Summary of “Sign of a Witch”
Right after Anna loses Tom, her oldest son Jamie is struck with the plague. A few of Michael’s peers back at Cambridge have sent him a number of instructions for remedies, and Anna and Elinor use Jamie to test these measures against the plague. Anna feels terrible that the remedies, which include pressing a hot onion filled with herbs on each sore, are causing her son more pain than he is already in. However, she wants to give him the best chance to live. Jamie dies, though, as do other villagers.
One day, Anna hears a mob some distance down the road. She approaches and sees Mem Gowdie on the ground. She has been tied up and is being beaten by a number of drunk villagers. They are accusing her of witchcraft, saying that she cursed the village, causing it to suffer from the plague. Anna interrupts the mob and begs the townspeople to reconsider their actions, but the mob is too agitated to listen to reason. Anna is pushed to the ground and knocked unconscious for a short time.
With Anna unable to help Mem, the mob throws Mem into a nearby well to see if she sinks or swims; if she were to float, the mob would attest that she is a witch and is using magic to save her life. Mem begins to drown, however, and the group begins to lament that they have murdered an innocent woman. Anys suddenly appears on the scene and pulls her aunt out of the well. She administers an early version of CPR to expel the water from Mem’s lungs. Mem regains consciousness, but then the drunken crowd accuses Anys of being a witch for reviving a dead woman.
The mob, now certain that they have in their midst the witch who brought the plague upon them, throws a rope around Anys’s neck and position her under a tree. Anys uses her last words to incite the villagers further in an effort to shock the crowd into letting her go. She claims that she is a witch and that she has slept with the Devil. She marvels at his sexual prowess and then claims that every woman in the village has slept with the Devil as well. To the men, she delivers an insult when she mentions that their wives were more satisfied with the Devil’s performance than with theirs.
The men are dumbstruck, but they snap out of their stupor and pull the rope taught, killing Anys. John Gordon, one of the rioters, leaves the group of men and walks to his wife in a rage. He hits her face and demands that she tell him whether or not she slept with the Devil. Rather than waiting for an answer, he keeps beating her until Michael appears and demands that the group cease such rash actions. Michael rebukes the mob and tells them that they have sinned greatly and that they need to pray heavily for their souls.
Before the major technological advances of the twentieth century, many medicinal practices exploited various herbs and plants for their natural healing properties. Yet even though many people knew about the established uses of these plants, there were times when people had to revert to the scientific method in order to battle illness.
In the novel, doctors from beyond the village send Michael many different cures, tinctures, and recipes that they believe will work against the plague. Yet when Anna uses the onion mixture on Jamie’s body, it becomes clear that this measure in particular is ineffectual. Even Anys Gowdie knows that her salves will only alleviate the boy’s pain. At this point at the novel, not enough medicines have been tested or have been successful against the scourge. The doctors and medicine women only have a limited understanding of the illness, and they do not know exactly what mixture of elements will yield a cure. This is an early instance of the scientific method in practice, as doctors try different techniques to see which are most effective in treating a specific illness.
When Anna visits the ancient cross, she remembers what Elinor told her about the art depicted on the sculpture. It is true that many early Christians integrated pagan mythology into their own religion in order to not be detected as dissenters. Part of the difficulty in responding to these pagan myths was that many of the pagan gods required steep sacrifices on blood stones, which might explain the presence of the stone cross.
However, Anna strikes upon a curious point when she muses on whether or not the artist created the cross to reflect his own faith. This possibility forms a parallel with her own situation in the novel. After losing both of her children and seeing how the plague has ravaged the village, Anna is at a loss concerning her own faith. She wants to believe that God is a kind, sovereign being, yet she is beginning to believe that God is just as vengeful and angry as the pagan gods that required sacrifice. In Anna’s mind, the plague is exacting its toll for previous sins just as the pagan gods required blood sacrifices in order to remain appeased. This is a crucial moment in Anna’s faith, one that could have tipped the balance, had it not been interrupted by the witch trial.
The villagers’ fears have gotten the better of them. Rather than waiting on God to ease their suffering, they attribute their pain to people and powers immediately around them. The first of these is Mem Gowdie. While Mem has never done anything to the villagers other than help them, they are still afraid of her because she is different. She doesn’t go to church; she spends all her time in her garden; she is unmarried; she shows no deference to the village leaders. For these reasons, she is vilified by her neighbors.
Women were often accused of witchcraft when they did not show proper societal restraint. Religion, social standards, and many other factors contributed to the seventeenth-century idea that women were supposed to be demure angels with weak constitutions. If a woman were to step outside this prescribed role, she would be seen as a dissenter. Both Mem and Anys suffer because they refuse to conform.
Anys’s false confession is historically significant, as many women who were accused of witchcraft claimed to have had sex with the Devil. Geraldine Brooks twisted this element of history slightly, though. While those historically accused of witchcraft often mentioned that the Devil was a terrible lover, Anys proclaims that he was the best lover she ever had. Then, she turns this confession on the mob by claiming that all the women in the village have done and said the same. This is a weak attempt to obtain her freedom, although Anys's words succeed in dividing the mob and creating new tensions.
Anys’s confession results in an incident involving John and Urith Gordon. When Anys claims that all the women in the village prefer Satan as a lover over their husbands, many of the men react violently against being emasculated. John Gordon takes this slight especially hard, and killing Anys isn't enough to satisfy his anger. Instead, he turns on his wife and begins beating her at the mere mention of sexual inadequacies.
Unfortunately, this type of situation was all too common in seventeenth-century England. Brooks makes a point of showing how men used violence to punish and silence women, and this theme is present throughout Year of Wonders. It was a historical part of women’s place in society to never question men and their standing. Men were always right and correct while women either agreed with them or suffered the harsh consequences of disagreement.