Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders focuses on the lives of the villagers in the plague-stricken town of Eyam in 1665. As this close-knit community suffers the effects of isolation arising from their rector’s decision to quarantine the town, many of the villagers are overcome by fear and ignorance. As fear spreads, conditions become worse for the villagers. However, some villagers do find the strength to deal with their fear and ignorance and try to come to terms with their devastating ordeal.
The plague in Eyam takes place during the Restoration period (1660-1685 during the reign of King Charles 11 who unified England and Scotland). This is a time of social and religious change during which “every aspect of life against Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanism” was challenged. It is a time characterised by the clash of ideas between a religiously conservative and largely puritan-spirited congregation which is in demise in Eyam, and the freerer-spirited and independently-minded thinkers who explore alternative sources of knowledge and faith. Characters such as the Gowdies and eventually Anna Frith reflect changing times, and aspects of the “dawn of modern medicine and the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment”. It is during this Restoration period (King Charles) that ancient certainties related to the monarchy and the Church were challenged. “Change was their norm”.
As in Albert Camus’ classic novel, The Plague, readers soon discover that there is more to admire than to despise in human behaviour. This is chiefly because heroines such as Anna Frith and Elinor Mompellion rise above their traumatic pasts to fulfil their vision of a life lived well for others. There are of course the opportunistic, fearful and selfish members of the community who exploit the crisis, but the good primarily triumphs.
Initially, Anna Frith’s view of the world is metaphorically represented by the “boundary stone” as a marker of the limits of her social and physical environment. She had never crossed the stone. This symbolises, too, her introverted, restricted and confined life and view of the world which is limited to her status as an inexperienced, illiterate, and dependent servant. Her whole world was restricted to the “wide green prison” and a sense of blind faith. (She knew the liturgies by heart.”
Anna soon becomes one of the most indispensable members of Eyam. She and Elinor step out of their limited roles and become responsible for the welfare of many citizens, overcoming their fear with each one’s support. AS Brooks notes, she “shrugs off the social and religious mores that would keep a weaker woman in her place”. Such struggles, according to Brooks, were reminiscent of many of the women she met as a reporter in the Middle East and Africa, whose lives were thrown into turmoil by a crisis. “These women would suddenly find themselves havintg to step out of their old roles and assume vastly challenging responsibilities”.
With Elinor’s guidance Anna delivers Mary Daniel’s baby proving that she knows “a very great deal more than you think you do”. They both show fierce determination and independence when they take over Anys’ role as the cultivator of natural remedies so as to find a way to alleviate the suffering of those who have contracted the plague. By concentrating on possible cures, Anna and Elinor are indirectly questioning the prevailing patriarchal religious view that the plague has been sent to Eyam as God’s punishment.
When Anys Gowdie dies, Anna recognises her knowledge and wants to explore Anys’ herbs and natural remedies. For example, she is struck by the blinding light of Anys Gowdie’s ghost, which is “white gowned and brilliant”. The light not only symbolises her search for an alternative vision but represents the forces of reason against the irrational voices of darkness that murdered Anys on the scaffold. She is a woman who makes her own choices and explores, in this world of enlightenment, alternative sources of knowledge and medicine. Anna extends Anys’s work. She carries herbs to Aphra, hoping to provide some extra sustenance for the “ill fed” and “thin” children. She “showed Aphra how to make them (the herbs) up into a tonic that Elinor and I had devised”. Later she and Elinor learn “how to ease common ailments” and they become much sought after, “for the kinds of preparations the Gowdies once so readily supplied”. The skills included: using compound of mullein and rue, sweet cicely and mustard oil for “quieting a cough”. They use the Willow bark” for easing aches and fevers, and betony for “wounds and scrapes”. Together, they try to ease the suffering and pain of their fellow villagers.
Depicted as a “craft”, Anna’s skill eventually turns into a “vocation”, especially during her time in Oran, during which she reads Avicenna’s text on Canon of Medicine in latin. Ahmed Bey, now replaces Mompellion as “the wisest and kindest man I have ever known” who offers a different approach to medicine. “His way is to strengthen and nourish”.
