Student’s sample essay under my guidance (Dr Jennifer Minter, English Works Notes)
“Through Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks is arguing that religion is damaging and destructive”
Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders condemns religion as both detrimental to individuals and corruptive to a community centered upon religious ideals. Brooks argues that the townspeople are restricted by religious laws and that it keeps them subjugated to a life void of purpose beyond appeasing God’s wrath. Through the devastating development of events in the novel, Brooks reveals that it is the fear of God’s punishment that corrupts the townspeople – as they scapegoat and resort to barbarity to alleviate God’s anger and thus rid themselves of the plague. Brooks argues that it is religion’s flimsy support that leaves individuals susceptible to superstition and thus causes their own demise. The novel further suggests that those bound to a religious life suffer faith crises upon traumatic life experiences, essentially destroying an individual – leaving them open to immorality, self-doubts and regrets. Brooks’ aversion to religion is thoroughly demonstrated in Year of Wonders. The author rather advocates for hope – hope in humanity and one another as opposed to a blind faith in God and religion.
The extent of the power of religious code over the people of Eyam is evident through the self-imposed quarantine, which is instigated by the town’s religious leader, Rector Mompellion. Mompellion characterizes the plague as a “casket of gold” and a “gift” from God and it is clear that Brooks emphasizes that any sense of direction during the era came from religious authority. As the novel develops, Brooks uses Anna’s first person narrative to convey deep thoughts and feelings as to how Mompellion’s sermon “that sealed [their] fate” and enforced the quarantine led to a devastating loss of life. In this way, Brooks portrays the powerful reign of religious law over the lives of the townspeople as dismal to their chances of survival through adversity.
Christianity is set up as being over focused on punishment, thus keeping its faithful subjugated to a life of fear of God’s wrath. Brooks essentially argues that this controlling capability reveals a sense of falsity in the meaning of religious ideals to an individual. Not only is the fear religion conjures within its followers damned as oppressive, it is also blamed for sparking extremities in behavior during growing adversity. As the townspeople witness their neighbours and loved ones dying – their fear of contagion as a consequences of God’s anger grows leaving them deranged and resorting to “ungodly behaviours” to rid themselves of the pestilence. In their growing desperation, the God-fearing townspeople turn to barbarity and scapegoat the Gowdies for the scourge of the plague as a result of Anys “consorting with the Devil’s spawn”. John Gordon displays extremist Puritan behaviour, participating in “grievous punishment” to “allay God’s wrath”. His self-depriving actions do not only lead to his destruction and ultimately his death, but also work to instill a greater sense of fear and chaos into the villagers.
Brooks further asserts that the failure of religion to provide an individual with comfort during their struggle is the gateway to superstition. Superstition leaves these desperate individuals vulnerable to exploitation. This creates opportunities for wickedness to flourish, evident through Aphra’s deception of these deranged characters. As Kate Talbot desperately confesses, she does not “believe in” charms yet bought them “because that which [she does] believe has failed” her. Brooks blames religion’s failure to provide deeper solace to those struggling as ruining an individual’s rationality and good judgment as they resort to superstition.
Religion is also condemned for its unsustainability, especially through times of hardship and calamity. Those with a fixation upon faith in the novel suffer a crisis of faith as they experience grief through the “hard season” of the plague. As a puritan, Jane Martin’s very existence had been controlled by strict religious code as she led an abstemious life, believing “laughter and fun” to be “ungodly”. However, the harrowing events of the plague cause her to lose her faith as she believes she will die. She ultimate turns to a life of promiscuity, becoming a “bawdy jade who could scarce keep her legs closed”. Similarly, Michael Mompellion suffers a profound loss of faith upon Elinor’s death, denouncing his entire livelihood as one “built upon a lie”. His apostasy is detrimental to his sense of self, as he begins to doubt his decisions and account for all his hypocrisy. Mompellion ultimately judges faith to be “untrue in one thing, untrue in everything” as he becomes a man broken and lacking his original purpose and religious fervor. Brooks thus portrays a profound devotion to religion as setting individuals up for failure.
