George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides provides a frightening argument for the fallacy of civilized ideals and the prevalence of Darwinism that is inherit to human existence once civilization has fallen. Earth Abides chronicles the post-apocalyptic devolution of humanity through the eyes of Isherwood Williams, or simply Ish, a former university student and self-proclaimed observer of the world. Ish’s personality shifts polarity between cold and sympathetic, as his desire to preserve everything humanity has lost is admirable, but his elitism and relentless pragmatism are at times alienating. For these reasons he offers an intelligent and flawed, but ultimately rational window through which to observe the events of the novel.
Earth Abides revels in the moral conundrums of the post-apocalyptic world, as Stewart masterfully lures the reader into understanding Ish’s logic. In one moral dilemma, Ish’s colder thoughts regarding the villager Evie, a woman with intellectual disabilities, are disturbingly eugenicist: “Should they have even kept Evie all these years? There had been a word – euthanasia, wasn’t it?” (Stewart 163). Her strain on the village, or at least what he perceives to be a strain, causes him to see her more like an object or pet, than a human being. Yet, while his dehumanization of Evie is appalling, he makes a significant, if not troubling, point when he confronts the mysterious Charlie about making sexual advances towards her “We don’t want a lot of little half-wit brats running in on us, the sort of children that Evie would have.” (Stewart 255). Between the lack care for Evie’s inability to consent and his use of “half-wit”, Ish’s remarks are woefully problematic, but there is still something painfully convincing about his reasoning. Likewise, when the Ish votes with the rest of his village to murder Charlie, it is hard not agree with them given how Ish’s perceptions of Charlie dominate the reader’s perspective. Ish tells himself that if Charlie poses even a potential threat to the fragile, little village, it is enough to justify a preemptive strike on Charlie’s life. Given how Ish is perhaps more aware than others of the village’s perpetual fragility, it is hard not to agree with him.
Indeed, Charlie’s death is perhaps the pivotal moment where Ish realizes that all the pillars of civilization, (truth, morality, etc.), simply do not apply anymore. Ish goes as far as to reason that “rationalism – like so much else – had only been one of the luxuries which men could afford under civilization.” (Stewart 284). He sounds absurd out of context, but the reality he experiences is one where quick witted, in the moment decision making is consistently more effective than careful consideration. Ish learns that with swift and certain danger lurking around every corner, whatever will most directly insure the immediate survival of the village is always the best decision. Morality means nothing if everybody dies.
With that in mind, Earth Abides is effective in arguing that civilization is nothing more than a delicate series of social constructions. While civilization is strong as long as there are people to uphold it, it is still a collective fabrication, and in times of great crisis, those same people who uphold it will scramble around worrying about their own survival before they will consider anything else. There is a dangerous universality to this assertion, but Earth Abides makes a compelling case to support it.