In Octavian Nothing, education is all tied up with moral ethics. What is the right way to educate a person, especially if that person happens to be enslaved? Is it okay to educate an enslaved person as a scientific experiment without the subject's knowledge of the experiment? And what counts as education anyway? Does everything need to come from a book, or do you learn more from experience? At the College and beyond, education is a major player in this book.
It doesn't matter that the College gives Octavian an education; it's still an experiment done on an enslaved person.
Sure the College uses Octavian like a lab rat, but who cares? He gets educated and lives a pretty good life at the College.
Octavian Nothing forces us to see how masculine ideas about women and femininity can be super-restrictive and limiting. How does the book do that? By making one woman the only female character in the book worth mentioning—Cassiopeia—a woman whose beauty, wit, and slave-status make her more distant than familiar. In fact, the novel treats women in general as these abstract ideas rather than full, flesh and blood, complex women. This absence speaks volumes about women's positions in society at this time.
The book is sexist for including only one major female character in the novel.
Even though Cassiopeia is the only major female character in the novel, her complexity and strength more than make up for the lack of women in the novel.
Be prepared for anything under the philosophical sun if you've decided to read Octavian Nothing. The novel is non-stop with its references to major western philosophies, and it also gets super-deep into what those philosophies mean from the perspective of the enslaved. And from the perspective of a slave like Octavian, the meaning of life is all about the dualities of pre-revolutionary America: black/white; slave/master; being/unbeing; alive/dead. There's no shortage of food for thought with Octavian at the helm.
Freedom in life is only an illusion; true freedom can only be found in death.
Being a black slave gives Octavian a deeper, more compassionate perspective on human existence.
Is America a land of plenty, given to the colonials by God? Is it the land of liberty and freedom? Or is it a land that was stolen from those who were here first—the Native Americans—and then labored over by African slaves? These questions present the fundamental tension that lies at the heart of Octavian Nothing—and by tension, of course, we are referring to the cavernous space between the stories white men tell themselves and the lived experiences of Octavian and other enslaved people.
Sure, America was built on bloodshed and injustice, but the ends (a wealthy, independent nation) totally justify the means (slavery, war, land-grabbing).
America can only be seen as a nation of—at best—contradictions and—at worst—hypocrisy.
In Octavian Nothing, coming of age isn't about overcoming some major obstacle midway through the book. The obstacle—slavery—is a birthright (if you can call something so terrible a birthright) from the beginning, and not just for the main character Octavian, but also for the American nation that's about to be born.
So coming of age has more to do with separation in this book: The protagonist has to learn to separate from the home and nation that supports his continued enslavement, while the colonies have to figure out what to do about colonial slavery as they try to become a nation free from British tyranny.
The only way for Octavian to grow up is to escape; the College only holds him back at a point.
Even though Octavian is ready to switch sides at the end of the novel, his coming-of-age process is identical to the way America develops into a nation.
Octavian Nothing could have been a book about a single mother and her son if not for the fact that the mother-son duo are enslaved and live in a college of male philosophers and scientists. Those men make the mother-son relationship more like a mother, a son, and a bunch of potential father-figures. You know—"it takes a village," only the village is a whole lot of white male scientists.
In other words, family is kind of a far-out concept in the book. It's much more abstract than your typical two-parent household with 2.5 kids.
Octavian's "family" at the College may be unusual, but it beats the typical two-parent household.
Octavian's relationship with Cassiopeia is completely incestuous because Cassiopeia treats him like a substitute husband.
At the core of Octavian Nothing is the fundamental hypocrisy of the pre-revolutionary American colonies' fight for freedom from British tyranny. How could American colonials claim their "enslavement" under British rule while supporting slavery in the colonies? The other key issue: the education of a slave. Is it unethical to educate a slave as an experiment to gauge the intelligence of African people? Or is educating a slave—regardless of reason—more important than anything else? Since our main character is born into slavery, pretty much every step of his journey is shaped by it.
Octavian's intention to side with the Brits is perfectly justified given how the colonials have no intention of ending slavery.
Though it is terrible to use Octavian as an experiment, ultimately the education he receives at the College is essential to his ability to escape.
Why are there all those scratched-out pages in the middle of the novel? How does Octavian's expression of his suffering change throughout the book? How do Private Goring's pains compare to Octavian's pains? How is physical suffering different or similar to mental anguish?
Slavery produces more suffering than the War because slaves have no ability to choose whether or not they suffer.
Suffering is necessary in order to produce a good story.
Art and culture—especially music—have everything to do with escaping in Octavian Nothing. You might be thinking, "Oh that means art and culture aren't all that important because they're escapist," but this book shows you how necessary these things are. Art and culture offer potential routes to escape from slavery, and we don't mean just the mental, take-a-trip-to-la-la-land kind of escape. Octavian and his mother's cultured manners and artistic talents give them very real ways of leaving slavery behind.
Art is great and all, but it's not as important to a nation as a stable, profitable economy.
Art and culture are fundamental to the building of an educated, stable nation.
Everyone expects war to be ugly, brutal, and violent, but in Octavian Nothing, war—specifically, the American Revolution—is also the worst form of hypocrisy. That's because while the Patriots are fighting against the "tyranny" of British rule, they turn a blind eye or—worse—continue to argue for the true tyranny of slavery in the colonies. In this book, there's open warfare, but also the low rumblings of social discontent and the threat of rebellion by enslaved people too.
Even though getting slaves to fight the war was awful, the American Revolution was a necessary thing—after all, we got America out of it.
The fight to create America was not a worthwhile cause since the American Revolution (and, later, America) was built on the enslavement of Africans and other people.