Brooks indefinitely portrays religion and its place in society through a very pessimistic light. The extent of her disapproval of religious dedication is evident through character development. Whereas a man of faith becomes depleted – void of any direction or meaning in his life, Anna, a woman open to hope instead of a blind faith in God is the antithesis of Mompellion, as she is reborn by the end of the novel. Therefore Brooks notes that it is rather hope in humanity and appreciation of the forces in nature which eventuate in personal growth and survival rather than an often superficial and blind faith in religion and God.
Michael’s actions were heroic, but he is not an admirable character.
Michael Mompellion is originally portrayed as a heroic figure in the town of Eyam however, through his character development, Brooks reveals Mompellion as hypocritical, self-serving and lacking conviction. Initially, the township sources their strength and courage to face the onset of the plague from Mompellion’s leadership as he persuades them to impose a self-quarantine. By contrast, at the end of the plague, Brooks portrays Mompellion as a man broken by his hypocrisy, with a dark side which sees him unworthy of the status of an admirable character.
By using his charismatic capabilities, he was able to “intoxicate” the village “with his words”, holding them “one by one, in his gaze” and convince them to impose a self-quarantine to stop the spread of the plague to other villages. He describes the plague as a “gift” and a “casket of gold” from God, exhorting the villagers to be resilient and so prove that they can withstand God’s test. Essentially, he is their pillar of strength upon the onset of the plague, becoming completely dependable, pledging himself to the aid of all those suffering. His courageous decision to quarantine is itself admirable as it prevents the spread of the plague, thereby protecting other villages. Furthermore, the manner in which he exhausts himself to assist the villagers is also deemed heroic. However, it is his darker nature which reveals a critical flaw in his character which overshadows his actions, rendering him unworthy of the reader’s admiration.
Brooks notes through Anna’s narration that Mompellion’s voice is “full of light and dark” which is indeed reflective of his character. By the end of the plague and upon Elinor’s death, Mompellion suffers a crisis of faith, suffering a severe emotional conflict whereby the reality of his character is uncovered. He ultimately loses his faith in God, seeing his life of religious servitude as “based upon a lie”, finding God to be a “poor listener”. His dismal reaction and complete loss of faith and conviction reveal his hypocrisy. He appeals to the township to draw strength from the death of their loved ones yet completely disintegrates upon his wife’s death.
Furthermore, the revelation of all his double-standards falls short of gaining any admiration from the reader. Elinor’s death exposes Michael to his own shortcomings and hypocrisy, which ultimately diminish him. Through his sermons and his initially decision to impose a quarantine (having interpreted the plague as the will of God); Mompellion self-characterizes himself as god-like. By the end of the novel, it is revealed that his self-proclaimed omnipotence is also inflicted upon his wife as he decides what punishment she must receive in order to atone for her past sins of aborting her child. Mompellion believes that as “the husband” he is “the image of God in the kingdom of the home” and thus sees it as his duty to deny Elinor conjugal comforts so to assure her purity and salvation.
However, such a harsh punishment does not apply to other villagers. He absolves Jakob Merrill of his sins of adultery, stating that god “understands [human] weaknesses” as “they have been with us since Eden”. He demands a higher level of purity from Elinor than he does the other villagers, stating that had he “cared for” Jane Martin, he would have “punisher her body and mind” for her lust. It is in recognition of his hypocrisy and double standards that his character is diminished – suggestive that the depth of his compassion and care is restricted to self-interest. Additionally, these double standards permit Mompellion to sleep with Anna, to vent his sexual frustrations which essentially diminish Anna. The reader is positioned to feel appalled by his double standards and exploitation of Anna as a mere sexual release thereby judging him as a flawed character.
Add to this the fact that he admits he “took a leaf out of the Papist’s book” and selfishly abstained from conjugal consummation in order to purify, not just Elinor, but also himself. He readily admits, that like the Papists, who were repulsed by bodily female emissions, he, too used this as a tool to better worship God. “I turned my lust into holy fire. I burned with passion for God”. Readers would infer, therefore, that Mompellion selfishly used Elinor for his self-serving aggrandizing purposes. His sexual frustrations surface in his relationship with Anna, which diminishes them both. Such an outburst of sexual passion also coincides with the lack of self-protection arising from Elinor’s death.
