The Pox Party

Octavian Nothing, Part 2, The Pox Party

Personally, I feel the second part of the novel is even more compelling. The Transit of Venus ended with the brutal beating of Octavian and his mother, Cassiopeia. Many things have changed. The College of Lucidity is in great financial stress…they need a new sponsor desperately. And Mr. Sharpe seems to be the answer to prayers. But the new days usher in a harshness as well. Octavian now knows he is a slave. That he isn’t “special” from other slaves. He can be beaten. He can be commanded. He can be made to work doing menial tasks indoors and outdoors just like any of the other slaves or indentured servants. Mr. Sharpe also has a different reaction to Octavian than his previous master. Mr. Gitney seemed to have a soft spot for Octavian, Mr. Sharpe doesn’t much like Octavian. And as Octavian comes to realize, he wants the experiment of Octavian to fail. The experiment in short is to see if slaves (blacks, African Americans, negroes, whatever you want to call them) are inferior to whites (Caucasians, Europeans, etc.) or if they are equally intelligent and capable.

I did smirk at Mr. Sharpe’s introduction. “You gentlemen have done marvelous work here. Mr. Gitney has shown me your publications. Your scrutiny into the most obscure sciences has attracted the notice of the world.” I think he’s trying to make a not-so-funny joke. If they were getting the attention and approval of their fellow men, of fellow scientists, of fellow artists and philosophers, then they would have some monetary success to show for it. I have no real proof that he’s trying to be ironic. This is what he says a few sentences on, “You have been living in the turrets of a fairy castle–which is a fine view–excellent prospect–until you realize that fairy castles, my friends, consist in their architecture of tea-cake and icing. They are (a) frail; they are (b) sticky. And there are those below the battlements of this your confectionary keep who starve. It is time, sirs, madams, to become part of the world. It is time to enter the market, rather than feeding on your own stale flesh.” (124-125)

Mr. Sharpe doesn’t believe in pampering anyone; he doesn’t believe in luxuries. And music and art are clearly luxuries in his opinion. Not practical at all.

One of the big changes for Octavian–besides having to work and labor now–is that he is forbidden to read. (There is no utility in it) He is given his lessons (Greek, I believe; though he of course knows Latin and Greek and several other languages as well, I think) in fragments. Unconnected sentences to translate.  Yuck! Octavian says this about his lessons, “the texts being chosen for their convolution, recondite meaning, dryness, and insipidity.” (133) A bit further on, Octavian has this to say about the wonder of books, “By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one’s familiar walks and avenues; while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness; and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways; immobile and thus unfettered.” (143)

I loved the character of Bono. I liked his influence on Octavian. These are some of Bono’s words of wisdom:

“This is what they want us to be,” he said. “They want us to be nothing but a bill of sale and a letter explaining where we is and instructions for where we go and what we do. They want us empty. They want us flat as paper. They want to be able to carry our souls in their hands, and read them out loud in court. All the time, they’re on the exploration of themselves, going on the inner journey into their own breast. But us, they want there to be nothing inside of. They want us to be writ on. They want us to be a surface. Look at me; I’m mahogany.”

I protested, “A man is known by his deeds.”

“Oh that’s sure,” said Bono. “Just like a house is known by its deeds. The deeds say who owns it, who sold it, and who’ll be buying a new one when it gets knocked down.” (136)

At one point in this section, Bono is sold…and sold South. But he leaves Octavian something to remember him by. A set of keys.

Two more points to be brought up here.

The coming unrest–the conflict–between America and Britain becomes more and more important with each unfolding chapter. The themes of liberty and freedom begin to find their way into the text. The “us” vs. “them” of loyalists and rebels. The anger and fear and angst of the friction between the two. And the involvement of the slaves…the fear that the slaves might revolt…might cause trouble for Rebels…might listen to the promises of the British soldiers…the offer of freedom taunting them if they’ll fight the rebels with them.

The Pox Party itself.

This is another experiment in and of itself. A medical one. A test to see how the Pox works in both whites and blacks. If both are susceptible. But it is also a party-in-disguise with political undertones. A large group of men, women, children–both white and black–kept together in a large house in the country and exposed to a potentially fatal disease. The only difference between the white and blacks–in this instance–is that the slaves have to continue to wait on the white folks no matter if they are sick themselves or not. Octavian is one who gets sick a few days into the experiment. But he’s not allowed to be sick and in bed. He’s not being watched over or tended to by the healthy. No, he must work through it. He’s a slave first and foremost. He does eventually get some relief. But not much. Too little, too late in my opinion. His mother is also one of the victims of the Pox. Sadly. The “report” or “article” concerning this experiment is very upsetting. The coldness. The harshness.

We do learn through this though that Octavian takes this opportunity to runaway.

But before he goes, he has a few last words:

“I cannot fight–nor can I refrain–without imputations of savagery.” And he finished, in a voice not of defiance, but suffused with realization: “I am no one. I am not a man. I am nothing.” (231)

So what do you think of this book, of this section? How do you feel about Octavian now? Has it changed from your first impressions? What did Octavian learn from Bono? Which was the greatest lesson?


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