At least at the outset of the novel, the citizens of Eyam operate under the assumption that their lives – including random or everyday events – are part of a divine plan. The townspeople interpret good or bad developments as God’s rewards or punishments. The most powerful person in the town is the minister, who is supposed to be the closest to God and who explains to the people how the difficulties they encounter in ordinary life – from bad harvests to illness to stillbirths – are the work of a God who may be strict sometimes but ultimately loves them all. The advent of the plague shatters this worldview, as its unremitting horrors and the extremes to which it drives the community make it increasingly difficult for them to attribute worldly events to divine intervention. Eventually, Anna concludes that even if God exists, it’s impossible to make any definitive interpretations of His will. As a result, she’s forced to find her own explanations about the meaning of suffering, which ultimately leads her to devote her life to helping others tangibly through science.
Faith and religious practices are the center of Eyam community life, although the nature of that faith can change according to politics or worldly events. Church attendance is obligatory and the few families who belong to dissenting sects, like the Quakers, are generally excluded from community life. The vicar, Mompellion, is the only citizen with any kind of formal education. His job is both to keep the townspeople from straying too far from Christian values, and to explain to them how the events and adversities of their daily lives are part of a divine plan, thereby making them feel connected to God. His spiritual proximity to God makes him the dominant authority figure in Eyam, which has no formal government besides the negligent Bradfords, and his leadership is rarely questioned. The fact that Mompellion can convince the community to quarantine themselves by framing it as a test from God shows how strong his position is as the interpreter of divine will.
Still, faith isn’t inflexible. Brooks notes that it’s only a few decades since the English Civil War ended and Charles II returned to power, breaking the Puritan stranglehold over the country and restoring Anglicism as England’s official religion. Religious practices have changed significantly in Eyam during this time. People are no longer restricted to wearing the Sadd colors (black, brown, and gray) and are allowed to play music and dance. The old Puritan minister, Mr. Stanley lives on the fringes of the town, while the Anglican and liberal Mompellion has ascended to power. Although there are a few holdouts, like the Puritan Jane Martin, most people’s faith proves adaptable. Under normal social conditions, they are able to both believe that God has a plan and that those in charge of religious institutions can interpret it, and allow those institutions to evolve according to worldly events.
However, the community’s faith (and Anna’s in particular) declines as a result of the suffering caused by the plague, which they struggle to fit into any notion of a divine plan, suggesting in turn that faith is based partly on the ability of religious institutions to provide reassuring interpretations of life’s twists and turns. Brooks emphasizes Anna and her community’s intense experience of suffering by saturating her novel with gruesome descriptions of the plague, as well as the violence people inflict on each other in the growing chaos. Even though characters like Anna are used to the hardship and misfortune inherent to 17th-century life (for example, she accepts the death of her husband, Sam, stoically and without surprise), the increased scale of this suffering is evident through her gory descriptions of the messy way the plague claims its victims. While people often say that the plague is a divine punishment, and Mompellion more gently interprets it as God’s test of his chosen people, these narratives prove flawed because there is neither any concrete sin for which the people of Eyam are being punished nor any reward for passing the “test.”
This flawed logic is especially evident when children, who are clearly too young to either sin or be tested, die. The descriptions of Anna cradling Jamie and Tom in her lap as they die, some of the most poignant passages in the novel, recalls the imagery of the Pieta, or the Virign Mary holding Christ after his crucifixion. However, while Christ died (according to scripture) to save the souls of Christians, Jamie and Tom’s deaths are simply tragic, with no greater purpose. These similar but dissonant images underscore the inadequacy of religion to help the characters cope with the suffering of the plague.
The power of religious institutions declines similarly. Mompellion finds it harder to force people to obey his directives (for example, he’s ineffective in persuading Joss Bont to abandon his grave digging extortion scheme). Eventually, Aphra kills Elinor Mompellion, who was previously a respected and unassailable member of the religious establishment. The plague causes the people of Eyam to have a collective existential crisis. Previously, they had a set of restrictive but clear principles which helped them make sense of a way of life already characterized by frequent suffering. Now, with that faith almost obliterated, people have to find a new reason for living and a new way to interpret life’s occurrences.