One of the climaxes of the narrative occurs when Anna shows her courageous support for Merry Wickford – a story that parallels her husband’s Sam’s struggle with death. Fire is a potent symbol of destruction, and Sam’s death hovers over Anna’s narrative, as well as redemption and illumination. It is testimony to Anna’s courage as she undertakes “man’s” work, which is so dangerous that the job has it has claimed many lives. During this feat, Anna struggles with the idea of the feminine that has always restricted her talents and led her to doubt her strength. (182) “My cowardice shamed me”. However, typically under Elinor’s guidance she overcomes her fear and succeeds in extracting the minerals by this dangerous fire-setting method.
Initially, Elinor Mompellion has little practical knowledge of life. Her knowledge is derived from books and tutors. She is indulged as a child and she learns much about music, art and natural philosophy. “All I had to do was express a wish and these treasures would be laid out before me” (151) She was “sheltered” and protected. “But of life, Anna, and of human nature – of those I did not learn’ – during the plague she confronts human nature – pain and suffering.
As a wayward teenager, she was easily flattered by the knight and became lost in the “fires of my own lust” (152). Repentant and ruined, Elinor comes to realise that her lust causes the “loss of the life of her unborn child” and she yields to Mompellion’s demands of redemption through chastity. However, readers will soon learn that he preached to others that as God “made us lustful” so he understands and forgives, yet he does not extend the same forgiveness towards Elinor. Unknowingly, Elinor is grateful that her husband “showed me sorrows far worse than my own and pain far less deserved” (154). The plague gives her the chance to atone for her sins, which was just a hollow word when Michael first made the suggestion. Her ordeal brings her sacrifice to life.
Through her ordeal, Anna also experiences a spiritual transformation which metaphorically reflects the Enlightened passage from blind faith to healthy scepticism. At the beginning of the plague, Anna automatically accepted God. She learns the liturgical psalms by heart (35). She begins to question her faith and the origins and the purpose of the plague. She does not believe, like the Puritans, that the plague is God’s curse. It is not God’s “grand celestial design”. Rather she believes that it is important to see it as a “thing in nature” and focus on cures. Maggie Cantwell’s death shocks her out of her self-pity and she reflects on creation. Brooks uses a series of questions to show Anna’s enquiring mind and her confusion. “Why, I wondered, was God so much more prodigal with his Creation? Why did He raise us up out of the clay, to acquire good and expedient skills…” (135) Finally, she states that she cannot say “I have faith anymore”.
At the end of the plague, she forgets the verses that she has learnt by heart (290). “All of the Psalms and orisons I had by rote were gone from me, erased” (290) She becomes sceptical. “I cannot say that I have faith anymore” (301)
Brooks presents her development and new beginning as an allegory of the historical period and the turn of the century where people negotiated new systems of belief during the Age of the Enlightenment.
Anna’s flight on Anteros from Eyam to a new Muslim environment with her young baby shows a significant change as Anna seeks to carve out a new identity . The escape offers her the opportunity to recreate herself in her own image. As the shining light of the Age of Enlightenment Brooks depicts her remarkable transformation as she shrugs off Elinor’s role, and carves out her own destiny. Anna exposes herself to a life of chance and unpredictability knowing that she no longer has the protection of her faith, because she realizes she has “lost the means to pray”. (290)
- Mompellion urges her to go to Elinor’s family where she will be protected; however, Anna seeks to tread an alternative path from Elinor: “I knew that I did not want to walk each day in yet another place where Elinor had walked. For I was not Elinor, after all, but Anna. It was time to seek a place where the child and I together might make something entirely new.” Once again, Anna escapes danger. A “young gentlemen” has pursued Anna, probably from the Bradfords, and criticizing Anna of stealing “jewels” from the family, seeks to harm her.
