'And so the rest of us set about learning to live in the wide green prison of our own election. ' What do the characters learn about themselves and their relationships with others? Geraldine Brooks' novel Year of Wonders' is a factual retelling of an infamous historical event, interwoven with an insightful exploration of diverse facets of human nature evoked when faced with adverse circumstances. With the arrival of the bubonic plague in the village of Maya, its inhabitants are subsequently imprisoned within a self-imposed quarantine to prevent the contagion spreading further, "... Ere e are, and here we must stay. Let the boundaries of this village become our whole world... " Amidst the death and devastation, characters learned of their innate capacity for goodness and altruism, or in contrast, barbarity and selfishness. Furthermore, as conformation of society were abandoned and social hierarchies crumbled, new relationships were created and old relationships tested. Anna Firth is the protagonist and heroine of Year of Wonders', and it is through her character's development and liberation that Anna realizes the human capacity for goodness and finds it deep within herself.
Before the arrival of the plague, Anna had already been victim of immense hardships, including her upbringing by her loveless and abusive father and stepmother, and the death of her husband in a mining accident. The plague takes the lives of her two sons, and despite sometimes losing herself in an abyss of tragedy and loss, Anna's humanity survives even when faced with the extremities of the plague. Anna continually puts herself in danger for the betterment of others, by caring for the diseased, defending the unjustly persecuted and shouldering responsibilities as others being to ignore theirs.
The plague acted as a totally for Anna to challenge social conformation and conventions for women, and those of lower class standing, in that era. Through her inner determination and strength, Anna evolves from a subservient and fearful widow, single mother and housemaid, to an intelligent and compassionate midwife and healer who liberates herself from the shackles of a male dominated and patriarchal society. Anna's new life opens out onto the wider world and another culture, and by the conclusion of the novel she is a woman truly in control of her own destiny, "l was alive, and I was young, and I would go on until I found some reason for it.
Anna exemplifies how she learned of her innate characteristics, which may have remained dormant and unknown to herself and those around her if not for the adversity of the plague, "l 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. " Brooks uses religion in the novel to explore the changes in many characters, as new beliefs are created and old ones are abandoned.
While a devout belief in God unifies the villagers in their self-sacrificing decision to quarantine the village, the regression of the novel shows the questioning or loss of this originally deep-rooted faith. As the villagers' prayers go unanswered, they turn to self-flagellation, self- deprivation and witchcraft in the belief they can save themselves, meet we were, all of us, weary of words. What had they brought us, after all? " Even Implosion's faith, upon the loss of Eleanor, is unable to withstand the weight of his suffering.
Having weathered God's tests until this point, Implosion can no longer Justify nor have faith in a God that would take Liner's life, "Untrue in one thing, untrue in everything. Anna too strays from religion, but for different reasons than Implosion and the villagers. She alone acknowledges "Perhaps the plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature". Anna realizes her own capacity for growth as she begins searching beyond religion for explanation and cure.
Through Anna's growing awareness of the natural world and scientific observation, she realizes the need for intellectuality over blind faith, "For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about some grand celestial design... " Defying the primitive mentality of others, Anna follows her own instincts and learns what she can from the Goodies' medicinal and herbivore knowledge to fight the plague. Only when Anna realizes she can open her mind beyond what she has always believed in does her intelligence flourish, as she is no longer blinded by religion and an oppressive patriarchal society.
Relationships, and the bettering or worsening of them, is another theme explored in the novel. The plague allowed relationships contrary to social norms to emerge, such as that of Eleanor Implosion and Anna's friendship between mistress and servant, "To me, she had become so any things. So many things a servant has no right or reason to imagine that the person they serve will be... Sometimes, I had forgotten she was my mistress. " It is Eleanor who discovers Anna's hidden talents and her thirst for knowledge, and she teaches a previously illiterate Anna to read and write.
Through her encouragement and guidance, Anna becomes the village midwife and healer. Furthermore Eleanor is the underlying force which Anna finds strength from to go on after the tragedies that befall her. She counsels Anna through moments of doubt and weakness, such as the death of Anna's children and her consequent reliance on the relief that 'poppy brings. "Because of her, I had known the warmth of a motherly concern... She was my friend, and I loved her. " Another unlikely, yet short-lived, friendship was between Nays Goodie and Anna.
Nays exhibited characteristics unconventional for women in the 17th century. Anna had originally seen Nays in the same light as the other villagers, "... Her fornication and blasphemy branded her in a sinner in the reckoning of our religion. " However Anna eventually becomes inspired by her independence ND freedom in a male-dominated and religious society, "l thought that she could teach me much about how to manage alone as a woman in the world, how to embrace my state and even exalt in it, as she seemed to. However as some relationships emerged, other relationships were destroyed, such as that of between Michael and Anna. Despite the emergence of an intimate relationship between them, it is soon destroyed upon Anna's discovery of the truth of his relationship with Eleanor. Although he loved Eleanor, he believed she must repent for her past sins to God, "Because lust caused the sin, I deemed that she should atone by living some part of ere life with her lusts unrequited. His belief in Liner's sin is founded on a highly misogynist and patriarchal view of female sexuality, and his actions reveal his need to exercise his authoritarian nature in his relationship with others. It is these relationships that affirm how the plague acted as a catalyst for characters, particularly Anna, to learn of the reality of another character's nature despite outward appearances such as Michael. Anna's relationships with both Eleanor and Nays also allowed her to learn of her own capabilities, thus inspiring her to emancipate herself from her ordained role and position in society.
It appears contradictory to have Year of Wonders' as the title of a novel that retells the death and devastation of a village beset by the plague. However it is through numerous characters' realization of their innate characteristics, and the changes in relationships within the village, that gives the title multiple meanings. Year of Wonders' is reflective of the complexity of human nature, and as exemplified by Anna, acknowledges how only in times of adversity can the true nature of characters and their relationships with others be revealed.