Book Review: Earth Abides

While I was rearranging some books yesterday my eyes fell on George R. Stewart\’s Earth Abides. Initially I was struck by the fact that Earth Abides, published in 1949, could be considered a direct ancestor of (among other) the movie Contagion and Stephen King\’s The Stand. Then I started to wander around my memories of the book (mentally exploring its territory.) After a few moments of reverie a strange sense of \”exclusion\” from the story came over me. What, I wondered, is standing between me total immersion in the created world of the book?

Further thought led to a hypothesis–one which I who had so long enjoyed the book, found uncomfortable. The only way to check it out, I decided, was to sit down and reread Earth Abides carefully looking for the data that would either support or undermine that hypotheis.

Below are the notes I made while rereading:

Warning: Beyond here there lie spoilers.

Trigger Warning: post-apocalyptic imagery, violence against women, dangerous childbearing conditions, misogyny, implied rape, rape culture

Earth Abides begins, the reader can deduce, several weeks after the outbreak of a disease which is air-born and deadly. Before Ish, who is in an isolated location gather data for his research, realizes that anything has happened most of the population of the United States has already died and civilization as he has known it has already disappeared. The book has always been one of my favourites (being a fan as I am of post-apocalyptic novels) because it is told primarily from the \”ordinary person\” point of view. We never learn how/where the epidemic started and we are not given glimpses of what decision-makers were doing. The book is a quiet examination/description of what life would be like for a rather ordinary person in those circumstances.

The book has two narrative points of view: that of Isherwood Williams (Ish) and an omniscient narrative voice that gives us limited information about what is going on elsewhere in the world as well as some background information about ecology.[1] Since the word \”man\” is used frequently in the sense of \”humanity\” it is possible that some person mentioned in the text was actually in the mind\’s eye of the author a woman however the first individual that we can be certain is a woman is not mentioned until page 18 [2]

In Sacramento, a crazed woman had opened the cages of a circus menagerie for fear that the animals might starve to death, and been mauled by a lioness (18-19)

Given the gendered allocation of jobs at the time the book was published it is reasonable to assume that the nurses mentioned later on page 19 were also (or at least primarily) women. We read of dead men. We read of a man hung from the a telephone pole with a poster announcing \”Looter.\” We do not read about women.

The reader is given an insight into what Ish (and the author) sees as the most salient/worthwhile qualities of men and women when Ish finds a survivor, a man who has already nearly drunk himself to death and thinks,

The survivor might have been a beautiful girl, or a fine intelligent man, but it was only this drunkard, too far gone for any help. (32)

Later, driving around the streets across the bay from San Francisco, Ish finally comes across a living woman. She is in the company of a flamboyantly dressed (and Ish soon realizes, armed) man who makes it clear that woman \”belongs\” to him sexually.

He (Ish) wondered what the woman could have been in the old life. Now she looker merely like a well-to-do prostitute. (34)

The man speaks but the women does not. Neither does the teen-age girl who Ish later glimpses as she flees the sight of him. Of the few fellow survivors he meets, only the men speak to him.

Ish later embarks on a trip across what was once the United States. On page 60 he meets a family (that is, a man, woman and boy who have found each other in the aftermath of the epidemic) of, as the book puts it \”Negros.\” Ish speaks to them but the reader learns only of the information he gleans rather than \”hearing\” any of their actual words. The woman, Ish notices, is pregnant.

Ish has driven across the continent and arrived in New York City before the reader \”hears\” the words of a woman:

\”Call me Ann,\” she said. \”And have a drink!–Warm martinis, that\’s all I can offer you! Not a scrap of ice in New York City\” (72)

Ish meets few people for quite a while after this and they are described only in the most general of terms. Most of them are suffering from what we would diagnose today as post traumatic stress disorder. There are few details about these encounters. Ish seems emotionally flat and unreactive–which would makes sense given what has happened to the world he knows. The only being with whom he has opened up and formed an emotional bond is a dog who adopted him.This relative flatness of affect continues until on page 98 Ish hears a women say (of his dog) \”That\’s a beautiful dog!\” and he has met Em (Emma) the woman with whom he will settle down and have children.

Now, I understand why a male writer would write a book with a male protagonist but Stewart\’s skill as a writer makes it easier to miss some key and disturbing aspects of the story. Yes, as many modern day reviewers point out there is much implicit and a fair amount of explicit racism in the book. Yes, as many modern day reviewers point out there is both implicit and explicit classism in the book. Yes, as many modern day reviewers point out there is much implicit and explicit sexism in the book. However, in the opinion of this reviewer, the attitude toward women is actually far more disturbing than mere sexism and moves outside the boundary of misogyny to another, rather terrifying, territory. On rereading the book I am not really sure that women in this book are portrayed as actual human beings.

