In the Face of the Plague, the Characters’ Beliefs Disintegrate

“In the face of the plague, the characters’ beliefs disintegrate. ” Discuss. In Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks focuses on the effects of the plague on the English village of Eyam in 1665. The village is introduced as a spiritual community; there are various religious and moral codes that the people live by. As the plague hits, these strong beliefs are put to the test. Brooks’s narrative asserts the notion that disaster and catastrophe, as widespread in form as the bubonic plague, is capable of destroying both faith and trust between humanity and religion.

Some villagers lose hope in what they once had confidence in; the panic and distress during the plague year causes them to behave irrationally. When the most pious character of Eyam, Michael Mompellion, has his passion for God put to the test, he becomes broken and concludes that there is no God. The protagonist, Anna Frith, also loses faith in her religion, however her outcome is much different in comparison. In the midst of chaos, Anna is rational and her sense of purpose in life becomes stronger and clearer.

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Even if her beliefs disintegrate during the plague year, she forms new beliefs and ambitions, which builds her character from a helpless young girl to an independent woman. Hence, even when various characters’ confidence and trust evaporate as a result of the plague, yet there are also characters that become stronger in the end. Initially, the villagers believed in their ability and in God’s will to overcome the scourge of the plague, yet as the year progresses, some villagers also began to lose hope.

Mass amounts of loved ones are lost and various characters began to question the power of religion. Anna’s father Jos Bont would “waste his reason in drunkenness” because only liquor helps him to escape from the harsh reality and “justify God’s ways to man”. Anys Gowdie thought that her herbal knowledge would have helped George Viccars more than “the empty mutterings of a priest. ” Like Jos, Anys would hold unconventional views and opinions that are originally disdained by the majority of the population.

As the plague spreads, some villagers become somewhat hypocritical and resort to witchcraft or become entirely opposite of their former selves, usually into a character that they would’ve despised. Jane Martin is an example of a villager who abandoned her morals and virtues as a Puritan in the face of catastrophe. She “slaked [her] dread in drink and [her] loneliness in wanton caresses”. This appalling behaviour is because she “saw all of her family into their graves” as a result of the plague and like Jos, she discovers her own form of escape through drinking alcohol and promiscuity, rather than finding reassurance from God.

There are other villagers who begin to question why God places such cruelty and turmoil upon them when He is supposedly a loving God. James Mallion, an elderly survivor of the plague, asks why he “who is weary of his life, be spared”, when all the lives of the younger people have been taken away. Moreover, Kate Talbot questions why her husband – “who has ever been a good man” should suffer. She also asserts that the “prayers in the church bring no relief”; from here it is apparent that some villagers have began to doubt God’s righteousness and no longer seek His reassurance.

Overall, over two hundred people of the Eyam were lost and some villagers “went so far as to whisper blame” upon Mompellion for their losses, to others he was the “bitter emblem and embodiment of their darkest days”. Either way, Michael Mompellion is regarded as the “image of God” and them blaming Mompellion or perceiving him in such a way is also subtly hinting their perception of God and their diminished faith in Christianity. The climate of confusion and devastation brought about by the plague results in Mompellion’s absolute and dramatic loss of faith.

As the rector of Eyam, Mompellion acts as a spiritual conduit between God and His people and the village seeks after his leadership during needing times. When Mompellion proposes the quarantine solution, he promises the village that no one “will face their death alone”. Even when an increasing amount of villagers are adversely impacted by the plague and their loss of hope drew them to behave irrationally and impulsively, Mompellion never stopped believing that God is on their side.

Although the onslaught of the plague physically exhausts Mompellion, he is never tested by the affects of the plague; he didn’t lose a loved one, until Aphra killed Elinor. Elinor’s death is designed to be the ‘tipping point’ for Mompellion. It is the first time that Mompellion experiences a great loss and the latent ‘darkness’ in him, which Anna constantly recognizes, exacerbates the pain of his situation. He thought he “spoke for God”, so why did God let Elinor die? As he gradually “[gives] imself up to his darkness” his belief in God’s existence disintegrates, and he asserts the idea of “untrue in one thing, untrue in everything”. By realizing that there is no God, he realizes that he everything he did is wrong – “wrong in what [he] asked of Elinor… and most shockingly wrong in what [he] asked of this village. ” He claims that his “whole life…has been based upon a lie” and that everything he has done had no purpose. Michael Mompellion’s duty is to guide others in the matters of faith, if he who has the closest connection to God, no longer believes then it destroys the entire belief system.

Mompellion is a character that had the strongest passion for God, yet in the end, his faith shatters and he becomes more broken than the other villagers of Eyam. However, there are also characters that form new beliefs and in the midst of chaos. Anna Frith is an example of someone who does lose faith but she also has new views and sees a clearer sense of purpose in life. Anna transforms from a passive, compliant servant to an independent woman who has “faced more terrors than many warriors”.

She is the most rational and pragmatic amongst her village, the intense climate of devastation that plague brought causes her trust in Christianity to wane dramatically. The loss of her family, her father, her best friend and George Viccars, as well as watching other villagers grieve, brings her to question the fairness of God’s intentions. Anna wonders why God is so “prodigal”, so wasteful of “good and expedient skills” of the young. It seems unreasonable to Anna for God to spare Jos’s life and “waste his reason in drunkenness” while Maggie Cantwell “[lies] here, in such extremity” and deserves to die.

Furthermore, she wonders that the plague could be “neither God or the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature”, and any belief, whether it is superstition or Christianity, are equally false. It is is not until the encounter of the Bradford baby until Anna’s faith in the divine disappears completely. The deliverance of the Mrs. Bradford’s baby has multiple effects on Anna; she is able to have a clearer sense of purpose in life, realizing “how [she] was meant to go on: away from death and towards life”.

Mompellion also sees the change in Anna, how she “grieves, yet [she] lives” and “bring life to others” despite the reoccurrence of death. Furthermore, the birthing of Aisha also brings her to draw the line between Anna’s connections with God. She is unable to form a prayer for the “bastard” child, there was no “formal supplication, no Bible verse, no scrap of liturgy” that comes to her mind any longer since “after so many unanswered prayers, [she] had lost the means to pray”.

Her inability to connect to God forces her to reveal her true attitude to the divine; she describes her belief in the end to be a “flimsy, tattered thing”, like the “faded thread of a banner on a battlement”. It describes how her initial faith in God decays as the amount of grief and pain, brought by the plague, intensifies. However, Anna’s continued passion for herbal medicine and serving the sick grows when she moves to Oran, and this “had become [her] vocation”. Anna believes she can help the women in Oran – a society that also supports patriarchy, and tend to women in labour and teach them how to preserve their health.

Hence Anna is a character who changes her views and finds her purpose in life even when she suffers greatly from the plague. Overall, certain characters in the village lose faith in their religion due to the mayhem that the bubonic plague had caused; yet the losses have different impacts on each character. During the plague year, many minor characters did not completely lose hope but had some doubt and questioned God’s intentions by causing such pain. Michael Mompellion however, originally being the rector of the village, feels almost betrayed by God after the death of Elinor.

He wonders why he has to suffer when he speaks optimistically of Christ and continues to have confidence in Him even when others don’t. This causes Mompellion’s belief in Christianity to completely disintegrate. To some extent Anna follows a path similar to Mompellion’s, the senseless and painful deaths of her loved ones seem dissolve her faith in God. She grieves for them and suffers from her losses, but she is able to continue her life with a new belief and motive nonetheless.


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