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What is the significance of the burning dresses in "Year of Wonders"?

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Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague is a 2001 historical fiction novel written by Pulitzer Prize–winning Australian American author and journalist Geraldine Brooks. It follows the true story of the pandemic-stricken Eyam, a small English village in the Derbyshire Dales, whose citizens decide to isolate themselves and quarantine the village in order to stop the further spreading of the bubonic plague in 1666.

The novel’s main protagonist is the eighteen-year-old housemaid Anna Frith, a widowed mother of two boys, who, alongside her friend Elinor Mompellion, dedicates her life to helping the villagers in a time of great need. However, she soon realizes that the path of a hero is not an easy one, as she faces tragedy and grief, witnesses firsthand the horrible mistreatment of women, and experiences the devastating effects of fear, panic, and superstition, especially on a frightened and confused community.

There are two instances in the novel which are connected to burning garments and possessions. The first one is a request by a handsome tailor named George Remington Viccars, whom Anna takes in as a boarder. Anna quickly becomes romantically interested in him, and he entertains her with his fascinating stories of the big city of London and even manages to establish a good connection with her sons, Jamie and Tom.

He seems to reciprocate Anna’s feelings and decides to propose; however, in just a few days, he falls deathly ill with a mysterious disease. Thinking that his fever might be symptomatic of the Black Plague, Viccars, just before he dies, tells Anna to burn all of the dresses and clothes he made with the beautiful fabric he brought from London. But the villagers refuse to destroy the clothes they’ve already paid for and proceed to take them home, thus spreading the disease.

The second instance in which the burning of clothes is mentioned is, in fact, an entire chapter, appropriately titled “A Great Burning." In it, the widely respected and much admired minister Michael Mompellion suggests that the people should burn most of their material possessions in order to purify their souls and make a sacrifice to God, thus getting rid of the contagious infection.

Mompellion was, in fact, based on a real person named William Mompesson. He was a vicar who did the same thing that Mompellion did in the novel: he managed to convince the people of Eyam to isolate themselves and deal with the plague on their own in order to prevent the disease from spreading further and to give the villagers a chance to redeem their souls. He believed that the plague was God’s punishment for the people’s sins.

The common thematic representations that connect these two instances are the hope of the people that they will be able to save themselves and their feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and desperation to do whatever is necessary in order to survive.

Furthermore, Brooks masterfully captures the people’s mentality in the poverty-stricken England of the seventeenth century, especially as it battled with the deadly bubonic plague. Many of the villagers of Eyam who were, in a way, forced to burn their possessions had very little to begin with, so having to witness their items being destroyed in the bonfire took a great toll on their mental and physical state.

This also justifies their insistence to take the clothes they’ve commissioned from Viccars, as they have already paid for them, and many of the costumers would simply not have any more money to spare for new clothes. Basically, they took a dangerous risk just to satisfy their materialistic nature and decided to put a price on their life.

However, Brooks argues that the people themselves can’t be blamed for this kind of behavior, individually, as they are only following the wrong societal norms. Perhaps this is why Anna decides to settle in Algeria by the end of the book, since the Middle Eastern society was much more advanced than the Western society, especially in science and medicine.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague received many great reviews, mainly because of Brook's journalistic approach to the novel; her raw, honest and though-provoking narrative; her historically accurate representation of the English society; and her brilliant portrayal of human nature.

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