The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party Themes

M. T. Anderson


Rationality and Passion
The clash between reason and passion defines not just Octavian’s life but the entire Revolutionary period, especially in relation to race. One of the arguments used to justify the ongoing enslavement of the African race was its supposed intellectual inferiority. A related assertion was often made that the African was more inclined to be moved by passions, especially base and wild passions. This was a politically explosive issue, and where people stood on it was intimately interwoven with their own social positions in colonial America. This is why the experiment with Octavian is done in the first place: to test his intellectual capacity. It is also why Mr. Sharpe’s investors seek to rig the experiment so Octavian fails and why Octavian is denied a narrative voice toward the end of the novel. Everything related to reason and passion is viewed through the culturally conditioned eyes of racism.

The theme of freedom plays out in three different ways. First, Octavian is—though he is slow to realize it—a slave, as is his pampered mother. Therefore, even as the scientists of the college free his mind to think far beyond the horizons available to most people, especially most slaves, he also learns to understand more fully what it means to be a slave. Second, the theme of rationality and passion causes all characters in the novel to impose limits on themselves and to seek freedom in different ways. For example, when Mr. Gitney records how Princess Cassiopeia died of the pox, he does not record his own emotional outbreaks and how he loved her; in the rationality of science, there is freedom from the passion he could not allow himself to express. Third, each character’s search for freedom plays out against a national backdrop. As Octavian struggles with his slavery, the colonies take up arms against the British and fight for their own collective liberty.

Race, Class, and Species
There is one door Octavian is forbidden to open in the Novanglian College of Lucidity. When he finally opens it, he finds a chart classifying the different races of mankind, and learns that he is an experiment: the scientists there are trying to see if the inferiority of the African race is innate or can be corrected through proper education. To do so, they are willing to treat Octavian as an object of study rather than a human being. This is but a more rare form of the objectification all the slaves in the house, like Bono, must suffer. At the same time, the scientists in the house, following Mr. Gitney’s lead, are attempting to break free from historical social classifications through calling one another by numbers rather than names.