Early on in the story, long before Ish meets Em, he meets and, as he sometimes characterizes it, is seduced by a dog who he later names Princess. His interactions with Princess play a large part in him handling the immense psychological stresses of the first weeks and months after the epidemic kills off most of humanity. Princess accompanies him on his trek across the United States (for he does not really fully internalize the fall of the civilization until he see that New York City is now an almost empty shell abandoned by all by a handful of survivors.) Princess is instrumental in Ish\’s meeting with Em and the words he hears her speak, \”That\’s a beautiful dog!\” are about Princess.

Em and Ish may have sex the first night they meet but their interactions in this post-apocalyptic work fit into the gender norms of the decade after the Second World War. Em feeds Ish, they have sex (in the discrete way characters do in books written in the 1940s), she makes him breakfast and then:

They moved back, later that day, to the house on San Lupo Drive, chiefly because he seemed to have more possessions–books especially, than she did. It was trouble to move to the books than to move the books to them.(103)

Em changes the way in which she lives to fit into Ish\’s life. Ish continues to live in the home he was living in before he met her. He continues to entertain himself the way he did before he met her. Everything is the same with a few exceptions: now he has someone to cook his meals and share his bed. The reader learns that Em had been married and the mother of two \”small children.\” Presumably husband and children died in the epidemic but the reader is left to infer that rather than being told. We never learn the name or even gender of either of the children. Em functions as a life force, a source of strength and a touchstone for Ish. He fears that she will die in childbirth and she reassures. The birth takes places \”off screen\” as one chapter ends with her pregnant and the next section begins some time after the birth. The reader is not told if the birth was easy or hard, only that the baby is healthy and Em is once again pregnant. Em and Ish have settled down to life in the remains of civilization. Ish reads novels and philosophy in the evening and Em knits.

A group of survivors grows up around Ish and Em until there are four adult women. All of them give birth at least once. We read no details about their pregnancies or their labour:

The Year 6 was an eventful one. During its course all four of the women bore children–even Maurine, who had seemed too old. There was, however–now that Em had led the way–a strong drive toward the having of many children. Each of the adults had for a time lived alone, had experienced what they now called the Great Loneliness, and the strange dread that went with it. Even now their little group was only a tiny candle against the pressure of the surrounding darkness. Each new-born baby seemed to give the uncertain flame a stronger hold and to push the darkness of annihilation back a little. (128)

And the cynic in this reader asks herself, \’what choice did any of these women have?\’ As one reads on one realizes that at no time does a lone woman join this group of survivors. Lone men are not encouraged to stay because of fears of sexual rivalry but since the Tribe (as they call themselvs) already have accepted polygamy the same fears would not bar a lone woman from joining up with them. Each man who joins brings at least one woman with him. One realizes that in this world there are no lone women. Women \”belong\” to men. Either the woman is lucky and belongs to a man who is \”nice\” to her or she unlucky. We she no women who are not part of group headed by a man. Since there is no birth control it seems strange to speak of there being \”a strong drive towards the having of many children.\” It seems more likely that there is a strong drive (at least among the men) for having sex. Children are simply one of the results of that drive.

Though Ish thinks about the physical threats of pregnancy and childbirth before having sex with Em for the first time those fears are waived off by Em and seldom returned to. Em apparently has her children without trouble as do the other women. Again the cynic in me asks, what are the chances that the first 10 births after the \”Great Disaster\” would be trouble free? What are the odds that at least one of those women had a horrible labour? What are the odds that none of the children would have died? Indeed we read that it is not until \”Year 11\” that, for the first time, a child died a birth. The reader is given no details at all about that death. Was the labour long? Did the mother die of exhaustion? Did she hemorrhage? We read: \”They thought that perhaps this death was caused from Molly\’s being old now. (134)\” but one doubts that the \”they\” in that sentence would have been the women who held Molly\’s hand and wiped the sweat from her as she laboured.

Pregnancy and labour take place off stage just as does most of the other work done by women. Who makes the meals? Who washes the clothes? Who supervises the children? Who mends the clothes? All of this is the work of women. Em is praised often by Ish as the bearer of courage but her life, except for the moments when Ish needs her, takes place offstage and unconsidered. We know more the internal life of Princess (who is always running off after imaginary rabbits) than we do of Em. And, although the death of that child was first that had taken place at childbirth it was apparently not in the running when they came to name the year (something they did every year.)

