M.T. Anderson

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing

  • This summary of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party is a young adult historical fiction novel by M.T. Anderson. Published in 2006, it was awarded the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and was a runner-up for the Michael L. Printz award. Set in Boston during the American Revolutionary War, the book spawned the sequel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: Kingdom on the Waves.

Octavian and his mother, African princess Cassiopeia, are slaves in eighteenth-century Boston. Together they live in a house full of philosophers and scientists called the College of Lucidity. They live in relative luxury. One of the members, Mr. Gitney, otherwise known as 03-01, has provided Octavian a thorough classical and musical education through the years. A servant, Bono, reminds Octavian that he is still a slave. This startles Octavian, as he has never really thought of himself as a slave since he doesn’t serve anyone and has freedom throughout the house. Even his mother is treated like the royal she is and her only real duty is to charm visitors. The real revelation comes when the college’s benefactor, Lord Cheldethorpe, passes away and Mr. Gitney must appeal to his heir for the same funding. During this time, Octavian comes to realize that his life is a scientific experiment to compare the intellect of Africans to Caucasians.

When the heir, Cheldethorpe’s nephew, arrives at the college, he develops feelings for Cassiopeia and Octavian. Hoping to curry Cheldethorpe’s favor and secure funding, Mr. Gitney asks Cassiopeia if she would like him to buy her. Cassiopeia responds that she would prefer him to marry her, as befitting her nobility. Cheldethorpe declines and attempts to rape her and when Octavian intervenes, they are both whipped. Cheldethorpe declines to fund the college.

Mr. Gitney finds a new backer in Mr. Richard Sharpe, who shifts the college’s experiments into moneymakers that are more practical and Octavian’s experiments so they will intentionally fail. Rather than continue his education, Sharpe cuts off Octavian’s access to books and makes him do household chores and play his violin for money. It is revealed that Sharpe represents a group of slave-owning plantation owners with an interest in proving the inferiority of Africans.

The political upheaval of the early American Revolution heats up in Boston. When the British army occupies the city, Mr. Gitney decides to move his college to the small town of Canaan in the countryside. Smallpox is a growing concern among the colonies so Mr. Gitney hosts a pox party in the hopes that in a controlled environment, he and the attendees will only suffer a mild case. He also wants to sicken his slaves having heard rumors of a slave revolt. Everyone is inoculated and gets sick, but a few of the slaves become extremely ill. Cassiopeia dies from her case of the pox and is dissected by the scientists. Octavian is furious and runs away.

Octavian runs from place to place avoiding capture until he ends up with a band of patriots. Private Evidence Goring befriends Octavian, who goes by Prince; Goring and the other soldiers sympathize with Octavian. Octavian plays the fiddle for the soldiers from battle to battle. Goring convinces Octavian that slavery will likely end if the patriots win the war. Meanwhile, Sharpe and his slave catchers have been searching for Octavian. They track him to Goring, who believes the men are also patriots intending to use Octavian as a spy. He leads them right to Octavian, and he is recaptured.

Back at the house in Canaan, Octavian is shackled and gagged. Sharpe and Mr. Gitney explain to him the necessity of slavery. Octavian’s tutor Dr. Trefusis drugs them and organizes an escape for Octavian. The two of them escape back to Boston, where they hope the presence of the British will help them hide from Sharpe.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is well-regarded by critics, with fellow young adult author John Green listing it as one of the top ten historical books for kids ever written. The prose is written in the literary style of the eighteenth century. The entire third act of the book, after his escape from the college, is told from the point of view of those searching for or in contact with Octavian, through letters and other materials.

The theme of slavery versus freedom plays a major role in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Taking place during the American Revolution—a struggle ostensibly about freedom—Octavian’s story presents a deeper struggle for freedom that paints the Revolution as hypocritical. Even while Octavian is treated relatively well, he desires freedom. “The cover’s gruesomely masked Octavian epitomizes a nation choking on its own hypocrisy,” notes Kirkus Reviews.