- Anna searches for hope and inspiration among the Musalman doctors and Imams. (301) She seeks a future life in knowledge and reading. This former illiterate maid reads Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine in Arabic (300). Using the symbolism of sunlight as a sign of knowledge and reason, she realises that “I had been brought to this sunlit city so that I might learn more of the craft that had become my vocation”. (300)
- The symbolism of the baby: Firstly, Anna delivers Mrs Bradforth’s baby and resolves to protect it. The baby also becomes a symbol of hope: “I knew then that this was how I was meant to go on: away from death and towards life, from birth to birth, from seed to blossom, living my life amongst wonders.” (287) She names her Aisha, “life” as well as bread: “It is an apt name, for she sustained me.” (303) As a further sign of renewal, Anna takes on the name of her own firstborn – a little boy – and becomes gradually familiar with another culture in another time and place: “I am Anna Frith no longer, but Umm Jam-ee – mother of Jamie”. (303)
Significantly, Anna rides Anteros, traditionally ridden by a male (116), which symbolises her ability to crave out her own destiny in a male-oriented world. This also shows her “warrior” like status and her desire to follow her own “vocation”. Anteros is rich with symbolism.
- Traditionally ridden by a male, and specifically Mompellion, the final ride becomes a sign of Anna breaking the patriarchal boundaries to explore her intellectual “vocation” (trusts to the unknown).
- The Puritans said it was a name of a pagan idol: this reflects Anna’s skepticism as she explores alternative sources of faith and knowledge, particularly the infidel, Avicenna and the text, Canon of Medicine. Anna’s scepticism also reflects the dawning of the new era of enlightenment and the separation of faith and knowledge. “I cannot say that I have faith anymore. Hope, perhaps.” (301) She embraces the light and lives in the “sunlit” town of Oran. (We recall Mompellion’s insistence on tolerance and the belief that “pagans, too, are children of God” .
- Anteros also stands for requited love and symbolically as the avenger of unrequited love. This ambiguity captures Anna’s relationship with Mompellion. After Elinor’s death, she realises that she was naive and limited in her understanding of their relationship. “How could I have understood so little” (284). She is ignorant of Mompellion’s hypocritical treatment of Elinor; she is ignorant of the way he has unjustly expected higher standards of purity from Elinor. She also resents the fact that she believes that she has betrayed Elinor by consuming their love. In short, she refuses to walk in “Elinor’s footsteps”
Michael Mompellion, is presented ambiguously as a charismatic leader and initially indefatigable hero, but he soon sees himself as an anti-hero and someone who has failed the villagers. Brookes suggests from his inner conflict, that he feels he has betrayed Elinor. Mompellion’s intelligence and initiatives are deployed in the service of Eyam during the plague year. Mompellion’s aim that “none should die alone” motivates him to protect the village.
Throughout his sermons, he shows leadership and seeks to use God’s guidance to lead the village. He deploys his eloquence to persuade the villagers that “no one should leave or enter the village”. Indeed, his delivery is so serene that he engenders a sense of communal warmth, making the township feel as if “he intoxicated us with words, lifting and carrying us away into a strange ecstasy”. Rather than describing it as a punitive aspect, Mompellion refers the plague as a “gift” and a “casket of gold”. Just like a hero, he urges his listeners to emulate Christ’s example and be guided by love of their fellow human beings”. He counters the narrative of the puritans that this “venom of blood” is a consequence of God’s wrath and that they therefore must be punished.
Mompellion believed that the true test of the plague was to return God’s love rather than to see it as a “punishment for our sins” (103) . If his Son had endured sufferings “for our sake”, then “were we not bound to return this love to our fellow humans”. Even to lay down our own lives, if that was what God asked of us?” He believes that this “venom in the blood” is one of the most terrible things (its boils and its blains and its great carbuncles). He calls it this “Grim Death, the King of Terrors” that “marches at its heels.” (102)
Appealing to the congregation, that primarily consisted of miners, Mompellion uses the analogy of the “smith” who tends his furnace all through the night, to suggest that God is near and , “nearer perhaps than He has ever come, or ever will come in all our lives.” He challenges those who would flee, and perhaps spread the plague, to stay and endure, and “accept this Cross”. “Let us carry it in God’s Holy Name!”
The rector is capable of immense compassion, which is demonstrated when he visits the dying, praying with them, writing out their wills and digging several graves. The rector’s heroism is distinctively profound as he continues to push himself until he collapses with exhaustion in front of his devastated congregation.
