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Themes in ‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks


‘Year of Wonders’, written by Geraldine Brooks, follows the inspirational tale of the poor widow Anne Frith, and the Plague that ravaged Eyam in 1665, bringing catastrophe and chaos into the fragile society. In times of calamity, Brooks explores what is true about adversity and how it brings out the best and worst of human nature. She does so by providing readers with a unique narrative structure, various symbolic icons, and a young, perceptive protagonist.

According to Brooks, the distressing rapidity at which the Plague is decimating the citizens of Eyam proves how adversity induces the worst of human behaviour. Within the carefully established sociocultural setting, the novelist presents us with a wide array of characters to reveal how, in the face of explicable loss, grief and fear, society resorts to appalling behaviour, especially scapegoating. The enraged Lib Hancock, Mary Hadfield and John Gordon, are seen brutally attacking Mem Gowdie and murdering Anys. Their false accusations, claiming that these women were ‘witches,’ goes on to prove that Eyam’s midwife healers are the symbols of the human tendency to blame. As the devastation of the Plague progresses, the author observes how people become opportunistic, and acquisitively prey on others and manipulate them in their state of misery and suffering. This is undoubtedly evident through the actions of Josiah Bont, who consumed by greed and selfishness, exploits those around him by digging graves and burying the dead for an extremely exorbitant price. By capitalising from loss of others and extorting materials, Josiah is an emblematic character. Furthermore, the narrative’s climax provides exposure of how some people become delusional and begin to claim their own authority, whilst taking advantage of the crisis. Reverend Mompellion appears to confront the Plague with immense courage and an overwhelming sense of responsibility, convincing the villagers to quarantine themselves and see it as God invitation for them to improve. Yet, a proleptic re-reading of his ways and actions illustrate his increasing sense of Christ-likeness, with the power to command God himself: “Omnipotent God . . . bow down Thine ear to our request, and let Thine eye look upon the miseries of Thy people” (pg. 86).

Against this backdrop, Brooks asserts that there are those who, in the face of extreme adversity, refuse to let negativity to take hold of them, and instead opt to rise to the situation. With the death of the village midwives, Mem and Anys Gowdie, Anna is called to assist with the delivery of Mary Daniel’s baby. Through this situation, the author provocativelyhighlights the contrast of life and death, as Anna successfully delivers a healthy baby albeit being reluctant at first: “In that season of death, they celebrated a life.” Soon after, struck by the despair of her empty house, Anna takes the stolen phial of poppy and consumes it, as she “held her only chance of exit from the village and its agonies” (pg. 158). However, upon unexpectedly meeting Elinor at the Gowdies cottage, guilt-ridden Anna admits her sin, and throws the remaining poppy into the fire. The writer eloquently uses the symbol of the poppy, to exemplify the rejection of slumber, in favour of a life devoted to tending to the suffering, and seeking to develop a cure for the Plague. In doing so, Anna is also defying the social norms of the time, wherein she learns how to read by studying with Elinor – things women of her status would never achieve. Overall, Brooks astoundingly exposes the tremendous sense of strength, resilience and altruism demonstrated by Anna and Elinor, all whilst empowering the reader and endorsing the strength of women.

In the end, adversity, as portrayed by Brooks is a predictable and inevitable part of life. After overcoming the numerous hardships and suffering, Anna comes to accept the Plague as a nature’s way. The natural cycles of birth, growth and death, can be associated with the cyclical narrative structure, which generates tension within the reader. The novel commences in autumn – an important symbol, signifying a period of harvest and fruition. Contrastingly, it is also a season of death and leaf fall, and a pivotal time wherein the reader comprehends the stories’ structure. Furthermore, as the Plague begins to subside in Eyam, Anna experiences a major transformation. By the means of her relationship with the Mompellion’s and her exposure to the extremities brought by the Plague, readers are able to witness the intellectual and emotional growth she undergoes. Through Anna, the author substantiates that humanity can triumph over adversity through self-sacrifice, love, friendship and optimism, by making the best of her deplorable circumstance and looking beyond the preconceptions and misapprehensions of the time. Moreover, Anna escapes the confines of Eyam and begins a new life in Oran stating that “it seemed good to me to sever every tie that bound me to my old life.” Consequently, under the protection, attained through her marriage with the renowned doctor, Ahmed Bey, and the haven of her hijab, Anna is able to continue her crusade.She becomes a doctor, scholar and mother whose profound compassion and abilities denote her as a woman of independence and strength.

‘Year of wonders’, examines the diverse responses adversity invokes in people, and the positive and negative responses they exhibit as a result. As the trajectories of the horrendous Plague, afflicts the entire village of Eyam, Anna Frith transpires as an unforeseen healer and heroine, proving that her year of tragedy and catastrophe evolved to become a ‘year of wonders’.

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