Year of Wonders

by

Geraldine Brooks

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Summary
Analysis
The villagers bury Faith at her cottage, next to her brothers. Since no one wants Aphra buried within the village, Anna and Brand dig her a grave next to Josiah on the moors. After Anna washes and prepares her body, Elinor is buried in the churchyard, the novice mason misspelling her name on the tombstone. Mr. Stanley presides over the funeral, since Mompellion is incapacitated by grief.
Anna takes responsibility for Aphra’s death in a way she wasn’t able to for her father. Now, the dead person’s actions in life don’t matter to her. Everyone merits a dignified and peaceful death—Aphra as much as Elinor.
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Anna feels that it’s not in her power to “be a friend” to Mompellion as Elinor had asked her, but she takes care of him diligently, attending all the rectory’s household tasks. Every day he seems more removed from the world. He leaves the rectory only once, to dictate letters informing the Earl of Chatsworth that the plague is over and breaking the news of Elinor’s death to her father.
As Mompellion suffers a breakdown, he becomes a recluse and his stature in the town declines. While Anna has always been a servant, taking orders from others, now she makes all the decisions not only about the upkeep of the house but about how to comfort and care for Mompellion.
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Worrying about Mompellion distracts Anna from her own grief at the loss of her friend. Instead of allowing herself to think, she focuses on what Elinor “might do or say” at every occasion. Finding Mompellion standing in Elinor’s garden one morning, she goes so far as to share a memory of Elinor in the garden. But Mompellion begs her not to speak, and Anna feels she has committed an “indiscretion.”
Anna tries to emulate Elinor even more than she did when her friend was alive, but no matter how she tries, she can’t replace Elinor in Mompellion’s life, nor can Mompellion be a good stand-in for Elinor to Anna. Between the two women, there was no such thing as an indiscretion, but no such intimacy can exist with Mompellion.
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The next day, Anna finds Mompellion in Elinor’s room, sweating from standing by her bed so long. She gently leads him back to his own room, washes his face, and shaves him. A loose strand of her hair brushes his face and he stares at her; Anna feels too discomposed to continue and flees the room.
This passage shows a stirring of sexual tension between Anna and Mompellion. Such a thing would have been impossible before, given Mompellion’s committed marriage and Anna’s position in the household. However, with circumstances radically changed and the two living alone on terms of relative equality, it’s no longer out of the question.
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Anna asks Mr. Stanley to console Mompellion, but Stanley is agitated after their interview. He says that Mompellion laughed when he “advised him to accept God’s will,” and believes him to be mentally unstable. Mompellion refuses to see Stanley again, and instructs Anna to give him the message falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. From the basic Latin she learned from Elinor, Anna understands that this means “untrue in one thing, untrue in everything.” Mr. Stanley stops visiting.
It’s clear that Mompellion has suffered a loss of faith, a development that is especially striking in a clergyman. Mr. Stanley interprets this as insanity; to him, a sane person is necessarily a believer. However, Mompellion is voicing religious doubts that Anna, the novel’s steadiest and most competent character, has been entertaining for a long time.
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The villagers now come to Anna for tonics and medicines, and she takes over the Gowdies’ garden, wondering if “fate” has picked her to be their successor, but she feels the Gowdie cottage is too crowded with memories, like her early friendship with Elinor and the deaths of Mem and Anys, that she doesn’t want to relive.
On the one hand, her discovery of science has given Anna a sense of purpose that, with the loss of her friend, she needs more than ever. However, Mem and Anys’ fate reminds Anna of the pitfalls in her society for a woman of science. She knows she hasn’t found her place yet.
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The village stumbles lethargically on. Almost no one has the energy to leave, and no one from neighboring towns has the courage to come to Eyam. Mr. Holbroke, Mompellion’s colleague, visits, but Mompellion will not see him. Anna brings Mompellion news of positive developments, like Mary Hadfield’s marriage to a farrier and a friendship between Merry Wickford and Jane Martin, but Mompellion remains unmoved.
While the plague has abated, the village is far from recovering. It’s clear that the plague’s most lasting effects aren’t medical but psychological. The traumatic experience has ruptured community norms that might never heal.
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Anna tells Mompellion that the villagers need his comfort and support, but then realizes this isn’t true. Some people blame the rector’s leadership for the ravages of the plague, while for others he is “the bitter emblem and embodiment” of a terrible catastrophe. Anna tries to protect him from sensing the village’s feelings toward him. Anna begins to despair, as she can do nothing to rouse Mompellion and his physical and mental strength seems to be waning. She feels she’s just helplessly waiting out his inevitable death.