Although Mompellion initially arises as a fervent and natural leader, he disintegrates and suffers a crisis of faith following Elinor’s death. He is destroyed by what he sees as his own hypocrisy. He realizes that it was unfair to have different standards of virtue for Elinor as he had for the other villagers. He concludes, “falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus”. He did not let her repent for her sins and the fact that her lust caused the death of the unborn child. He denies Elinor a fulfilling marital relationship. As Anna explains, you preached to villagers such as Jakob Merrill that “as God made us lustful so he understands and forgives”. Sadly, he does not show Elinor such generosity. He also seems to take a particularly “harsh” stance towards women such as the lascivious Jane Martin. (“Who made our lusts, our low ways and our high? Did not God? Is not He the author of it all? The appetites we have all come from Him; they have been with us since Eden. If we slip and fall, He understands our weakness.”)
However, Mompellion also feels doubly ashamed and hypocritical because he also recognizes that he used Elinor for his own self-serving purposes, that is, as a shield from his own lustful desires. He admits to Anna that he took a “page out of the Papist’s book”. By seeing (feminine) flesh as loathsome, he is able to sublimate his own desire. He admits that “I turned my lust into holy fire. I burned with passion for God.” In other words, he exploited Elinor’s sin for his own purposes and comes to realize that this was unreasonable and selfish.
In the end, he falls the hardest and becomes more demoralized than Anna because he also set himself up on a huge Christ-like pedestal.
Mompellion eventually rejects the very principle of religion as all he has felt ‘has been based upon a lie.’ For example, his lascivious behaviour towards Anna, reveals that he is no better than many of the other villagers he has cursed, and this causes him shame. Although it is difficult, he admits that his expectations of purity and truth — of ‘what I asked of this village’ and of Elinor — are wrong and that ‘because of me, many are dead who might have saved themselves. This devastates him and he isolates himself from the village believing that God is a “poor listener”.’ He deliberately drops the bible and refuses to admit Mr. Stanley. His comment, ‘untrue in one thing, untrue in everything’, reveals that he has probably lost his faith. He now believes that ‘all our sacrifice, all our pain and misery, had been for nothing’. He finally has ‘given himself up to his darkness’ and is ‘lost at last.’
Anys Gowdie’s heroic nature is captured by the image of the burning female at the stake. Anys also becomes another of Brooks’ heroines because of her ability to defy the narrow-minded obsession with purity and faith in Eyam. As a female living on the fringes of society, she is depicted as an independent and enlightened person, who has the courage to pursue her own personal interest in herbs and spices as natural remedies. Her life functions as an allegory of the dawn of modern medicine and its clash with the blind forces of a medieval age. Anys does not follow the traditional religious beliefs in the village.
She had “a kind of courage to care so little for what people whisper” appears to rise above the villagers with her unconventional beliefs and traditions to stand independently. While “long habit still constrained the choices” of many, Anys is able to surpass this by her individual choices and indifferent attitude, a source of admiration to the modern reader who is able to understand Anys need to rise above any male enforced convention.
As marginalized females, who symbolically and literally live on the fringes of society, they become convenient targets of the Puritans in the attempt to expunge their fear and horror of the plague. The villagers accuse her of their sins. Urith Gordon claims that “she witched my husband into lying with her”. Brooks suggests that she, deceitfully, seeks to displace the blame for her husband’s adultery through such accusations and Anna is unable to curb “the frenzy” (92)
Mompellion lambasts the villagers for their shameful murder of the two women who are strung up and killed on the stake. He exposes their hysterical crimes and places the blame firmly on each of the perpetrators. He accuses them of using “their own ugly thoughts and evil doubting of one another”. (For this same reason, Anys sarcastically confirms their accusations and admits her “guilt”, born of their own self- doubts: “Yes I have lain with the Devil and he is might and cold as ice to the touch” (93). In fact Mompellion is so indignant that he also challenges them to “gird yourselves, and pray that God does not exact form you the price that this day’s deeds deserve” (94). Later, Mompellion alludes to the radical puritans who, during the Black Death, preyed upon “troubled souls”. They exploited the crisis in order to gather followers and supporters. He further explains: “There have been times when, in mobs, they have laid blame for the Plague on the sins of others – Jews, many times.” “I have read of how in foreign cities they put hundreds of such innocents to death by fire.”
