Year of Wonders depicts a tiny community that is both isolated and under tremendous pressure. The advent of the plague is a catastrophe no one is prepared or qualified to face, and the voluntary quarantine completely separates the village of Eyam from the stabilizing presence of a wider society. Because of these two factors, the people of Eyam gradually begin to abandon social conventions, both practices that are unnecessarily restrictive and principles that uphold order and civility. The Eyam community’s gradual slide into anarchy and disorder helps its characters—especially the astute and adaptable Anna—discover that society doesn’t have to be as rigid and restrictive as it once was. However, it also creates the impression that virtues and principles are a result of social pressure rather than something innate to human character. Thus, the novel creates a fundamentally ambivalent sense of human nature and raises the question of whether it is possible for humans to live together without strong social restrictions.
Under pressure of the plague, class distinctions break down fairly quickly, and Brooks presents this as an unequivocally positive development. When the first patients, the children of her neighbors, are dying of plague, Anna is so concerned for them that she questions the barber surgeon’s inaccurate diagnosis. This is a huge breach of social convention, but the situation is so dire that Anna doesn’t notice her gaffe until the surgeon upbraids her as an “ignorant woman.” This early episode shows that established methods of problem-solving, like formal medicine, are inadequate to the grave situation and that fulfilling conventions is far less important than confronting the incipient epidemic. The Bradfords, an obnoxious family of local gentry, leave the town when the plague breaks out, selfishly refusing to commit to the quarantine even though, as members of the upper class, they are supposed to set an example for the rest of society. The Bradfords’ escape shows the blatant inequities of class privilege, but without their presence society becomes much more egalitarian, with villagers adjudicating affairs among themselves rather than deferring to the despotic leadership of Colonel Bradford. A similar disruption of hierarchy occurs after Mem and Anys Goodwin are killed, Elinor and Anna have to step into the role of doctor and nurse for the entire town. Even though Anna is officially Elinor’s servant, they quickly begin to exist on terms of complete equality. Elinor defers to Anna in matters where she has more expertise, such as childbirth, and Anna begins to refer to her friend as “Elinor,” rather than the formal “Mrs. Mompellion.” The similarities of their brave and altruistic characters prove stronger than the differences in their class and education. Following Mompellion’s breakdown at the end of the novel, Anna, a mere housemaid, is arguably one of the most powerful figures in the town. Although Mompellion is still the leader, Anna controls access to him and helps direct his actions. This reversal of the class hierarchy is underlined by the Bradfords’ return to Eyam. Once rude and scornful to Anna, Elizabeth Bradford is reduced to begging her former servant to deliver her mother’s baby. While Anna does provide the help she needs, Brooks presents this episode as evidence that class distinctions can and should be questioned.
However, many of the community’s positive values, like justice, charity, and altruism, also turn out to be conventions reinforced by habit and social pressure, and are therefore just as easily eroded as the negative ones. The behavior of Anna’s parents is the most obvious example of the decline in social values. Joss immediately starts capitalizing on the tragedies of his neighbors, extorting money to bury the dead once the sexton dies and, in one absurd episode, trying to kill a sick miner in order to rob his house. Aphra demonstrates uninhibited greed, dressing up as a ghost in order to swindle her neighbors out of their money. Eventually, she goes insane and abandons even those conventions which seem most basic, like burying the dead. Her grotesque, senseless dismemberment of her daughter’s body shows the extent to which a community’s customs can disappear under pressure. Another example of the decline in social values is the mob killing of Anys Goodwin. While Anys always existed on the margins of society and people always whispered that she was a witch, Anys’s usefulness as a healer prevented her from even superstitious townspeople like Aphra. The community’s reliance on her balanced the community’s suspicion. However, in the frenzy to assign blame for the plague, that balance disappears and the community resorts to savage measures like witch-hunting. So while it allows for the decline of some harmful social conventions, the plague also brings to harsh light the worst tendencies of human nature.
By the end of the novel, Eyam’s trajectory from order to disorder paints an ambiguous picture of human nature, suggesting that all human behaviors are dependent on social context, and that therefore neither positive nor negative qualities are innate. In one sense, this vision of human nature is hopeful and liberating. Principles that had been unquestioned at the beginning of the novel, like class privilege, reveal themselves to be harmful and unnecessary. Anna’s sense of the possibilities for someone of her class and status are radically altered by the social catastrophe of the plague. By eventually gaining an education and settling in a completely different culture, Anna pursues a life vastly different and arguably better than she had expected. However, this vision is also deeply disturbing. Humans like to think of their positive qualities as innate, but the novel opens up the possibility that humans don’t have a definitive nature, or that if they do it’s one that is easily susceptible to degradation by fear and greed. The plague completely alters Eyam’s community norms and the characters of the individuals who live there. In this way, it is an example of the extent to which society can devolve under the pressure of catastrophe. It also helps characters like Anna explore the validity of her society’s core principles. In the end this experience liberates the community from some of its traditionally restrictive practices and conventions, but it also casts doubt on the fundamental values it took for granted.
Community and Convention ThemeTracker
Community and Convention Quotes in 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. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stocks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.
There was something in her that could not, or would not, see the distinctions that the world wished to make between weak and strong, between women and men, laborer and lord
Why would I marry? I’m not made to be any man’s chattel. I have my work, which I love. I have my home…but more than these, I have something that very few women can claim: my freedom. I will not lightly surrender it.
Dark and light, dark and light…that was how I had been taught to view the world. The Puritans who had ministered to us here had held that all actions and thoughts could be only one of two natures: godly and right, or Satanic and evil. But Anys Gowdie confounded such thinking. There was no doubt that she did good: in many ways, the well-being of our village rested more on her works, and those of her aunt, than on the works of the rectory’s occupant. And yet, her fornication and her blasphemy branded her a sinner in the reckoning of our religion.
“I have lain with him. Yes! I have lain with the Devil, and he is mighty and cold as ice to the touch. His seed, too, is cold and abundant as a river running between our thighs. For I have not lain with him alone! No! I tell you now, I have seen your wives lie with him! Yours, Brad Hamilton, and yours, John Gordon, and yours too, Martin Highfield!”
For Mr. Stanley had commenced to attend Mr. Mompellion’s services….and in the weeks since the Billings family and some others from among the nonconformists had begun to come as well. They did not join in all the hymns, nor did they follow the words of the Book of Common Prayer, but that they gathered with us at all was a wonder.
I did not go, and for that I will forever reproach myself. Because out of our negligence and her loneliness came much rage. Much rage and some madness – and a surfeit of grief.
I saw that she had fashioned, instead, a figure that looked like a manikin. This she lay atop the cairn. I commenced to say the Lord’s Prayer, and I thought she was saying it with me in a low, deep-throated murmur. But when I said amen, her muttering continued, and the sign she made at the end of it did not resemble the sign of the cross.
But fear, as I have said, was working strange changes in all of us, corroding our ability for clear thought. Within a sennight, Martin Miller had girt his family in sack cloth and fashioned a scourge. Randoll Daniel did likewise, though thankfully he did not ask it of his wife and babe. Together, Randoll and the Millers went about the village exhorting others to join them in their bloody self-chastisement.
To be sure, our stocks were nothing so fearful as the Bakewell pillory. In that market town, where people came and went without deep ties to another, to be pilloried was to be a target of rotten fruit or fish heads or any noisome thing the mob could lay a hand to. […] Even Reverend Stanley seldom called for sinners to be stocked, and Mr. Mompellion had actively discouraged it.