The Wonder Explores The Fasting Phenomenon of the 19th Century

Hello, everyone! Last year, I wrote a review of Gregg Olsen’s non-fiction work Starvation Heights, a look into the gruesome story of the “fasting cure” and Linda Hazzard’s “clinic” which was responsible for the starvation deaths of multiple people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Olsen’s book was eye-opening for me; while I had heard of people who starved themselves as the result of eating disorders, I had never heard that voluntary fasting was a popular practice in the past. If Starvation Heights left me with one thought, it was that humans believe they have so much control over their own bodies that they can defy the laws of nature, and that this delusion often ends in death.

Enter Emma Donoghue’s semi-historical novel The Wonder, a tale of voluntary fasting loosely based on the cases of the “fasting girls,” young women who in the 19th century famously claimed to be able to live without food for long periods of time. Anna O’Donnell, the so-called “wonder” of the novel, has been said to have eaten nothing since her eleventh birthday four months earlier. Viewed by some in her provincial Irish village as a miracle from God, and visited from all over by pilgrims seeking her holy blessing, Anna seems like the 19th century’s first saint. But all is not as it seems in the O’Donnell household, as nurse Lib Wright comes to learn when she is hired to keep a two week watch on Anna to see if she is secretly consuming food. Determined to uncover Anna’s fraud, Lib soon learns that Anna’s zealous devotion to the Catholic faith, as well as her traumatic past, have all contributed to Anna’s fast. No matter how she tries, Lib cannot get Anna to eat, even when her health starts to dramatically decline, and no one in her family seems willing to help. Underneath the horrific reality of fasting, there are two central questions at the heart of The Wonder: how far will a person go to erase the sins of the past, and what responsibility does an individual have to prevent others from self-harm?

The Wonder starts slowly as Donoghue eases the reader into the world of 19th Century Ireland, a country devastated by famine, and deeply invested in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Our protagonist Lib Wright, a nurse who served in the Crimean War under Florence Nightingale, is an Englishwoman whose sharp prejudice to the Irish clouds the first half of the novel. Unwilling to see the O’Donnell family as little more than a band of ignorant farmers swindling the public out of their pennies, Lib spends her first few days with the family determined to catch out Anna’s method of fraud. Her unfamiliarity with Irish culture, and her disdain for their religion and beliefs, makes the reader feel just as uncomfortable in the O’Donnell’s home as she does. This all contributes to the sense of confusion and slowly-creeping dread that hangs over this part of the novel. Even though Anna is a cheerful and high-spirited girl, I couldn’t help but be as disturbed as Lib is by her obsessive praying and her steadfast refusal to take any sustenance. Is Anna a miracle, or a cheat? As Lib’s faith in her own judgment starts to wane, the reader’s belief starts to wane, too.

Religion plays a central role in the novel. At first, it seems like Anna’s fast stems from anorexia mirabilis, or self-starvation induced by religious fervor. Lib’s initial daily questioning of Anna reveals that the girl believes she is being sustained by manna from heaven, and that because of this, she sees no reason to eat. Clouding Anna’s declaration is Lib’s secret belief that someone is secretly feeding Anna, whether the girl realizes it or not. As the novel wears on, and Anna’s condition worsens, Lib struggles to understand how deeply religion is intertwined with Anna’s morality, and how to use that religion get to the root of Anna’s fast.

It’s at the 2/3 point of the novel that the story’s most disturbing parts comes into play. As Anna’s fast continues, five days, six days, then a week, the alarming aspects of Anna’s health turn gruesome. Lib notes in pained detail Anna’s scaly skin, the fuzz growing on her face, and the bruises that pepper her skin. But it’s not until she brings Anna to see her one ally in the town, an Irish journalist, that she finally realizes that Anna is starving to death. And it’s here that Lib must decide whether to remain an observer, or start to fight for Anna’s life.

The novel is a distressing case-study of the bystander effect, or the “theory that states that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when there are other people present.” When Lib pleads for Anna’s family and other members of her community to help convince Anna to eat, their responses are almost all the same: they believe that they have no influence over the little girl’s self-imposed starvation. Even Anna’s priest, Father Thaddeus, does little more than gently ask Anna to stop her fast. When Lib discovers the extent of Anna’s traumatic past, and the true reason for her fast, it becomes clear to her that Anna’s parents’ refusal to force Anna to eat is close to murder.

In the historical version of Anna O’Donnell’s story, the parents of Sarah Jacob, who died from starvation under a hospital’s watch after a similar fasting stunt, were convicted of manslaughter for her death. Whether it was because of ignorance, religious fervor, or negligence, allowing one’s child to starve themselves to death was deemed a crime. Yet in The Wonder, with no one to help Anna, and no one willing to accept blame for her condition, it is Lib who must convince her to eat, or else watch her die of her own will.

After finishing The Wonder, I found it difficult to sleep. Even though the novel wraps up neatly, and happily might I add for all those hesitant to read it, the creeping horror of the story gnawed at me all night. I felt like The Wonder was about more than one girl’s obsessive fast, but about our society’s reluctance to help people trapped in their own personal battles. In this novel, Anna’s family would rather let her starve herself to death than make any effort to understand her pain or internal motivation. In our world, we would rather blame people for their debilitating issues, be they physical or mental, than take a moment to try to understand them. Her words feel like a damning statement against societal apathy that extends far beyond the isolated world of 19th century Ireland.

A 19th century “fasting girl”

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