The Dark Side of Economic Forces

I don’t know about you, but I grew up reading children’s books. I loved them. From Curious George’s adventures with the man in the yellow hat to cheering for Max in Where the Wild Things Are (let the wild rumpus begin!), I lived and died with these characters. When I got older, I graduated to what are now called young adult (YA) books. These were more serious and ambitious, and some of them were pretty brutal (To Kill a Mockingbird, anyone?).

However, none of these prepared me for the harsh economic realities of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson. This is supposedly a YA novel—it won the National Book Award in that category in 2006—but to be honest, I wonder how many kids would willingly read this.

Why? Because Octavian is a slave, and this book hammers home what it means to be a thing rather than a person. This isn’t totally an economic matter; it is also a scientific matter, as Octavian is being raised as part of a scientific experiment to see just how smart Africans are (through how they respond to Western education).

Most of the book’s told from Octavian’s perspective, and it is, to be frank, both heartbreaking and hard to read. Octavian’s tutored into an elevated style from a young age and to reason and logic. If he cannot rationally justify a claim, it is given no weight. At one point, for example, Octavian discovers he has poisoned a dog he loved; he poisoned it accidentally from his perspective but as part of a scientific experiment on the part of his masters. He is then reasoned through his tears rather than being consoled.

The men running these experiments on Octavian measure every part of him, down to weighing his feces. Octavian’s life is completely rationalized. If he weren’t a thing—a slave—he would be the perfect economic man. That this scientific endeavor rests upon an economic base is brought home when the Earl of Cheldthorpe, patron of the entire experiment, dies. The new earl doesn’t have the same interest in abstract science, and the entire college is redirected to practical studies. Each science must justify its existence economically just as Octavian must do so rationally. As for Octavian, his study is redirected to serve the interests of those new backers now funding the investigation. This means he is turned from showpiece to house servant, that they try to hire him out (he’s a musician) to nearby parties, and that his education is reworked. It also means that the one possible justification (even in the period) of his treatment disappears. He’s no longer being raised for pure science. He’s being raised in a biased fashion, to fail in order to justify the economic interests of the slaveholding class.

There’s a lot more to The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing—the sub-economy of slaves in which personal energy is secreted away, the use of sexual desire as an economic counter—but Octavian’s position’s at the core of it. If you want to glimpse the dark side of economic forces (and get a sense of how much kids’ books have changed), you might dip in to The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.

Editor’s note: Think slavery is no longer a part of today’s world? Read Mary Nichols’ report on human trafficking and how ineffective governments’ efforts are to stop it.

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