When it came to naming the year, however, there was a dispute between the old and young. The older ones thought that it should be called the Year when Princess Died. . . . She had been ailing, an old dog, for some time. No one knew just how ancient she was, because she might have been anywhere for one year to three or four when first she picked up Ish. She had remained the same–always the princess, expecting the best of treatment, always unreliable, always ready to disappear on the trail of an imaginary rabbit just when you wanted her. But for all you might say against her, she had shown a very real character, and the older people could remember the time when she seemed very important along San Lupo Drive, almost another person.

By now there were dozens of dogs around. Nearly all of them must be children or grandchildren or great-grand-children of Princess. . .But to the children Princess had been an old and not very interesting dog of uncertain temper.. . . (134)

If Princess is \”almost another person\” to Ish–if Princess was \”a very real character\”–what is Em to Ish? The love of his life? The person who saved him from the post epidemic despair?

When Ish looked at Em, so many feelings boiled up within him that he knew any judgment he might try to make of her would be of no value. She, alone, had made the first decision to have a child. She had kept her courage and confidence during the Terrible Year. She it was to whom they all turned in time of trouble. Some strong power lodged within her, to affirm and never to deny. Without her they might all have been as nothing. Yet her power lay deep in the springs of action; in a particular situation, though she might inspire courage and confidence in others, she seldom herself supplied an idea. Ish knew that he would always turn to her and that she was greater than he, but he also knew that she would not be of help in planning toward the future. (141-142)

Em is a life force. And life forces don\’t have thoughts. They barely have feelings. Their \”power,\” such as it is, is to support others. And when, now old and many times a grandmother, Em dies:

\”Oh, Mother of Nation!\” he thought. \”Her sons shall praise, and her daughters call her blessed!\” (283)

But we do not read of his grief, or her funeral, nor does he strive to name that year \”The year Em died.\”

Ish survives Em, an old man even by the standards of longevity before the Great Disaster. He is encouraged to marry a young woman who had \”no man to marry her.\”

He felt no love, but he took her. She comforted him in the long nights, for he was still a man in his strength. She bore him children, though the children seemed always a little strange to him–scarcely his, because they were not also Em\’s.(284)

And my flesh crawls at the idea of a young woman being \”taken\” by this old man. Even had she wanted to be a wife there was no reason for her to have to turn to an old man for among The Tribe other men had been known to take more than one wife. What was it like for her? Did she feel honoured to be taken by one of the few remaining \”Old Ones\” or had she secretly been horrified at her fate? Was she content to be the wife of a living, if old, paunchy and forgetful god?

Now no more children were born to Ish\’s young wife. Then one day she came to him with a younger man, and the two asked, respectfully, that Ish should give her to that one. (285)

We never learn the wife\’s name.

Ish, who is prone throughout the book to philosophizing and takes great pride and pleasure in marking the ways in which the old world has changed and adapted after the Great Disaster, spends no time on thinking of how things have changed for women. He is given a woman and then gives her to another man and yet he never pauses for a moment to ponder about this. He notices that this next generation cannot read but does not notice that the women of that generation have been reduced to property that is taken by men and given to other men.

The book ends as Ish\’s life comes to an end. He looks at the hills about him and notices that the hills that are shaped like a woman\’s breasts. He looks at the young men who have carried him away from the fire consuming the home that he has lived in for decades and he takes comfort in remembering the fourth verse of Ecclesiastes \”Men go and come, but earth abides.\”

Yes, men come and go. Women, save as breasts and the promise of the earth\’s fecundity, have no part of the comforting vision of the earth abiding.

I still think that Earth Abides deserves a place as one of the most important and influential pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction written in the last century. I mourn that I will never again be able to read this book without the chill sense that in Stewart\’s future there would be no room for my mind, my knowledge, my skills, my insight or my ingenuity. In Stewart\’s world my only value would be my womb and my willingness to support the man who \”took\” me.

Rating: A uncomfortable 4-1/2 stars

[1] This narrative voice comes across as very similar to that in the movie Thread, similarly reporting information which may have devastating implication in a low-key scientific way.

[2] Stewart, George. Earth abides. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1976.  

One thought on “Book Review: Earth Abides

  1. My biggest problem with the recent TV version of The Walking Dead was the tacit and largely unexamined assumption that women would be property – not just by the designated asshole, but by the nominal heroes too (they was just going to give the women a little more freedom).If there is a pressing need to build up population numbers quickly, then I suppose one can make a case for requiring women to breed – but actually I think that if there really is such a need then the women will be participating willingly anyway!

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