Year of Wonders

by

Geraldine Brooks

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Year of Wonders: Part 2: Rat-Fall Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After George’s death are three uneventful weeks of lovely fall weather, and Anna stops expecting disaster at every turn. She takes Jamie and Tom on long rambles through the fields, pausing to help one of her sheep deliver a lamb and bathing naked in the creek. She runs into Mompellion, who is out enjoying the weather with a book and, to her astonishment, stops to sit with her. He says that nature and its beauty is a better expression of the divine than man-made churches and reads to her from his book, a treatise by Augustine of Hippo about miracles in nature. Anna is honored and intimidated that someone so educated and above her in status shares his thoughts with her.
In this brief, halcyon period, Anna enjoys her own independence. Even though she doesn’t have a husband, as a woman is conventionally supposed to, she loves her children and has some economic means, represented by the flock of sheep. Her conversation with Mompellion shows her intellectual capabilities. It also emphasizes Mompellion’s optimistic view of the divine as something positive and approachable, like a beautiful fall day. Anna will come to share this view – at least for a while.
Themes
Female Sexuality and Friendship Theme Icon
Faith, Suffering, and God’s Will Theme Icon
When they return home, Jamie plans a childish surprise for his mother, showering rose petals on her from the upstairs window. Anna says that that her love from her sons and the simple experiences she shares with them are “my miracles.”
The word “miracle” has much in common with the titular “wonders,” in that both describe events inspired by the divine. However, while “miracle” is an entirely positive word, “wonders,” which will come to define Anna’s life, are much more ambiguous, capable of describing happy or calamitous events.
Themes
Faith, Suffering, and God’s Will Theme Icon
Anna continues the work of the fall harvest, helping her neighbors, the Hadfields, butcher their hogs in exchange for some of the bacon. While they are working, Mary Hadfield catches her son, Edward, and Jamie playing with dead rats they found in the woodpile.
The suggestion in this passage is that the dead rats may be the origin of the plague. However, it will be a long time before Anna investigates the scientific origins of the epidemic, and most villagers will never accept the plague as a phenomenon of nature, seeing it instead as divine castigation.
Themes
Faith, Suffering, and God’s Will Theme Icon
Science and Superstition Theme Icon
Rain comes and brings fleas which cover Anna and her sons in bites. Anna meets Mem Gowdie, on her way to treat Edward Hadfield, who is sick with a fever. However, the Hadfields have sent for an expensive barber-surgeon who dismisses Mem as uneducated and unknowledgeable. Anna asks the surgeon if Edward could have the plague, and he arrogantly answers that it’s impossible, since there hasn’t been plague in the region for decades. Defying conventions of womanly obedience, Anna argues that the surgeon hasn’t seen any plague cases to judge against, and tells him that George had sores and “rosy rings” on his body before he died. At this revelation, the surgeon tells her to pray for salvation and not to call on him for treatment anymore, before making a hasty escape.
In the 1600s, male barber surgeons were the only respected medical professionals; but they were often ignorant or ineffective. Even the uneducated Anna can deduce that this one has made the wrong diagnosis. The novel also portrays them as callous and unscrupulous, as this one is. It is Mem, feared as a witch, who has real medical knowledge. The contrasting treatment of the two characters shows how respected institutions can be based on superstition, while helpful science goes unrecognized.
Themes
Female Sexuality and Friendship Theme Icon
Science and Superstition Theme Icon
Get the entire Year of Wonders LitChart as a printable PDF.
Year of Wonders PDF
Within a week, Mary Hadfield loses her husband and her two sons to the plague. At the same time, Tom catches the fever. Knowing immediately that he stands no chance of survival, Anna tries to savor her last hours with her son, holding him and soothing him to sleep. Aphra visits and berates her for expending so much love on a child who, even in ordinary circumstances, might reasonably die before he grew up. Elinor proves a much more soothing presence, reading to Anna from the Bible. As Tom finally dies, Anna collapses on the bed in exhaustion; but in the middle of the night she finds herself “howling” deliriously in the street, until all her neighbors wake up and watch her.
In this extremely poignant passage, the most important moments come when Anna is alone with Tom, savoring their intimate bond for the last time. By contrast, she hardly notices when Mompellion comes to perform the rites or Elinor reads from the Bible. At important moments, formal rituals are much less important to Anna than human connection.
Themes
Community and Convention Theme Icon
Science and Superstition Theme Icon