Despite his original admirable actions, Mompellion becomes the antithesis of Anna by the end of the plague, having become diminished through his baleful actions. Contrastingly, Anna rises to become the main “wonder” to emerge from the plague.
- Return to Year of Wonders: Summary Notes by Dr Jennifer Minter
- For excellence in VCE, see Arguments and Persuasive Language.
Synopsis of Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Background and Historical Context of ‘The Great Plague’
The Great Plague of London (1665–1666) was a massive outbreak of bubonic plague that is estimated to have killed 100,000 people, or around 20 percent of London’s population. Also simply known as ‘the plague’, the infection was caused by the bacterium yersinia pestis which was carried by the fleas of black rats. The rich largely abandoned the poor by fleeing London. Many of the nobility and gentry escaped London soon after the first outbreak of the plague and were followed by lawyers, merchants, clergy and surgeons. Such events make the true story of the village of Eyam all the more heroic. Just as in Year of Wonders, the local rector convinced the village to quarantine themselves. Local histories suggest that the plague is thought to have originated in cloth received from London, just as it does in Brooks’ novel. Some accounts of the Eyam ‘Plague Village’ put the number of dead as high as 259 of the 292 villagers.
Brief Synopsis of Year of Wonders
Year of Wonders is narrated from the first person perspective of an 18-year-old woman, Anna Frith.
Widowed as the result of her husband’s tragic mining accident two years prior to the commencement of the story, Anna is left to support herself and her two young sons, Tom and Jamie, with her modest income from tending her own flock of sheep and working as the housemaid for the local rector Michael Mompellion and his wife Elinor. While Anna has already endured great hardship and heartbreak in her young life, she and the other inhabitants of Eyam live largely peaceful lives until the outbreak of the plague in the autumn of 1665.
The Plague’s Origins In Eyam
The plague’s origins in Eyam lie in a seemingly innocuous piece of cloth sent from London to Anna’s boarder, the tailor George Viccars. Shortly after receiving the cloth, Viccars begins to exhibit the gruesome tell-tale symptoms of the plague: fever, pus-filled and exploding lymph nodes, aching joints, bloody vomiting and decaying flesh. Not long after Viccars’ death, the plague claims the lives of Anna’s two young sons Jamie and Tom and most of the neighbouring family, the Hadfields. It is not long before the plague has engulfed Eyam and it eventually claims the lives of more than half of its population.
The Rector Michael Mompellion
The charismatic and evangelical rector Michael Mompellion convinces the villagers that they must quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of the plague to surrounding areas. While the villagers are initially galvanised by their faith and local spirit, it is not long before they turn on one another as a result of the devastation wrought by the disease and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the self-imposed quarantine.
Death in Eyam
Death visits nearly every household in Eyam and as the villagers seek answers and justification for their plight, many are consumed by fear, anger and desperation. There appears to be no cure for the plague and many villagers abandon their faith and turn to superstition and witchcraft in an attempt to deliver themselves from the horror. In some cases, the siege mentality brought on by the scourge sees the townspeople direct their fears towards marginalised and misunderstood characters who become easy targets for accusations of witchcraft. This irrational apportioning of blame leads to senseless acts of violence and even murder. Others seek to appease God through flagellation and extreme self-deprivation in the belief that they are appeasing God’s wrath for their innate sin. Unfortunately, the plague also brings out the darker side in some characters’ human nature as they seek to benefit from others’ misfortune during a time of crisis.
A Story of Courage, Compassion and Rebirth
Nevertheless, Year of Wonders is also a story of courage, compassion and rebirth. Despite great suffering, Anna and other characters such as Michael and Elinor Mompellion demonstrate that humanity can triumph over adversity through self-sacrifice, friendship, love and a belief in the preservation of human dignity.
