Study Guide

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

By M.T. Anderson

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 N****es to the wars instead. He little noted the notice that was taken of N****es 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."

"How?"

"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.

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