Study Guide

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

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Women and Femininity

At other times, they made portraits of her dressed in the finest silks of the age, smiling behind a fan, or leaning on a pillar; and on another occasion, when she was sixteen, they drew her nude, for an engraving, with lines and letters that identified places upon her body. (1.2.6)

"They" happen to be the men of the house, and the woman here is Octavian's mom, Cassiopeia. This all sounds lovely doesn't it? Only if you read a little closer, the men are actually turning a nude drawing of Cassiopeia into one of those medical posters of the human body that you see in a doctor's office—you know, the ones with all the body parts pointed out. In this case, we're guessing they're using the poster to help them "understand" the black female. If this passage seems a little off and freaky to you, you're not wrong.

Increasingly, I was in awe of her majesty, and did not know what I might say to please her. I fear now that I failed to engage her; that I was too sallow a character. Indeed, as time went on and I reached my seventh, and then my eighth, year, I became aware of how dull my wit was when confronted with her beauty, how drab my bearing; and so, gradually, I came to stand in relation 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. She smiled upon me to chasten the others, to spurn their envious glances at me when I was taken by her up to bed. (1.9.6)

Yes—that's his mother Octavian's talking about. And yes—the whole description of their relationship seems a little incestuous, but we're not going to dwell on that so much as the fact that Octavian clearly idolizes his mother like she's the Madonna (as in Virgin Mary, not the pop singer although—hey—that could work too).

We're not entirely sure why this is, though, since she doesn't seem to coddle him; in fact, she seems a little distant most of the time. But maybe that's why she's so appealing to Octavian and all the other men—she creates distance, which maybe makes her into more of an object than a person.

"This is no banter, sir. This is no game." I could hear the fury in her voice. "This is no jest, no frolic, no badinage. I was a princess, once; I am a princess still. Royal bloom will mix only with other royal blood. Otherwise, it demeans the line. Tell me what nation you offer me, what alliance, what regal house—or leave." (1.25.102)

It's clear here that Cassiopeia doesn't think of herself as a slave. But what's extra cool about this scene is how she upends our expectations. Prior to this scene, everyone goes to see an opera about a Spanish conquistador and the Incan princess he dominates. It seems like Anderson is setting us up to view Cassiopeia the way the Incan princess is portrayed: weak, submissive, impractical, foolish—too in love.

But Cassiopeia completely reverses the power dynamic between Lord Cheldthorpe and herself. She shows herself to be anything but a submissive princess, even if she has to rely on an elitist argument about her "royal blood" to stand up for herself.

Mr. Sharpe betrayed an early dislike for my mother, whose arts and airs excited in him nought but irritation. He spoke to her flatly, turned to the side; then swiveling to survey her heighth rapidly, he delivered his determinations respecting her inquiries, and was done with her. He engaged in no flirtation. He said he would not, at present, allow for expenditure on any dresses of fine stuffs, but rather recommended she brood on worsted and prunella twill. He would not brook special dishes being prepared for her at suppertime. He could not abide her luxuries; and when she wore the blood-speckled dress to shame him, he revealed no interest or consternation. (2.4.5)

While Mr. Sharpe has a point financially speaking, it makes sense, of course, that Cassiopeia would be angry about these changes to her daily life. After all, she's being forced to change the way she presents her sexuality, which, if you recall from the Lord Cheldthorpe chapters, was her driving appeal—and main point of over—with men. Without her clothes, who is she?

"It ain't all in English," he said. He took it from me, turned the pages rapidly, and passed the volume back to me. He thumped on the page. Bono explained, "They put some of those passages in Latin so the ladies couldn't read them. I got a most acute interest to know what they say." (2.8.24)

Bono's talking about a pornographic book that's half in Latin, half in English. His point—that the Latin serves to prevent ladies from reading the book (since women back then generally weren't literate in Latin)—is key. Sexual knowledge was something men—specifically white men—owned and had access to. And the thing about sexual knowledge, of course, is that it's also knowledge about the body, especially a woman's body, including valuable information about body parts and how reproduction occurs.

