Student Question

What is the importance of Elinor and Anna's relationship in Year of Wonders?

Quick answer:

Anna and Elinor's relationship is important in the novel because it is a way for each to understand and relate to the other. Elinor needs Anna to open her mind, while Anna needs Elinor to keep her grounded in reality. Both women rely on one another and they help each other through a difficult time.

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In Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, personally, I see the relationship between Elinor and Anna as a reflection of how the town of Eyam changes as it faces the many effects of the plague. New relationships are formed—enemies become allies and unlikely friendships develop. "Wonders" in the title speaks to the positive changes that Anna (the main character) witnesses during a time of devastation.

Anna is the housekeeper at the rectory, the home of Elinor and Michael Mompellion—he is the town's preacher (minister). It would seem that the preacher's wife and her housekeeper would have nothing in common. Anna is one of the "common" folk, while Elinor would be considered of a higher station. In fact, while Elinor first may attempt to "better" Anna—maybe perceiving her as an inferior—Anna does not mind this "education;" she welcomes the knowledge. Elinor begins to earnestly teach Anna to meet Anna's "hunger" for information. Anna even learns to read.

"Good morning, Anna," [Mrs. Mompellion] said as she saw me. "Did you know that the tea made of this unassuming little flower serves to cool a fever? As a mother you'd do well to add some herb lore to your store of knowledge..."

This incident foreshadows not just the need of herb lore, but the relationship that Anna and Elinor will develop as healers.

The arrival of the plague demonstrates the ability or inability of people in the town to rise above their differences to aid others.

The crisis brings out the best and worst in the community. Some behave with great generosity and altruism, some with malice and greed.

When Anna's youngest son dies and her stepmother criticizes her for the death based on superstitions, it is Elinor who comforts Anna, reading to her from the Bible—about how Jesus loved and valued all children.

As the story progresses, disasters that occur because of the plague and the ensuing madness of the villagers cause unexpected hardships: the murder of the Gowdies (the town's healers) creates a lack of medical help and midwifery. Anna and Elinor decide to try their best to provide help in these areas and they experience some success. Their bond of friendship grows. They help young Merry Wickford who may lose the family's mine (after her family members all die) to collect lead; this saves the mine, but also allows the Anna and Elinor to join the Miner's Tavern—not just a meeting place, but the town's judicial system, of which Anna and Elinor are not a part.

The effort the women engage in to help others allows them to form a deep and meaningful friendship. This is similar to many things that occur in the town of any value. Those who see to the needs of others find they are many times rewarded with a fuller life and a community that, in many cases, is much more tightly knit.

While the women's friendship is a metaphor for the book's theme of coming together during adversity regardless of differences one may have with another, it is also the heart of the novel. After Elinor is killed, Anna adopts a baby she saves from death, and traveling to a distant shore, gives birth to a baby—father by Elinor's husband (Michael) after Elinor's death. The child is named Elinor, honoring their friendship. Anna's ability in her new life to become someone she never would have recognized years before is in large part due to the connection she made with Elinor. And another of the "wonders" she witnesses.

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How does Anna and Elinor's relationships contribute to their survival in Geraldine Brook's Year of Wonders?

In Geraldine Brook's Year of Wonders, Anna and Elinor at first seem like they would make unlikely friends.

The book begins in the present; the reader learns of Anna's experiences over the last year. She describes who she was before coming to work for the Mompellions, and facing the plague years. Then she speaks to how she has changed. Working at the rectory has changed how she sees herself.

The rector sends Anna downstairs to send Elizabeth Bradford away.

It was as if there were two of me, walking down those stairs. One of them was the timid girl who had worked for the Bradfords in a state of dread, fearing their hard looks and harsh words. The other was Anna Frith, a woman who had faced more terrors than many warriors...As I entered the parlor and faced [Elizabeth Bradford's] thunderous countenance, I knew I had nothing to fear.

The story then flashes back: Anna is the uneducated housekeeper in Elinor Mompellion's home in Eyam, a small country town in England. Elinor explains things to the bright Anna as to how to improve herself and her life.

"...Anna," [Mrs. Mompellion] said as she saw me..."Did you know that the tea made of this unassuming little flower serves to cool a fever? As a mother you'd do well to add some herb lore to your store of knowledge, for you never can be sure when your children's well-being might depend on it." [She] never let a minute pass without trying to better me, and for the most part I was a willing pupil.

Anna loves learning, and soon Elinor is sharing all kinds of knowledge with her. Anna even learns to read.

The plague arrives and the town is devastated by the spread of the disease. Families are decimated; land is left untilled, or crops remain unharvested. Fear permeates the society. There is the loss of life, but paradoxically, there are wonders to be discovered as well.

Anna [and] Elinor...try to rally their neighbors to deal with the tragedy sensibly, praying to God but taking practical precautions such as burning infected clothing and supplies. 

Neither is afflicted by the disease, but Anna, a widow, loses a man she might well have married, and soon her two sons follow. When Anna's younger son dies, Elinor is there to comfort her when her stepmother blames Anna because of cruel, superstitious beliefs.

With all about them crumbling, the two women do their best to help others. When the Gowdie women (the healers) are murdered, Anna and Elinor do what they can to help the townspeople with herbal remedies and midwifery. In joining together to help others, the women grow very close—Anna and Elinor survive by uplifting one another. 

If Anna and Elinor had not had each other, certainly the town would have suffered more greatly than it did, but the women might well have given in to despair—Anna because of the loss of her boys, and Elinor because of her guilt and loneliness. To her pain, she is never able to have a baby...

...the whole parish...benefitted from her barrenness, as she mothered the children who weren't mothered enough in their own crowded crofts...

Learning and working together with common purpose to treat the sick, or even to save Merry Wickford's family mine, helps the women to forget their own suffering as they minister to others in need. These things help them to survive emotionally and spiritually. And perhaps the steps they take to protect the townspeople ultimately keep them safe from the plague as well.

Most of all, Anna and Elinor's friendship saves them.

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