Upon Anys’ death, Brooks describes how there “beamed a lonely finger of light” and her face is “lit up.. as if she were on fire” (93). The light is a typical symbol of reason and truth representing the birth of this modern Age of Enlightenment).
Joss and Aphra Bont are clearly depicted as villains during the plague. Both seek to profit from the misfortune of others. Joss is depicted as a heartless father who shows lack of care for his children; he “loved a pot better than his children” and Aphra, his second-wife, refuses to intervene to protect the children from his violence.
Joss’s exploitation of people’s misery is so blatant that his name “became increasingly cursed in every croft and cottage.’ Josiah’s unprincipled behaviour is heightened when he buries a man alive. The act is “so vile” and his greed is so shameful that Anna is embarrassed to share his name.
Aphra appears as a pragmatic woman whose actions are driven merely by self–interest. Like her husband, her unscrupulous behaviour is revealed when she plans to rob her neighbours. During the crisis, she sells charms and spells to villagers as she is ‘ever ready to believe in sky-signs or charms or philters.’ She is intensely superstitious and is ” ever ready to believe in sky- signs or charms or philtres”. The action to hang her child, Faith as a ” puppet” shows ” the ravages of her madness had thinned her down to a wisp” . Her action to pose as Any’s ghost creates fear for the others in the village which causes them to purchase spells, demonstrating their superstitious beliefs. Other citizens such as Margaret Livesedge, who enveloped her baby in the “Chaldee charm”, also turn to superstituion. There are the abracadabra spells used by Tate Talbot (247/145)
Perhaps, readers have some sympathy for her when she is driven mad through the loss of her child and she hysterically kills Elinor. After her mad deed, she turns the knife on herself, but not before she picks up her child with the “most exquisite tenderness” and “pressed it to her lips”.
David Burton, a neighbouring miner also takes advantage of the plague to ‘place the first nick upon the spindle of her [Merry Wickford] stowe.’
The puritans, whilst not inherently harmful in terms of their faith, turn malicious when they destroy Anys at the stake as punishment. It becomes indicative of their quest to find a scapegoat for their woes and because Anys has always lived on the margins of society, and questioned their views and values, and their tendency towards hypocrisy, she becomes a useful victim.
Jane Martin’s personal experiences parallel Anna’s and yet she completely yields to alcohol and a promiscuous lifestyle.
Following the puritanical beliefs, the strict young women, Jane Martin, leads a strict abstemious life before the plague. However, through the traumatic events of the pestilence, ” the poor wretch” experiences the loss of her family, causing her to become an ” alehouse haunter”.
Because of the crisis, she shrugs “off her Sadd colours, and her tight lipped ways”. She loses her faith in God and transforms from being a girl ” colder than a ley wall” into “a bawdy jade who could scarce keep her legs closed” . Ultimately, the plague’s crisis causes her to become a drunken “slattern”. (218)
Mompellion harshly criticises her affair with Albion Samweys and is angry that she has turned the “pure vessel of her body and filled it with corruption”.
(These quotes are also useful for authorial devices: Anna’s first person narrative not only provides a reliable and credible account, but her choice of language and archaic terms also give legitimacy to her 17th century account of the plague.)
The Bradfords become the embodiment of evil and are particularly insidious because they are in a position to help and yet resolutely turn their backs on the suffering of their fellow citizens. they ruthlessly place their own interest above the welfare of others. They appear selfish and hardened to the suffering of others and live ‘safe in their Oxfordshire haven”. The villagers expect support; however, the Bradfords send ‘neither alms of any sort nor even a kindly word.’ Colonel Bradford ruthlessly abandons his servants, many of whom have been with him for decades and cares little for the fact that they have nowhere else to go. Despite their responsibility to their household and to the village, he refuses to accept that he has a duty to offer support and leadership; rather, he insists that his primary concern is to his family as his ‘ life and the lives of my family are of more consequence to me than some possible risk to strangers.’ Elizabeth Bradford also shows similar signs of evil, as she attempts to drown her mother’s newborn half-sister; she ‘cannot have our family’s shame flaunted in this village for all to stare at and whisper over.’ (patriarchal family)….