While Anna has questioned Mompellion’s religious ideology for a long time, she’s more sympathetic to him as a person than those who believed in him wholeheartedly. The new hostility towards Mompellion shows the villagers’ horror at losing their own absolute faith in God’s plan. On the other hand, Anna’s relentless loyalty to Mompellion shows her determination to obey Elinor’s injunction to take care of him.
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Anna resumes her narrative where she left off in the prologue, after Mompellion drops the Bible. As she walks to the stables, she ponders the irony of the psalm he cited. Psalm 128 declares that “your wife will be like a fruitful vine” and “your children will be like olive shoots,” while Mompellion’s wife and Anna’s children have been killed. It’s evident that Mompellion is losing his faith, and this worries Anna more than her own doubts.
Anna no longer thinks of faith as central to her identity or her sanity, which is why it doesn’t matter to her so much that she has doubts. However, Mompellion has been defined by religion for the whole novel, and it’s unclear what will be left of him if he loses that.
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Anna pets Mompellion’s horse, Anteros, and confides her belief that Mompellion has lost his mind. She’s saved a scrap of paper on which Mompellion drafted his letter to Elinor’s father, in which he advises him to “never do that thing upon which you dare not first ask a blessing of God.” She reflects that he is much more “discomposed” now, since he wouldn’t dare ask the blessing of God for his treatment of Elizabeth or his insult to the Bible.
Mompellion’s behavior, which has always been a bulwark of stability and reason for Anna, is increasingly erratic and inexplicable. In many ways, she is now more intellectually capable than he is.
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Anna tells Anteros that the two of them have to make the most of being alive, and decides to take the restless horse. She gallops onto the moors, and the exhilaration fills her with hope, reminding her that “I was alive, and I was young, and I would go on.” While Mompellion is “broken” by their experiences, she has emerged “tempered” and stronger. For the first time in over a year, she rides past the boundaries of the town.
Anna experiences a rare moment of enjoying her own strength. It’s important that she accesses that strength not through a relationship to a man, but in contrast to a man. Mompellion’s surprising weakness reveals that she has far surpassed expectations for female knowledge and independence.
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When Anna returns, Mompellion has noticed her absence and is waiting for her. He asks if she has lost her senses and Anna tartly returns the question to him. At that, he collapses to his knees in the courtyard and Anna rushes to him, holding him in her arms “as Elinor surely would.” Anna realizes she hasn’t touched a man in two years, and is struck by sexual desire. Mompellion seems to pick up on this, and kisses her.
Even as she kisses Mompellion for the first time, Anna remarks that she’s doing what Elinor would do, and thus seems to be trying to emulate her friend. In this sense, the encounter is as motivated by Anna’s desire to recapture her lost friendship as it is by sexual desire.
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The entrance of the frightened stable boy disrupts their kiss. Anna returns to the kitchen and tries to compose herself. Mompellion follows to apologize for his behavior, admitting that for the past months he hasn’t been able to “think clearly” or feel anything except a “formless dread.” He lays a finger on Anna’s lips when she tries to speak. Anna kisses Mompellion’s finger; they have sex on the kitchen floor and then, more tenderly, in the bedroom upstairs. They lie in bed all afternoon speaking of “all the things we had loved in our lives” while avoiding any mention of the plague.
On one hand, this sudden sexual relationship allows Anna to access her sexuality outside the restrictive bonds of marriage or conventional romance. However, both Anna and Mompellion are using sex to retreat into the past and relive better times before the plague. In light of this, the relationship seems unlikely to survive the harsh realities of the present moment in Eyam.
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Mompellion helps Anna with her evening chores, telling her that the hay reminds him of his boyhood, when he expected to be a farmer. He asks if he can share her bed that night, and she acquiesces. Mompellion builds the fire and massages Anna’s feet, saying he wants to take care of her as she normally does him. After having sex again, they eat a simple dinner in companionable silence and fall asleep together.
Despite the differences in their circumstances, Mompellion and Anna are more alike than they’ve supposed, especially given Mompellion’s upbringing on a farm. Class distinctions don’t prevent them from forming a quick and instinctive intimacy.
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In the morning, Anna thinks of Elinor and asks Mompellion if having sex with her reminds him of his dead wife. Mompellion confesses that, in fact, he’s never had sex with Elinor. He explains that Elinor “had need of expiation” because she “committed a great sin.” When Anna says she already knows about Elinor’s past, Mompellion comments that their friendship was perhaps closer “than was fitting.” Anna resents this judgment, especially given that Mompellion has just slept with her.
