What would you do if you went into town for the day and everybody was gone? This hypothetical question is one that was actually presented to Isherwood Williams in our novel for this week, Earth Abides, as he stumbled from out of the mountains (where the poor guy was trying to work on his graduate thesis) to integrate himself back into society. He had hardly fared well in the mountains anyway, seeing as about one page into the book, our hero is seen being bitten by a rattlesnake. After he began to heal from the bite, he started to feel extremely ill, slipping in and out of consciousness. Once he recovers enough to function, he heads back down to civilization to find that there is absolutely no one there. He learns that the majority of the population was taken out by a freakish disease, he figures the same one that had plagued him in the mountains (he assumed the snake’s venom counteracted it and that’s why he’s still alive). He then ventures to his home in Berkeley, where he ends up finding a few survivors—a drunk old man, a skittish couple, and a girl who is obviously running from someone or something. None of these people are any use to him. He does however find a beagle who is very glad to join him on his adventure. When he returns to California, he finds a woman named Emma and they agree to be married and have children together. They join together with others and the electricity fails and the comforts of everyday life fade away. Though time, Ish tries to teach the children basic knowledge such as reading, writing, and math. He finds he has lost hope in all the children except Joey, Ish’s youngest and favorite son.
In part two, we find our hero twenty-two years in the future. The children are more adapted to their environment and they even inform the adults where the streams are when the running water fails. Ish begins to notice that the children are becoming superstitious so he asks for his hammer and the children are afraid to touch it because it’s a symbol of the old times. The years go by and everybody grows vegetables and begins to make bows and arrows. In this new society, Ish is highly respected by his ideas are often shut down by the younger people in the community.
In the third part, Ish’s life has considerably deteriorated to the point where he lives in a constant haze. He is very much unaware of the world as the rest of the community progresses with the new lifestyle (we’re back to basics, hunting with bows and arrows). He realizes the new civilization is hopeless, but he wonders whether or not it’s that much worse off than the old world. He hopes that the new civilization will not make the same mistakes and the book ends.
A major theme I recognized and agreed with from this book was the theme of natural selection. Natural selection refers to Charles Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. An example of this is in the beginning of the book when Ish encounters the old man. He wonders why the survivor couldn’t have been a “beautiful girl or a fine intelligent man” (Stewart 30). Even the old man wonders why he was spared (34). Ish gets angry when he asks this, saying that he has no clue why this old drunkard was spared over many other good people. Shortly after, Ish happens upon the old man lying dead in the on the sidewalk (36). Based on Darwin’s theory, we assume that the old man survived over other people because of some special characteristic he showed while all others were lacking in that area. However, we are unable to identify what it was that made him so special before he eventually dies, falling prey to the process of natural selection. Survival of the fittest makes many appearances throughout this book, considering its primary focus is on the disease that wiped out a population except for a very small group of people.
Earth Abides can be related to our secondary reading for this week in that they both have to do with a strange disease wiping out a population. The only difference is in our secondary reading, Silent Spring, this scenario is fake (Carson 3). Carson goes on to say that if a disease that was capable of wiping out a population, it would be the result of “man’s assaults upon the environment” such as the “contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials” otherwise known as “pollution” (6). Reading this article made me wonder if the disease brought about in Earth Abides is a by-product of man’s pollution that has been culminating for as long as humans have been on Earth.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. To be honest, I only picked it as an expert review because I thought that since it was longer, the plot would be more interesting because a lot of stuff would be happening. I was entirely wrong. On the whole, I thought it was predictable and uneventful.