The Overview of the Setting of the Year of Wonders
“I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.” (page 3, Brooks). In the The Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks opens her novel by drawing a sharp contrast between the old, productive town which it used to be, and the current ravaged community that has only the scenes of “rotting apples” instead of the colorful sights of “golden hay” and ripe apples. Her descriptive and figurative language immediately appeals to the readers’ imaginations, allowing them to paint a vivid imagery of the setting of the English town of Eyam in the 17th century. As the novel progresses, readers notice that the particular time period, the recurring appearance of the church and the garden, as well as the town of Eyam – a relatively small and closely knit community – weave seamlessly into the major themes of feminism, role of religion versus science, as well as the character development of Anna.
The time period of the late 17th century in England is characterized by a strictly patriarchal and traditional community, where most women lacked the freedom to play prominent roles in the society beyond their households. For example, Anna recalls how prior to Sam’s death, she never spent a single evening sharing deep conversations with Sam to build their intimacy, as Sam, whose “world was a dark, damp maze of rakes and scrins” (page 26, Brooks), was always exhausted after spending a whole day working at the mine. Despite such constraints that were imposed on women, Anna and Anys’ exceptional sense of bravery and resilience drives them to fight against the oppressive patriarchal society, a very unconventional, even revolutionary act during that time period. By making the story take place in a time where oppression of women is the social norm, Brooks is able to emphasize the unique character development of Anna, who transforms her countless years of loss and tragedy into years of devoting herself fulfilling her role as the healer of the village as she explores realistic ways to prevent the plague from spreading. “Oh Anna, Anna!… Why should I marry? I’m not made to be any man’s chattel. I have my work, which I love. I love my home – it is not much, I grant, yet sufficient for my shelter. But more than these, I have something very few women can claim : my freedom. I will not lightly surrender it.” (page 54, Brooks) This quote said by Anys to Anna when Anys admits about her sexual affairs with George Viccars, and insists that she’s not a mere possession of the oppressive men. By opening up and communicating with each other, it becomes more apparent to readers how the author utilized appropriate time period to convey to the readers the significance of inter female relationships throughout the story plot; more specifically, how women like Anna, Ayn and Elina, who share common grounds in their belief in feminism and their sexuality, are able to build deep irreplaceable connections whilst living in a patriarchal community.
Besides setting a time period marked by strong patriarchy, Geraldine Brooks also sets the church as a recurring location as a symbolism for extreme religious and superstitious worldview that constructed most villagers’ belief system. “Dear brothers and sisters, … we know that God sometimes has spoken to his people in a terrible voice, by visiting dread things upon them. … yet God in His infinite and unknowable wisdom has singled us out, alone amongst all the villages in our shire, to receive this Plague. It is a trial for us, I am sure of it. Because of his great love for us, He is giving us here an opportunity that He offers to very few upon this Earth.” (page 100, Brooks) As the plague hits the village and leaves the community in utter chaos, Mompellion, as the religious leader of the village, preaches a sermon explaining that the plague is a sign of God’s love, and that they must, as followers of God, believe in His vengeance than His mercy. Over the course of the novel, the village church stays as the location where Mompellion convenes with the townspeople to convince them in holding their faith in God, since based on Mompellions’ interpretation, the plague is a gift for the villagers to gladly take, rather than a punishment for their sins.
It could’ve possibly been Brook’s intention to incorporate this setting in her book, because it provides the readers with a more structured, meaningful symbolism for the extreme religious and superstitious beliefs that continuously shape the people’s worldviews. Although readers can clearly see that the power of faith and religious practices in the center and foundation of the community in the town of Eyam, such beliefs start fading as they doubt that such devastating, painful experience can be God’s meaning and will. The shift in belief system, as well as the progressing plague are evident in the empty pews in the church when Mompellion, once again, makes the villagers attend the church with their penitents’ robes. This change impacts Anna’s decision as well, leading to an important development in the story plot, as she begins to find deeper meaning in approaching the problem with a scientific approach. Eventually, this leads to Anna going into Goodwin’s garden to find herbs that can be used to develop a medicine to prevent further destruction. In conclusion, analyzing and exploring multiple aspects of the novel Year of Wonders allow us to predict that the particular time period and locations like churches made a significant impact on the character development and the overall story plot.
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