The judgmental and dogmatic language with which Mompellion describes Elinor’s “sins” contrasts unfavorably with the intimate, confessional tone in which Elinor related them to Anna. His remark that their friendship was too close for (his own) comfort reveals his judgment and his misunderstanding of the intimacy Anna shared with his wife.
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Mompellion goes on to explain that in order to help Elinor atone for sinful lust that caused her to forfeit her sexual purity and perform an abortion, he refrained from sex during their marriage, so that she would live “with her lusts unrequited.”
Mompellion’s drastic and senseless self-castigation is essentially the same as John Gordon’s flagellation, as both turn to unorthodox actions to placate an angry God. While Mompellion can easily recognize and suppress superstition in others, he can’t do so for himself.
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Anna protests that he’s imposed on himself and Elinor a much harsher doctrine of sin and atonement than the one he preaches to the village. In fact, he told Jakob Merrill that God makes people lustful and forgives them for it, and that he regretted his outburst over Jane Martin’s lust. Mompellion said that he was just trying to comfort Jakob, knowing that his death was near, and that if he had cared more about Jane he would have punished her “until her soul was cleansed.” In Elinor’s case, he was determined that she become pure enough to gain entrance to Heaven after death.
Mompellion is quickly exposing himself as much less altruistic than Anna thought. He always seemed to care equally for all of his parishioners, but now he reveals that he was just trying to keep them calm, while reserving his true efforts (however misguided) for those he really cared about. Mompellion is seeming less like a spiritual guide and more like an unhinged manipulator.
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Anna asks how Mompellion suppressed his own sexual desire, and he says he imitated Catholic priests, who apparently combat their desire for women by thinking of all their unpleasant bodily emissions. Mompellion says he taught himself to ignore Elinor’s beauty and attractions and think of “her bile and her pus.” Anna finally understands Elinor’s allusions to Mompellion’s iron will. The revelation makes Anna feel sick, but Mompellion doesn’t notice. He launches on a dramatic rant, saying that as the husband he is “the image of God in the kingdom of the home” and that he transformed his “lust into holy fire.”
Mompellion’s previous outburst to Jane Martin now makes a lot more sense. No matter how progressive he is regarding various social issues, he’s still terrified and revolted by the female body, and intensely hostile to the idea that women might experience and act on unsanctioned sexual desires. Even to the society’s most liberal and educated members, female sexuality is a taboo and frightening subject.
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Mompellion then admits he no longer believes God exists. Rather, he thinks he was wrong to impose penance on Elinor and wrong to impose the quarantine on the villagers, who might otherwise have saved themselves. Now, he says, he will do as he likes. He reaches for Anna, but she grabs her clothes and escapes the room.
Mompellion’s loss of faith causes him to turn to hedonism. He concludes that since there is no punishment awaiting him, the natural course of action is to let his impulses run wild and do things he regards as sinful, like having extramarital sex.
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Anna stumbles into the churchyard and throws herself on Elinor’s grave. She is angry that Mompellion made Elinor feel guilty for her natural character that was “made for love.” Moreover, she feels guilty about her own actions. She had tried to become more like Elinor by sleeping with Mompellion, but instead she enjoyed the “wedding night” that Elinor never had.
Anna feels betrayed on Elinor’s behalf rather than her own, reinforcing the fact that her fling with Mompellion was much more about closeness to Elinor than closeness to him. While Anna has formed an unusually healthy conception of her own sexuality, Elinor, under her husband’s thrall, has remained convinced of her own sinfulness.
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Anna hears Mompellion calling for her, and feels a deep repulsion towards him. She runs into the abandoned church to avoid him. Here, she remembers Sam. She had been frustrated by his simplicity and envied Elinor her intelligent, sophisticated husband. Now, she understands that his intelligence had “twisted itself into perversion” and feels nostalgic for Sam’s unconditional love. Looking at the pews, she can’t believe that she, Elinor, and the entire village had once relied completely on Mompellion for leadership and guidance.
Anna finally realizes that the doctrine and wisdom of elite institutions is often indistinguishable from superstition, and isn’t necessarily something to rely on. Rather, it is ordinary pragmatism and goodness—like Sam’s and especially like her own—that provide the best bulwark in troubled times.
