The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Beacon at Alexandria is rich in its thematic import for the contemporary reader. Bradshaw presents the extraordinarily complex Hellenistic world in carefully researched detail and reveals surprising parallels with modern society. One of the striking similarities is the multiracial character of society. The protagonist, Charis, is born at Ephesus but leaves home for Alexandria, the intellectual center of the time. Interested in studying medicine, she becomes apprenticed to a prominent Jewish physician. Bradshaw uses her experiences to explore the coexistence of the Jewish and Christian communities. Later in the novel, Charis journeys to Thrace, where she encounters the Visigoths, whose barbaric reputation among the Romans turns out to be somewhat exaggerated.

Religious factionalism is another important social concern in The Beacon at Alexandria. Charis becomes involved in the politics of the Christian church. She becomes the personal physician of the aging Archbishop Athanasios, whose eventual death unleashes violence in the historical dispute between his followers and those of his rival, Arian.

Another social theme important to Bradshaw is society's attitude toward women. Charis finds that in order to study medicine in Alexandria, she must disguise her gender and pretend to be a eunuch. The prevailing attitude, expressed by several major characters in the book, is that the medical profession is inappropriate for women. Ironically, when Charis finds herself among the Goths, she discovers that in that supposedly unenlightened society, women are traditionally regarded as the proper healers.

Not only are the details of medical practice at this time fascinating in themselves, but Bradshaw presents the social issues that revolve around medical practice. Questions of euthanasia, of which patients should get priority treatment, and of the relationship of health to lifestyle all enter into the narrative. Such matters as the casual use of opium to relieve pain and as a tranquilizer also touch upon current medical issues.