Year of Wonders

by

Geraldine Brooks

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Year of Wonders: Part 2: The Body of the Mine Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Anna feels like an old woman as she tries to force her slowly healing body through her daily chores. She is glad to see Josiah one morning, thinking he will help her carry water from the well, but she’s dismayed when she finds out he has taken all the Widow Brown’s valuable pewter in exchange for burying her husband and son. In the following days, she notices that her neighbors stop talking when she approaches and concludes they are discussing her father’s actions. He has become the “grave-digger to the desperate,” taking household goods and even much-needed food from his desperate and bereaved customers. He’s been drinking more than ever, and doesn’t even bother to clean his clothes so as not to bring the disease into his house.
While the previous chapter showed some positive results of abandoning conventions, Josiah’s behavior shows the negative side of this trend. His unscrupulous impulses, only ever barely contained by social pressure, run rampant now that there are no structures to keep them in check. It’s clear that whatever good qualities Josiah once seemed to possess were imposed by communal norms, rather than inherent to his character.
Themes
Community and Convention Theme Icon
When Anna runs into Aphra, she attempts to remonstrate with her, but Aphra just says that Josiah is being a good provider for the first time in his life. Anna even risks chastising her father in public when she sees him carrying a bale of wool through the street, but he spits at her.
Aphra is remarkably adaptable in the face of the plague, but not in a positive way. Like Josiah, she sees the catastrophe as an opportunity to benefit herself and only changes to that end, rather than to help the community.
Themes
Community and Convention Theme Icon
Meanwhile, the villagers begin holding church services at Cucklett Delf. Each family group stands far apart, but they retain the old arrangement in which farmers and miners stand in the front, while artisans take the middle and laborers stand in the front. Josiah stops coming to church; in former times, this would have earned him a stint in the stocks, but no one has the time or energy to carry out this punishment now.
Because of the plague, the villagers move away from harsh punishments like the stocks. This is a generally progressive development, but it also allows characters like Josiah to grow bolder and more unscrupulous without fear of reprisal.
Themes
Community and Convention Theme Icon
Because he likes spending his afternoons in the tavern, Josiah declares he will no longer bury anyone past noon, and he callously digs graves right outside the windows of the ailing. At this, Mompellion and Anna visit his cottage to ask that he be less greedy. Joss is unmoved; he launches into a rant, saying that members of the upper classes, like Mompellion, always want the common people to do back-breaking work “for a pittance.” After having labor extorted from him for years, as a conscript sailor and a farm laborer, he intends to make money while he can.
Josiah rightly asserts that the ruling class expects the lower classes to live brutally harsh lives without asking for much in return. However, he’s taking out his resentment on the wrong people, harming his fellow commoners rather than those who have been profiting off his labor for years. This makes his speech seem selfish and self-pitying more than anything else.
Themes
Community and Convention Theme Icon
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One morning, Randoll Daniel comes to the rectory to say that his neighbor Christopher Unwin, who’s been sick with the plague for several days, believes himself near death. Although Mompellion hasn’t even eaten breakfast, he immediate sets off with Anna. As they walk, they pass the village green, where the stocks and cucking stool are overgrown with weeds after months of disuse. Mompellion remarks that the abandonment of such harsh punishments is one of the few bright spots of this time, and he hopes to remove them forever once the plague is over.
Mompellion sees the stocks as archaic, and thinks that they don’t provide enough benefit to the community to offset their brutal nature. Like Elinor, Mompellion tends toward a less harsh and more flexible concept of justice and punishment. His comments here further establish him as progressive and compassionate when it comes to judging others and changing community norms.
Themes
Community and Convention Theme Icon
Justice and Judgment Theme Icon
When Anna and Mompellion arrive at the Unwin house, they find that Christopher isn’t dead or even likely to die. He’s just spooked out because Josiah has been digging a grave in the backyard since dawn. Anna tends to Christopher while watching from the window as her father curses Mompellion and he answers in “coarse words that he did not learn…at Cambridge.” Joss tries to hit Mompellion, but the priest nimbly sidesteps him and knocks him into the half-dug grave. Anna makes a meal for Christopher, who, far from failing, seems likely to survive. She pretends not to have seen Mompellion’s altercation with Josiah, suspecting he wouldn’t want her to know about his un-priestly behavior.
Here, Mompellion shows himself as a class chameleon, able to behave in an un-gentlemanly way when he needs to confront Josiah. The novel positively portrays characters who can take on positive attributes from the upper and lower classes, like Mompellion and especially Anna.
Themes
Community and Convention Theme Icon
That afternoon, Josiah is so violent and intemperate that he’s ejected from the Miner’s Tavern. Anna is worried he will abuse his wife and children and tactfully tells Aphra she can always escape to the Gowdies’ unused cottage, but Aphra laughs at her and says she has “my own ways of bridling that mule.” Anna resolves to have no more involvement in her father’s embarrassing affairs.
Like Anna, Elinor, and Anys, Aphra is a relatively independent woman, but her independence isn’t characterized positively like theirs. What power she has comes from manipulating Josiah’s stupidity and lack of scruples, rather than developing her own intellect or morality.
Themes
Female Sexuality and Friendship Theme Icon