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In the Bradford pew, she finds Elizabeth praying. Elizabeth says that Mrs. Bradford has been in premature labor for a day, and the surgeon has given her up for dead. Anna says she will try to save her, even though Elizabeth taunts her for presuming to know more than the surgeon. At Bradford Hall, Elizabeth hands her horse to Anna, assuming she will stable it. Anna hands the reins back and strides into the Hall.
Anna no longer has any qualms about her own abilities, especially in comparison to the barbaric barber surgeons. Her confidence as a doctor also empowers her as a person, giving her the strength to defy Elizabeth’s insults once and for all.
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Anna finds Mrs. Bradford bleeding profusely, attended by an inexperienced maid. Anna examines her and finds it’s a simple breach birth, easy to fix. She concludes that Colonel Bradford instructed the surgeon to let his wife die.
Anna’s conclusion firmly establishes barber surgeons, and by extension male medicine, as firmly entrenched in an establishment designed to oppress women and punish them harshly for any transgressions.
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Contrary to everyone’s expectations, Mrs. Bradford delivers the baby safely and stops bleeding. Looking in the baby’s eyes, Anna knows that this work is enough reason to keep on living.
Anna’s renewed sense of purpose through helping others, even after losing her faith, is a marked contrast with Mompellion’s selfishness and willful self-destruction. It’s notable that Anna accesses this purpose by helping other women fight against male repression.
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Anna prepares to ride to her cottage and fetch a nettle tonic to strengthen Mrs. Bradford’s blood. However, when she turns back to the kitchen for a cloak, she finds Elizabeth about to drown the baby in a bucket. Anna knocks her out of the way, and rubs her until she survives. In a moment of rage, she picks up a meat hook and brandishes it at Elizabeth, but, coming to her senses, she drops it on the ground.
Brandishing a knife and a child in her arms, Anna looks like Aphra for a moment. However, unlike Aphra she is able to restrain her lowest impulses and turn to reason, even in a time of crisis. Anna won’t inflict punishment indiscriminately as Aphra did, even when she stops a monstrous crime.
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Elizabeth tries to justify herself, saying that the baby is illegitimate and she has to kill it so that Mrs. Bradford can retain the Colonel’s good graces. She says that she is only committing this crime out of love for her mother.
Even Elizabeth isn’t without redemptive qualities. She seeks her mother’s happiness, which she thinks she can only attain by placating her father. However, she behaves like her father in this respect, willing to harm others and neglect basic responsibilities in pursuit of a single aim.
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Anna volunteers to adopt the baby. When Elizabeth is reluctant, she says she will move far away from Eyam, where the child can never resurface as a nuisance. As Elizabeth considers the proposition and Anna looks at her calculating, empty face, she tries to pray; but she realizes she’s forgotten all the psalms and prayers she once knew by heart. Elizabeth finally acquiesces.
On the brink of taking on new responsibilities and leaving the only home she knows, Anna forgets the texts which have always sustained her. In her new life, she won’t need or rely on conventional religion; rather, she’ll turn to her own reason and capabilities for guidance.
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After haggling over logistics, Anna returns upstairs to inform Mrs. Bradford of the plan. Mrs. Bradford is grateful that the baby’s life will be spared; she asks Anna to tell her daughter that she would have loved her “if she had been allowed.” In return, Anna says that the little girl will always be cherished. Elizabeth gives Anna money to provide for her on the journey away from Eyam, and she rides away from the Hall.
Mrs. Bradford’s love for her daughter contrasts with Elizabeth’s mercenary pragmatism. Reassuring her that the baby will be loved, Anna effectively becomes the baby’s other parent. The girl’s birth is a joint effort between her and Mrs. Bradford, effectively writing any male influence out of the equation.
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At home, Anna packs up her few remaining possessions: Jamie’s jerkin, Elinor’s medical books, and some herbal remedies. Mompellion arrives, having gone to Bradford Hall and been informed of Anna’s plans to leave town. He says that he will no longer wallow in his own grief but rather strive to be like Anna, who despite her sadness and her lack of faith is useful to others.
Even Mompellion admits that the loss of faith is less important than what one decides to do after such a crisis. Anna is able to be altruistic and virtuous even without a religious incentive, and Mompellion realizes that this is the best path.
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Mompellion says that Anna’s life is in danger from the Bradfords, because she knows both of the existence of an illegitimate child and of Elizabeth’s attempted murder. He advises that Anna take Anteros and head to Elinor’s family estate, where she can find a job. Anna rides away with the baby, briefly waving to Mompellion as she goes.
Leaving town, Anna is much more preoccupied with the baby’s safety than her parting with Mompellion. Her relationships and transactions with other women are always much more important than her brief romances with men.
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