Anna ends the novel by abandoning her attempt to justify the plague as a divinely inspired event. She instead begins to build a worldview that doesn’t rely on God’s presence in the ordinary world. Mompellion’s breakdown following Elinor’s death mirrors the complete breakdown of the community’s faith. While he can’t bring himself to doubt the existence of God, he does proclaim bitterly that God isn’t a good “listener.” After this he completely neglects his duties as vicar, and those who remain in the town cease to observe many of the customs that were once of such importance. When Mompellion tells Anna about the penance he forced on Elinor as a result of her previous sexual transgressions, she instinctively realizes that he was wrong and acted out of misplaced religious zeal. Her disgust with Mompellion’s actions makes her question all his teachings, to which she had previously subscribed wholeheartedly, and abandon the kind of faith that he had once exemplified for her.
Anna concludes that Mompellion is no more qualified than anyone else to explain why suffering exists. At the end of the novel, she tells her new mentor, Ahmed Bey, that she no longer has faith, only “hope.” In other words, she prefers to focus on ameliorating suffering through rational means like medicine than to try to justify it ideologically. Settling in the Muslim world, she accepts Muslim practices without adopting the religion or worldview. The conclusion that pain and suffering don’t follow any logical scheme or divine plan is profoundly unsettling, since it rips away a spiritual framework that provided reassurance to most of the novel’s character, including Anna. However, it also proves liberating and empowering, because it inspires Anna to move to a new society and make a new life for herself as a midwife.
Faith, Suffering, and God’s Will ThemeTracker
Faith, Suffering, and God’s Will Quotes in Year of Wonders
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.
Why, I wondered, did we, all of us, both the rector in his pulpit and simple Lottie in her croft, seek to put the Plague in unseen hands? Why should this thing be either a test of faith sent by God, or the evil working of the Devil in the world? One of these beliefs we embraced, the other we scorned as superstition. But perhaps each was false, equally.
For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as a thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about the grand celestial design that had to be contemplated before the disease would abate. We could simply work upon it as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare, knowing that when we found the tools and the method and the resolve, we would free ourselves, no matter if we were a village of sinners or a host of saints.
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.
She plunged and leapt, barking out a nonsense chant that rose in pitch to a piercing cry: “Arataly, rataly, ataly, taly, aly, ly…..” She darted then toward the fire, seizing out the ends of an iron that had lain in the blaze, and placed them on the earthen floor so as to form an X. She prostrated herself four times, in each notch of the figure, and then reached up her arms as if in supplication.
His wife had been hacked down in front of him. My olive shoots had been blighted. Why? His unasked question roared in my head. Just such a why had nagged at my unquiet mined through too many sleepless nights. But that he, too, should be asking it…Let her speak direct to God to ask forgiveness…but I fear she may find Him a poor listener, as many of us here have done. Could he really have come to believe that all our sacrifice, all our pain and misery, had been for nothing?
We live, we live, we live, said the hoofbeats, and the drumming of my pulse answered them. I was alive, and I was young, and I would go on until I found some reason for it. As I rode that morning, smelling the scent of the hoofcrushed heather, feeling the wind needle my face until it tingled, I understood that where Michael Mompellion had been broken by our shared ordeal, in equal measure I had been tempered and made strong.
“I thought I spoke for God. Fool. My whole life, all I have done, all I have said, all I have felt, has been based upon a lie. Untrue in everything. So now,” he said, “I have learned at last to do as I please!”
This little girl seemed to me, at that moment, answer enough to all my questions. To have saved this small, singular one – this alone seemed reason enough that I lived. I knew then that this was how I was meant to go on: away from death and toward life, from birth to birth, from seed to blossom, living my life amongst wonders.
As hard as I willed it, I could not draw up anything to follow: no formal supplication, no Bible verse, no scrap of liturgy. All of the texts and Psalms and orisons I had by rote were gone from me, erased, as surely as hard-learned words written with painful effort onto a slate can be licked away with the lazy swipe of a dampened rag.
We have spoken much since then about faith: the adamantine one by which the doctor measures every moment of his day, and that flimsy, tattered thing that is the remnant of my own belief. I see it like the faded threads of a banner on a battlement, shot-shredded, and if it once bore a device, none could now say what it might have been. I have told Ahmed Bey that I cannot say that I have faith anymore. Hope, perhaps. We have agreed that it will do, for now.