In fact, later on Bono has Octavian read scientific books on the woman's body—also knowledge that women didn't have easy access to. If you think about it, it's just strange that men would have access to more knowledge about a woman's body than a typical woman. Doesn't seem quite right does it?

I watched him, burning with shame at my complicity; but there was no way out of this arrangement, should I wish to continue my education. And so I began reading—without joy—my tongue sunken in my mouth. "The monk…was of so great a girth…that the girl would have been crushed beneath him…Thus she mounted atop him…and he penetrated her from beneath…"

This became a feature of my evenings. I read in secret volumes from the library, and, in return, once a week perhaps would translate filth or chirurgical surveys of the womb and parts of reproduction; and so, through these crimes, my studies continued in secret. (2.8.28-29)

The context: Bono offers to give Octavian books to read (Mr. Sharpe's banned them from Octavian's education) as long as Octavian is willing to read pornographic literature to Bono. Thus begins Octavian's other education: his sexual education (whether he wants to admit to it or not).

Her beauty did not fade, but she did not advertise it so in the passages and chambers. She read romances and slept much of the day. Mr. Sharpe employed her in sewing for the household… my mother wore not the finery of former days, but sober garments of simple linsey-woolsey in sad colors. Seated in the N**** gallery amongst other servants, Indians, and white boys banished for whispering and tricks, she appeared no different, no more peculiar in her circumstances, than any lady's maid. (2.12.6-7)

Cassiopeia's a changed woman. Gone are all the nice clothes and fancy airs—Cassiopeia's just like any other slave now. Her drop in status shows how much her sexual identity was a privilege, something the men at the College allowed her to have. It's a little weird, isn't it, that something as natural as sexuality can be so easily given and taken away by men in power?

"When my mother dances now, sir," said I, "men pull her more tightly to them than they do the other women… taking liberties… or they scarcely deign to touch her. Was it ever thus?" She passed from partner to partner out upon the floor. "I recall her dancing with utmost propriety and a singular beauty." (2.27.9)

Is Octavian growing up and finally seeing his mother's sexual allure for what it is? Or is it that their circumstances have changed so much? That his mother—now clearly under the command of the men in the house—has to do what they ask of her, including letting men "take liberties" with her while dancing, is pretty rough, though we're not sure whether Cassiopeia has changed or Octavian's just grown in his understanding of what's going on around him.

I was not looking at my mother, but at a woman who knew me, and I was a man who knew her; she was a girl of thirteen, newly arrived in a frigid, alien country; a woman who had been that girl; who had given birth in bondage, while men with devices and pencils had observed. She had played the harpsichord and painted. She was a woman who had known desire, and who had danced upon the knolls by Lake Champlain. She had flirted with the New World's great virtuosi. We stared at one another, and in that moment, we knew each other for the first and last time. (2.31.48)

Cassiopeia's on the verge of death here, and Octavian seems to meet her in this moment as her equal—he says of the two of them, "a woman who knew me, and I was a man who knew her." What Octavian means is that he sees all of her—not just a sexual plaything or object, but as a whole person, with a whole life, that is now coming to a tragic close.

These measures failing, we resorted to an Indian method of which we had heard no little report: We placed the subject in a small underground chamber which we had infused with a great quantity of steam; and after she had come to a prodigious sweat, removed her to the frigid, icy bath; alternating back and forth between them for some time. The results of this were inconclusive, beyond the extraordinary discomfort it apparently occasioned the subject, who protested weakly as we placed her in the steam chamber the first several times; eventually falling silent. She did not speak again before her death. (2.34.5)

Cassiopeia definitely isn't a sex object now—she is blatantly being treated like an experimental specimen. This passage comes from the article detailing Mr. Gitney's (failed) attempts to cure Cassiopeia. Note how Cassiopeia doesn't have a name in this passage (or the entire article)—she is simply referred to as "the subject." Ugh.

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