Study Guide

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

By M.T. Anderson


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)

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