Understanding the Narrator and Themes
INTRODUCTION TO THIS SITE:
Robert C. O'Brien's novel Z for Zachariah is commonly interpreted as a survival story about a lone girl, Ann Burden, who fears she is the sole survivor of a nuclear war. When a man then comes to her protected valley wearing a radiation-proof suit, her hope for a new beginning turns to terror as she learns he is a cruel egomaniac determined to enslave her. Publishers market the book as a thriller, using advertisement tag lines and synopses such as the following (from the 2007 Simon Pulse edition):
"Ann thought she was the only one left alive. She was wrong."
"Both excited and terrified, Ann soon realizes there may be worse things than being the last person on Earth."
The story has been misinterpreted mainly because of a common failure to recognize that Ann Burden is an unreliable narrator whose viewpoint is biased, paranoid, and highly irrational. Her fear of John Loomis is unfounded, arising from naive and self-centered thinking. Fear causes her to suppress sympathy and the desire for companionship (her social instincts), ultimately making her flee from the last surviving man and doom humanity to extinction.
Z for Zachariah is not really about personal survival at all but about the need for people to overcome biased egotism and help one another in order to survive as a species. This need is increasingly apparent in the 21st century, as the threat of human self-annihilation grows and people continue to struggle with the basic problems of understanding one another and cooperating.
The following pages attempt to provide some of the evidence from the story that illustrates the narrator's fallibility and suggests the story's themes.
POST YOUR THOUGHTS:
If you are interested in the story and would like to share ideas about it, please visit the blog below to leave general comments or write your views about specific questions.
Burden Valley Blog: http://valleyofburden.weebly.com/index.html
Detailed notes, teaching suggestions, and some study questions are available at the site Notes about Z for Zachariah:
These notes are collected from 5 years of postings at the Teachnology website.