Anna rises to a beautiful spring dawn, but while she’s drawing water from the well a “figure from a nightmare” runs into the town, covered in blood and dirt, clothed in a torn shroud, and calling Josiah Bont’s name. Anna realizes the ghastly figure is Christopher Unwin. Christopher tells Anna and her neighbors that Joss had attacked him with a shovel and then buried him alive. Fortunately, he was too lazy to cover him completely and Christopher was able to climb out before he suffocated.
Joss’s despicable behavior has come to a head. He has abandoned community norms so far as to attempt a completely bizarre murder, apparently without fear of getting caught. The odd nature of the crime, and Christopher’s ghost-like appearance in town, show that, as time passes, normal order devolves so much that even the nature of misdeeds changes eerily.
Themes
Community and Convention Theme Icon
The villagers apprehend Josiah in his house and decide to try him at the Barmote Court, the judicial organization of the miner’s and Eyam’s only governing body of any kind. Anna doesn’t want anything to do with it, but she has to attend the trial as a witness. Since crimes as serious as murder are “beyond the scope” of the Barmote Court, Joss is tried and convicted of theft. Before sentencing, the Barmester asks if anyone will speak on Josiah’s behalf, and Joss looks at Anna for a long time. As she stands in silence, she sees rage and grief in his face.
The Barmote Court punishes Josiah, but so, in a sense, does Anna—by publicly disowning her family ties with him. This action is an emotional analog for humiliating public punishments like the stocks. Although Josiah is an objectively bad father and she has no obligations to him, this punitive act doesn’t feel satisfying to her, and it doesn’t resolve her complicated feelings toward her father.
Themes
Justice and Judgment Theme Icon
The Barmester sentences Josiah with the punishment customarily applied to miners who steal from each others’ claims: Joss’s hands will be impaled by a knife to the stakes of the Unwin mine. Later, Anna is told that he “howled like a trapped animal” when the punishment was carried out.
Life in Eyam, especially before the plague, is characterized by harsh, literal punishments like this one. These punishments may deter crime by sowing fear, and may satisfy the aggrieved party, but they certainly don’t reform the criminal.
Themes
Justice and Judgment Theme Icon
Traditionally, once the criminal is impaled he is left unguarded, so that someone from his family can come to free him. Anna assumes that Aphra will do this for Josiah, so she doesn’t worry about it. It rains all night and all the next day, so that no one can leave their houses except in cases of “dire need.” However, that day all Aphra’s three eldest children catch the plague, so she can neither go to Joss nor send anyone for help. Exposed to the freezing rain and harsh winds, Joss dies on the moors.
When the Barmote Court punishes Josiah, it is clinging to old conventions and assuming that everyone will contribute to upholding those conventions. However, times have changed so much that it is impossible to do this. Josiah’s death, in large part due to miscommunication, demonstrates that conventions, especially those regarding formal social structures, must adapt in order for the community to survive.
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Community and Convention Theme Icon
Stepping back from the narrative and reflecting on Josiah’s terrible death, Anna concludes that the fault lies with everyone in the community. Because the Bonts are so resented and disliked, no one checks on Aphra or worries about Joss’s fate. Anna says ominously that “our negligence” would have consequences not just for Aphra, but for the whole community.
Anna foreshadows Elinor’s murder. Although it’s Aphra who commits the act, everyone is responsible because they contributed to Aphra’s mental state. This conclusion shows Anna’s intensely communal mindset. She has good insights into the links that bind different characters, as well as a strong sense of obligation between members of the community.
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Community and Convention Theme Icon
Justice and Judgment Theme Icon
Three days after Josiah’s trial, Aphra arrives at Anna’s cottage, clutching her daughter, Faith, and demanding to know if Anna has rescued her father. When Anna says she hasn’t, both women know he is dead. Aphra begins to rave and weep with grief, and tells Anna that her three sons have died that morning and she has just buried them with her own hands.
Tragedy hits Aphra hard, striking down four members of her family at once. While suffering is supposed to be meted out by God according to a divine plan, it’s hard to see what that plan accomplishes regarding Aphra. Her personal suffering only corrodes her mental state, leading her to inflict suffering on others.
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Faith, Suffering, and God’s Will Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Pitying her stepmother, Anna accompanies her to collect Josiah’s body. When they arrive at the moors they find that wild animals have torn him apart, so that he resembles a “clumsily butchered beef.” Aphra cuts off locks of his hair and decides to bury him right there, so that Christopher Unwin “would ever be reminded of the cost of his justice.” The women struggle to dig a grave in the hard ground. Instead of placing a cross over the spot, Aphra makes a doll-like figure out of sticks; she mutters an unfamiliar chant instead of the Lord’s Prayer and makes strange gestures instead of the sign of the cross.
Anna struggles to perform the familiar rituals of burial. Even if she no longer implicitly trusts in them, they provide comfort during a horrible experience. In contrast, Aphra performs a blatantly pagan ritual. She has descended into superstition because of her grief, whereas Anna has strengthened her commitment to reason. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of accepted Christian and stigmatized pagan rituals highlights the similarities between religion and superstition. Neither can mitigate the fact that Josiah has suffered a meaningless death.
Themes
Faith, Suffering, and God’s Will Theme Icon
Science and Superstition Theme Icon
Related Quotes