Study Guide

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

By M.T. Anderson

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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 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)

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?

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

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