June 12, 2005

Earth Abides [Essay]

In the novel, Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart, a fatal plague wipes out the earth’s entire human population except for a handful of people who miraculously survive the epidemic. As the main character, Isherwood Williams, travels from his California home across the United States he encounters some of these survivors, with the intent to observe how they are surviving the destruction of the social empire that once flourished in the same spot. Of all of the people he met, very few were fit to begin a new society in which all of their philosophies could become reality. Despite the adults of the “old world’s” constant direction to their children, the new generation began a culture uniquely their own, molding old games and habits into a single new way of life that included all aspects of religion, recreation and social order.
One of the most prominent points of a civilization is its religion. Originally, Ish wanted a society without religion, and even though the children of the tribe were never taught much of religion they often saw some of the older adults praying. They soon came to believe that simple objects such as the hammer and locations like the library were sacred. As generations passed, they began looking to the original tribal members with respect because they were once Americans, the ones who had created all that was around them. As even more generations came to pass the Americans evolved into a civilization of gods, who knew everything and who created most of the world. The more discoveries the younger generations made, the more their religious beliefs thrived. One young man explained to the elderly Ish, one day relating to the coins used for the making of arrow heads:
“The woman with the wings growing from her head sprang from the marriage of a hawk and a woman…I have wondered about it. Perhaps they are too great to care about little things, or perhaps they did their work a long time ago and have now grown old or weak.” (Earth Abides, 311)
As the young man continues he describes the “Old Ones of the Old Ones” and their creation of the sun and hills. Though Ish is disappointed in his attempts to abolish religion and such theology, he is somewhat impressed by The Tribe’s seemingly natural grasp of religion and desists from pursuing his hatred for it.
All civilizations must work to keep themselves living in comfort, but it is the recreational time that separates each society from the next. The tribe had many ways of entertaining themselves in their free time including art, sports and games. As Ish observed:
“The Tribe had not developed artistically but was still living under the shadow of the past…Accordingly he had been pleased at the fad of wood-carving.” (Earth Abides, 140)
Notwithstanding the fact that Ish preferred The Tribe to work instead of waste time playing he still found it amusing and healthy for the whole of the tribe to use their time creatively. He constantly found his attempts to influence them with music of the past hopeless, but the children still loved singing their own songs. They didn’t always take interest in games of the “old world” but loved to play active sports, like bull dodging. To their society, recreation became the key point of their life. Adults and children alike would quit working early, much to Ish’s dismay, so they could play with their bows and arrows before it was too late. Ish would often return to the city to find everyone in one field watching the older boys doge raging bulls, and though Ish often griped about the way The Tribe spent its free time, he too enjoyed the games.
The main point that Ish and the other adults often discussed was the direction that their tribe would move socially. Things such as the death penalty, marriage and other social acts were considered with apprehension to its future effects on The Tribe. Marriage became necessary for repopulation purposes rather than love; members declared “mentally unstable” were kept from marriage and other people as to not “pollute” the tribe. The greatest social barrier that the tribe had to overcome was the future of a new man named Charlie who was a threat to the tribe’s health and safety. The older members of the tribe debated whether or not Charlie should be allowed to remain in the tribe, banished or killed. Their new civilization had come thus far without having to punish anyone in such a manner. The thought “that their society might have to inflict such a final penalty, the very thought was strangely disturbing to all their minds.” (Earth Abides, 253) The older members were not sure that they wanted to introduce such a harsh and controversial trend to their children by inducing the punishment. Nonetheless they continued with a unanimous vote, and having Charlie executed. By this single action, the fate of their civilization had been decided for generations to come.
Though The Tribe was close guarded for influences that might harm its future, many old traditions and still made themselves present in the new generations. Art, sports and religion all became key points to their society and their social order still had principals based on those of the old world. As their society grows and continues, every so often loosing another link to the past it changes further into its own people, but ever affected by the dominant culture of the past.

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