Jakob Merrill repents his sins upon his death. He thinks that he will be punished for sinning against his wife, Maudie. “I know it is unseemly to fear death, but I do fear it. I fear it, for I have sinned in my life.” (161) He believed that he did not do enough for Maudie. He fears now that God is punishing his children. Charity and Seth have no one to care for them. Mr Mompellion explains this to him as the frailty of the flesh, of which God is the “author” . Mompellion believed that he bathed Maudie in “boundless love”.
Brand Rigney, a former servant of Bradford Hall (164) becomes the carer of the children – sent by God to solve Jakob’s problems.
Maggie Cantwell’s death (135) enables Annie to consider the injustice of the plague. Maggie had numerous skills. “Why.. was God so much more prodigal than his Creation? And why should this good woman lie here, in such extremity, when a man like my father lived to waste his reason in drunkenness?
The Puritans see the plague as God’s punishment. They whip themselves because they believe that they have sinned. “But it was John Gordon’s fear that led him upon the queerest path.”
John Gordon’s response is typical of the flagellants who see the plague as a scourge of God. He stops eating and subjects his body to cruel punishment, whipping himself with ” plaited leather” .
Defined as a ” solitary ” and ” difficult soul”, John Gordon shows the terrible consequences that can occur during such a crisis when people begin to doubt each other. Through his self punishment, he hopes to purge himself of infection and ” allay God’s wrath”. Elinor explains to Anna that “their belief is that by grievous self-punishment they can allay God’s wrath. They see the Plague as His discipline for human sin.” (221) They show a literal response to the fact that they have sinned and urge Mompellion to literally shame and announce each one’s sin in public confessions so as to root out the particular transgression that has incurred God’s wrath (225).
He not only cruelly whips himself in an attempt to “allay God’s wrath”, but as Mompellion points out, his type of sacrifice can be extremely damaging. Indeed, he becomes one of the instigators in Anys’ death (95). Mompellion later draws attention to the harm that can result when such flagellants or puritans lay the blame for the Plague “on the sins of others – Jews, many times”. (221). In this case, the dreadful result is Anys’ and Mem Gowdies’ deaths. (220)
See Sample essays (Year of Wonders) under my guidance (Dr Jennifer Minter):
“Through Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks is arguing that religion is damaging and destructive”
Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders condemns religion as both detrimental to individuals and corruptive to a community centered upon religious ideals. Brooks argues that the townspeople are restricted by religious laws and that it keeps them subjugated to a life void of purpose beyond appeasing God’s wrath. Through the devastating development of events in the novel, Brooks reveals that it is the fear of God’s punishment that corrupts the townspeople – as they scapegoat and resort to barbarity to alleviate God’s anger and thus rid themselves of the plague. Brooks argues that it is religion’s flimsy support that leaves individuals susceptible to superstition and thus causes their own demise. The novel further suggests that those bound to a religious life suffer faith crises upon traumatic life experiences, essentially destroying an individual – leaving them open to immorality, self-doubts and regrets. Brooks’ aversion to religion is thoroughly demonstrated in Year of Wonders. The author rather advocates for hope – hope in humanity and one another as opposed to a blind faith in God and religion.
Sample essay: Michael’s actions were heroic, but he is not an admirable character.
Michael Mompellion is originally portrayed as a heroic figure in the town of Eyam however, through his character development, Brooks reveals Mompellion as hypocritical, self-serving and lacking conviction. Initially, the township sources their strength and courage to face the onset of the plague from Mompellion’s leadership as he persuades them to impose a self-quarantine. By contrast, at the end of the plague, Brooks portrays Mompellion as a man broken by his hypocrisy, with a dark side which sees him unworthy of the status of an admirable character.