‘Heroism is a feature of ‘Year of Wonders’, but so is its reverse.’ Discuss
What is it to be a hero / heroine? Is it just a matter of goodness? Is it possible for someone whose character is flawed – or suddenly revealed to be flawed - to still retain this status? Geraldine Brooks’ novel, ‘Year of Wonders’ leaves us with such questions and reminds us that these are complex considerations. A ‘hero’ (or ‘heroine’) can be defined as, “a person who is greatly admired for their noble actions and nobility of spirit”. In terms of ‘Year of Wonders’, we can flesh this out more clearly – those we deem ‘heroic’ are seen as such because of their selfless devotion to the welfare of others. They serve others without complaint and with little concern for themselves. They show strength and courage in the face of loss and disaster. They take control of their lives and assist others to manage theirs and they are motivated by a tireless commitment to doing the right thing. Little wonder these qualities are greatly admired.
All of this is undoubtedly a very tall ask of anyone in society. As Brooks suggests, very few of us would ever be able to claim this title – something that is reflected in her novel in the fact that only three (and possibly two?), by its end, could be said to truly fit into this exemplary category. In the case of Anna and Elinor, the jury is clear – they fully deserve to be called heroines, especially as their flaws – such as they are – are lone, minor ones (Anna’s is limited to her showing, during her terrible grief, a liking for opium to smooth away her pain; Elinor’s – a ‘crime’ from years before – the killing of her unborn baby in her ruthless wounding of herself, out of shame). In the case of the third candidate – Michael Mompellion - things are a little more complex. Michael shares all of the qualities of the other two in his commitment to the village and his tireless work to save it. However, his terrible revelation at the novel’s end confounds the readers’ initial wish to label him as ‘heroic’. We need to step back and think a little more about this. We need to ask ourselves, ‘does one action, that is so deeply disturbing, cut him out forever from all other accolades? Could Michael still be called a ‘hero’, in spite of what what he has done to his wife and in spite our protagonist’s (and our?) new dislike for him?’ In part our reaction to Mompellion is drawn from our response to the saintly Elinor whose goodness deserves no cruelty – from him or anyone else – so there is a prejudice against him immediately, when we realise he has been ‘punishing’ her for years. Is all of this enough to put him in a more culpable light? Probably not. After all he does what he does to her out of the misguided belief that he is morally (after all, he is her rector) responsible for her soul and that he is ‘saving’ her – not out of some malicious, or cruel desire to hurt her. Besides, Mompellion remains one who has done much to ‘save’ the village, who has just as determinedly and tirelessly worked for his parishioners in any way he can, as we see in his going out at all hours of the day and night to sit by their bedsides, or to single-handedly dig their graves. He is also universally acknowledged for his service to the villagers and for his wisdom and good judgment, as is indicated when they so willingly accept his dramatic plan for the quarantine of the village. A strong case can be thus made for Michael’s inclusion into the company of ‘heroes’ in the novel, whatever else he might have done.
And what of Brooks’ other characters? What can we say about them, either as ordinary people or exceptional ones? All of this, in its final analysis, depends very much on their actions and reactions to the events of the plague – what we see them doing in response to the horrors brought to the village by this fierce epidemic, and whether that is something, finally, to be admired. Brooks certainly weaves...