Anna is Transformed at the End
By the end of the novel, the plague has abated in Eyam and Anna has been transformed. Through the necessity of circumstance, the encouragement from Elinor Mompellion and her own courage, Anna becomes the local midwife and healer. Readers witness Anna’s emotional and intellectual growth throughout the novel as a result of her relationship with the Mompellions and her exposure to the extremities of the plague. She is no longer subservient to anyone. She has thrown off the manacles of her abusive childhood, the spectre of the plague, religious dogma and even the patriarchy of the time. She has had to flee Eyam to ensure her own safety and that of an illegitimate child marked for death. The child’s father, a member of the local gentry, is enraged at having being betrayed by an unfaithful wife and seeks to destroy the evidence of his wife’s betrayal. Anna escapes from England and begins a new life in Oran (modern day Algeria), the home of the Andalus Arabs. At the conclusion of the novel Anna has become a doctor, scholar and mother whose compassion and talents mark her as woman of independence and strength.
Structure of Year of Wonders
Year of Wonders commences about two-thirds of the way through the chronological sequence of events covered in the novel. A narrative structure such as this is known as starting the novel’s events in medias res, which is Latin for ‘in the midst of things’.
The Novel Opens
The novel opens in autumn 1666 with Anna’s recollection of how she ‘… used to love this season’ (p.3). Her fond memories of apple harvesting and its accompanying sensory delights have been forever tarnished by the carnage wreaked by the plague over the previous year. Readers learn only vague details of the tragedies that have befallen the town of Eyam. The opening chapter also focuses on the broken and fallen state of the previously charismatic Michael Mompellion. Anna describes him as one of the living dead, and his words and actions are those of a bitter and haunted man (p.4). When Anna tries to wake him from his grief-induced torpor, he inflicts physical pain upon her by forcefully grabbing her wrist while trying to impress upon her the bleak nature of existence (p.19). Anna reveals that she only serves Mompellion out of her love for his recently deceased wife, Elinor. We also witness his cold and harsh treatment of Elizabeth Bradford along with his apparent lack of faith and his contempt for the idea of a compassionate God (pp.16–19).
The opening chapter also hints that Anna has undergone a transformation during the past year. When going to confront Elizabeth Bradford she reveals that, “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. Elizabeth Bradford was a coward. She was the daughter of cowards. As I entered the parlour and faced her thunderous countenance, I knew I had nothing more to fear from her” (p.15).
Brooks’ choice to start the novel in medias res is a deliberate attempt to provoke curiosity in readers as to why the characters find themselves in their current states. It encourages readers to contemplate the enormity of the force that has caused such devastation in the town of Eyam during the previous year.
Significance of the Title ‘Year of Wonders’
While at first it may seem odd to have Year of Wonders as the title of a novel that catalogues the horrors of a village beset by the plague, it is the transformation of Anna Frith that provides the title with its multiple meanings. On one level the novel documents the tales of human suffering, depravity and heroism that could only leave readers in a state of wonderment. Nevertheless, the true wonder of the novel is the way in which Anna is transformed from an illiterate, god-fearing handmaid, who displays flashes of courage and natural intelligence, to a midwife, scholar, doctor and mother of two who frees herself from the shackles of domineering males and religious dogma. By the conclusion of the novel she is a woman truly in control of her own destiny. Furthermore, it is the journey she undergoes in this transformation that makes her an individual of special qualities. As Elinor realises, Anna’s transformation “… is the one good, perhaps, to come out of this terrible year” (p.235).
Transformation and Rebirth in Year of Wonders
While Year of Wonders documents the horrors of the plague, it also explores how such an ordeal has the capacity to test individuals. Some characters never completely recover from the hardships, but despite extreme suffering and heartbreak others are strengthened and transformed by their experience. As such, the novel examines humanity’s capacity for regeneration after catastrophic events. It also celebrates those characters that possess the necessary fortitude to emerge reborn from the devastation, and it honours the friendship, guidance and sacrifice of those characters who allow others to move beyond the station that they were seemingly destined to occupy.
Anna’s journey from illiterate housemaid to scholar, doctor and independent woman is such a remarkable transformation that it provides the novel’s title with much of its significance. It is worth emphasising that Year of Wonders suggests that such transformations do not occur simply by chance.
