Study Guide

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

By M.T. Anderson

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?

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