Death is one of the concepts that the human mind can hardly begin to fathom. We spend the majority of our lives pondering how to confront our own death. If we cannot accept the inevitability of our own death, how could we even begin to accept the likewise inevitability of the demise of humankind? In Earth Abides, a seminal work by George Stewart, Stewart concocts a virus which wipes out nearly all of mankind and reduces civilization to disparate groups of stragglers. Essentially, Stewart is forcing readers to confront the enormous question: what would the world be like without us.
From the beginning of the novel, Stewart utilizes bleak vignettes separated from the main story of Isherwood Williams to show the progression of the world. In a sense, the planet Earth could be viewed as a character. Early on in the novel, the omniscient narrator personifies the planetary bodies and says how “we must say that they saw no change” in reference to the Earth (Stewart, 17). This shows how everything still looks the same on the planet even after man has almost entirely disappeared from it. This vignettes go onto to tell the fate of all the life forms and structures in the post-mankind world. The only lifeforms which truly suffer are the ones whose lifestyles were initially impacted negatively by humans in the first place. For instance, the sheep do not fare well because “they accepted the protection of the shepherd and lost their agility and sense of independence” (Stewart, 55). On the contrary, it is stated that, “of half a million species of insects, only a few dozen were appreciably affected by the demise of man” (Stewart, 59). Ultimately, Stewart seems to believe that the world without man would not be very different from the world in which we live now.
In his article, “Natural Affinities,” author Kenneth Brower states that, “In annihilating 99 percent of humanity in Earth Abides, the professor (Stewart) was just giving us a dose of our own medicine.” From this quote, a connection to climate change could be drawn, in a sense. Brower, whose article was written in the context of reading George Stewart novels while in Antarctica, makes the connection between mankind’s hunting other species for pleasure and our emission of greenhouse gasses. Brower acknowledges that Stewart recognized that man’s impact on the Earth was becoming increasingly negative. Man’s ego was increasing at an alarming rate, and mankind seems to think itself invincible. Therefore, Stewart struck back with a vicious blow and showed easy it would be for civilization to simple devastated in a matter of only days. Even in 1949, when we had far less knowledge about humans’ negative impact on the world that we have now, Stewart recognized that a world without civilization would probably be a better world. Coming at the inception of the Cold War, this novel must have been a devastating strike to man’s ego and sensitivity, especially those of voracious Americans’.
Upon reading this novel, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems of all time, “Dinosauria, We” by Charles Bukowski. In this poem, Bukowski likens mankind to the dinosaurs. We think ourselves to be the center of the universe; however, it would truly not to make much to knock the species off of its high horse and eradicate man entirely, just as what happened to the dinosaurs millions of years ago. However, Bukowski ends the poem on a positive note, stating “the sun still hidden there awaiting the next chapter.” Essentially, man’s decline from power is inevitable. This theme is shown in Earth Abides as other species all rush to fill the power void left by man. Stewart states “the ants had come first and then there were the rats” (Stewart, 118). Also, those aforementioned final lines of Bukowski’s “Dinosauria, We” are very reminiscent of the final line of Earth Abides, “men go and come but Earth abides” (Stewart, 345). Stewart, like many cynical “misanthropists” including the aforementioned Charles Bukowski, knows that the demise of man will certainly not be the demise of the entire planet. Conversely, it seems that the only thing that can truly destroy Earth is mankind itself.
In the third and final section of Earth Abides, which is titled “The Last American,” the main character Isherwood Williams seems entirely skeptical about the idea of civilization. He ponders, “They (mankind) did not think much about the world outside of them because man seemed to be greatly stronger than all the outside world” (Stewart, 335). Essentially, it would take the complete decimation of the species in order for man to realize the error of his ways. These finals scenes in which Ish is doubting whether civilization should ever exist in its erstwhile form are where Stewart’s message is able to come across most clearly. Clearly, Stewart believes, we need to rethink the way in which we mistreat our species and the planet in generally. He wants to deflate our egos so that we may realize that we are merely only one out of many species on Earth and we cannot continue to think of ourselves as superior.
Author Elizabeth Wells, however, does not see this ending as entirely pessimistic. She states, in her article “Earth Abides: A Return to Origins,” there is something reassuringly grounding in the return to a fundamental relationship with the natural world.” While the end of Ish’s journey in the post-apocalyptic world may seem to be bleak one, this new society has reverted back to the old tribal days in which man is at one with nature and is fighting a fair fight for his survival just like all of the other animals on the planet. Ish’s utopian dreams of recreating the society from whence his journey into the new, broken world began are shattered, but now he is able to truly able to realize man’s place in society. As he passes on his hammer (a key symbol of power in the new, mystic world) to one of his young ancestors, Jack, Ish’s mind is clearly made up. He realizes it is time to vanquish his title as “The Last American” and allow this generation which is aboriginal to the post-plague world to usurp his power completely. Ish becomes cognizant of the fact that this new, simplistic way of life is preferable to his outdated, American way of living.
In some ways, Earth Abides is like a post-apocalyptic version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It tells the tale of one man and his family’s journey through a ravaged world while also being interspersed with brief vignettes which really bring the world itself to life. This effect is especially effective in Stewart’s novel because seeing the planet live and thrive as a character really exemplifies the novel’s final line as well as the title. It may be hard for any living person on Earth to hear, but, yes, life goes on without us. While Stewart certainly does not inform his readers as to how to approach personal death or mass death, (can there even be a feasible way to respond to this issue?) he does give readers an idea of how to make life on Earth a little bit better for everyone.
Stewart, George. Earth Abides. New York: Ballantine, 2006. Print.
Wells, Elizabeth. “Earth Abides: A Return to Origins.” Extrapolation (2007): n. pag. Print.