Much of Anna’s transformation occurs as a result of the compassion and guidance of Elinor Mompellion. Through Anna and Elinor’s relationship, the novel suggests that loving and nurturing friendships have the ability to transform lives and provide individuals with new opportunities. Nevertheless, Year of Wonders also suggests that an individual must possess special characteristics if they are to emerge reborn from a devastating event such as the plague. For example, it is Anna’s immense courage and compassion that continually allow to her to make the best of extremely harrowing circumstances and also to look beyond the prejudices and misconceptions of the time to follow what she regards as the most appropriate course of action.
Towards the end of the book there are two significant events that clearly symbolise Anna’s growing awareness of her own transformation. Firstly, she tames Michael Mompellion’s horse, Anteros, and rides him past the Boundary Stone (pp.272–4). Such an action symbolises her desire to leave the devastation of the plague behind. Furthermore, she knows that she has emerged from the plague reborn when she says:
“We live, we live, we live, said the hoofbeats, and the drumming of my pulse answered them. I was alive, and I was young, and I would go on until I found some reason for it. As I rode that morning, smelling the scent of the hoof-crushed heather, feeling the wind needle my face until it tingled, I understood that where Michael Mompellion had been broken by our shared ordeal, in equal measure I had been tempered and made strong” (pp.273–4).
Secondly, it is Anna’s growing sense of self-determination that sees her rescue Mrs. Bradford’s newborn child from death. While her actions are borne out of maternal instinct and the need to protect the defenceless, the rescue also represents a moment of rebirth for Anna. By adopting the baby girl in order to ‘….raise her with love’ (p.289), Anna challenges the dominant patriarchy of the period, becomes a mother once more and inadvertently forces herself to move beyond the confines of Eyam into the world of the unknown. Moreover, it is this event that sets her on the path to Oran where she becomes a scholar and doctor.
Analysing a Sample Essay Topic on Year of Wonders
‘Year of Wonders demonstrates that a time of crisis brings out the darker side of human nature.’ Discuss.
The first thing to do with any essay topic is to identify the key phrases and define them so that they have meaning relevant to the context of the novel. In this essay topic the phrases that need to be defined are ‘time of crisis’ and ‘darker side of human nature’. ‘Time of crisis’ could refer directly to the devastation and confusion caused by a plague that appears to have no apparent cure. The term ‘darker side of human nature’ could take on a number of meanings in the context of the novel. It might refer to people’s capacity to exploit others for their own benefit; humanity’s capacity to revert to barbarity during times of fear; the need to control or exert power over others or the refusal to accept responsibility when faced with danger.
After defining key terms you must then judge whether you agree, disagree, or partially agree with the essay topic.In most cases, the better text responses are those that attempt to address the ‘grey areas’ of the topic rather than completely agreeing or disagreeing with the proposition. For example, in some situations the horrors of the plague do cause individuals to act abhorrently. Nevertheless, there are a number of instances where characters act out of a true sense of altruism and the need to maintain order and human dignity.
After defining key terms you now need to develop a contention that contains the defined key terms and responds to all parts of the essay topic.
An appropriate essay contention in this case might be:
Although the devastation and climate of fear brought about by the plague results in some abhorrent and repugnant human behaviour in Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, the novel also affirms humanity’s capacity for compassion, bravery and dignity during times of suffering and confusion.
Having written the contention for the essay, the next stage is to construct three to four supporting arguments that explore all aspects of your main argument.
Some appropriate supporting arguments here might be:
- The climate of uncertainty brought about by the plague results in some individuals directing their anger and misplaced fear against other villagers.
- The confusion and devastation caused by the pestilence allows some individuals to exploit others for their own selfish needs.
- Despite the great suffering resulting from the plague, many characters display great selflessness and compassion towards their fellow humans.
- Even though the plague decimates the village’s population, strong bonds of love and friendship survive.
The next thing to do is to briefly identify the relationships, events or quotes that you will use to develop each of your supporting arguments. Once you have done this you should have a sound essay plan to follow when writing your text response essay.
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