Study Guide

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

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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 N****es 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.

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