderers." (2.27.18)

    Dr. Trefusis is explaining to Octavian why the Young Men are so watchful during the pox party. It's war, and the colonials are preparing for violence on two fronts—out in the cities, from the Redcoats, and in their homes, from the slaves. Sounds like those American colonials know they've done wrong to the slaves…

    O Fruition, dear Sis, the Spirit of Liberty stirs the Countryside like Sap, & everywhere I am sensible of the Blossoms. I am in such Spirits I cannot describe the like. As we march towards Boston, we meet every Mile upon the Way another Column of Patriots bound for the Encampment at Cambridge. (3.5.2)

    "Spirit of Liberty stirs the Countryside like Sap"? "I am sensible of the Blossoms"? Seriously? Private Goring makes it sound like he's going off on a hunt or a camping trip—not war.

    But his excitement makes sense if you consider his age. This guy is young, and he doesn't know anything outside of his little village, his sister, his mother, and the cooperage—so going to war lets him go out of his village and into the world, even if it's just a march to Boston. That's major if you've never been away from your home or family before.

    He [Governor Dunmore] don't care a thing for our property any more and I fear the worst kind of tyranny to come.

    'Tis time to shake off the yoke of oppression. 'Tis not enough that the royal tyrants reduce us to slavery—they raise up our slaves to lord it over us. (3.12.3-4)

    Clepp Asquith, one of the Southern backers of the College and the guy who Bono is sent to serve, is complaining in a letter to Mr. Sharpe about Governor Dunmore. According to Asquith, Dunmore is trying to incite a slave rebellion against the Southern plantation owners so that the Brits can defeat the Patriot cause more easily.

    We'll just point out the obvious—it's ridiculously hypocritical to call British rule over the colonies as a form of "slavery." It's not like the Brits are out their whipping, lynching, maiming, shackling, or outright killing Southern plantation owners as a routine way of managing the colonies.

    There burnt the Sun of Massachusetts Bay above us, the Eye of God too, & the Kelp was around us, & the grassy heaped Hills was before us, where grazed dumb Beasts. 'Twas a rustic Scene, and yet, so must the River Rubicon have looked to the great Caesar when he forded it, and so declared himself the Enemy of Rome. (3.13.11)

    Goring is describing to his sister how pastoral and peaceful the scene before them is, even though they're about to do battle on those hills and fields. Does the scene and the war really compare to Caesar's invasion of the Roman empire though?

    Now there was a continual BLASTING—
    the Shouting of Commands —
    —and no moment to think—
    too close —
    which made the spongy Earth shudder—

    And I saw a Motion: that John was risen, deranged with fear, & confronted the Battle Screaming.


    John screamed & begun to run down the Length of the Beach towards the Enemy; & though we wished to call to him, we could not, though Shem started up before someone grabbed him & yanked him back to the Sand while he gasped— (3.15.28-31)

    Goring definitely has a flair for dramatic writing, but, in this case, the drama isn't overblown—the men have been hiding in a ditch for most of the day while bullets whiz above their heads continuously.

    So when John goes nuts and runs straight toward the enemy, it makes sense even if it's the stupidest move ever—John just wants things to be over; he goes kamikaze. When Octavian stands up and does something similar after this moment, you really get that this is no joke; war is really hard on the mind, and even the mentally toughest people can break.

    The Africans amongst us risked our lives for liberty, and yet had no assurance liberty would be ours; our pay, in may 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. (4.9.12)

    Clearly this whole war is unfair to the African slaves. Let's just add that this passage points out how much the war is also a job—an unpaid job—for the slaves. The American Revolution isn't a "cause" for them; they won't have that "cause" until the Civil War comes around.