Facts of the Story in Z for Zachariah

Three Implausible Details

Z for Zachariah is realistic fiction, but readers must accept at least a few important details that are implausible.   

(1) Though events occur after a worldwide nuclear war, there is no nuclear winter.  The theory of nuclear winter was first advanced in 1982, almost 10 years after Z for Zachariah was written.

(2) A valley with a completely self-contained weather system such as Burden Valley is probably impossible, since its encircling mountains would need to rise unbroken to the troposphere and could not be crossed without breathing gear.  

(3) Two people are probably not a viable breeding population due to the harmful effects of inbreeding.  Still, they might have a chance of success.

What are the Facts in a First-Person Narrative?

An use of a first-person narrator calls upon the reader to question the narrator's reliability, since the entire story is presented from one person's point of view.

In discussing the facts of a story such as Z for Zachariah, we are limited to 4 general kinds of information (ranked below in order of reliability):

(1) The narrator's descriptions of what she has seen.  (e.g., Ann has seen no sign of life outside the valley for a year.)

(2) Reports of what others have seen.  (e.g., Ann's father and Loomis said they saw no signs of life outside the valley.)

(3) Reports of others' expressed views.  (e.g., Loomis said they should think of the valley as the world and plan to start a colony there.)

(4) The narrator's stated feelings and opinions.  (e.g., Ann hopes to marry Loomis and have a family. Then she fears he is trying to take control of everything.)

The narrator's and others' expressed views are equally questionable.  But others' opinions offer the only alternative to the dominating viewpoint of the narrator--enabling the reader, through comparing different views, to gain some objectivity.  In this story, there is very little information about different viewpoints, since Ann is concerned almost exclusively with her own thoughts.  However, when she does mention others' views or try to sympathize with Loomis, she usually considers a different way of thinking or questions her own point of view. 

Readers should evaluate Ann and Loomis based on their own behavior and stated views.  The narrator's opinion about Loomis at any given time is not reliable unless it is consistent with the evidence of what Loomis actually says and does.

Determining Probability and Evaluating Characters' Judgments

Determining the best way to act depends largely on calculating probability.  In Z for Zachariah, Ann is repeatedly in a situation of deciding what to do without being certain of facts or what will happen.  However, instead of making reasonable calculations of what is probable, Ann tends to base decisions on her feelings. Often she imagines the worst possible situation and acts upon her fear.  In the end, fear makes her desperate enough to believe dreams about children in another valley needing a teacher, and she decides to leave the only known habitable place based largely on wishful thinking.

Like Ann, readers are called upon to judge what is probable based on the evidence Ann's narration gives us.  A few logical approaches are the following:

(1) We can view the most frequent observations and judgments as the most likely to be true. For example, characters repeatedly observe or judge that the world outside Burden Valley is uninhabitable, but in the end Loomis says he once saw birds circle to the west and then go away.  Given what characters usually see and believe, this one possible sign of life outside the valley is weak evidence. It is far more probable that Ann will survive by staying in the valley. 

(2) We can examine whether a character's judgments are based on strong evidence or sound reasoning.  For example, Ann judges that an approaching stranger could be a tyrant, so she should ensure her safety by hiding. She does not even reveal herself to warn him about a contaminated stream. Does she have any good reasons to fear this stranger and even let him perhaps die to ensure her own safety?  Is it more probable that a lone man would be a normal person in need of companionship or a tyrant wanting to enslave her?  Is it probable he would behave like survivors in Boston whom a broadcaster described as fighting each other for dwindling supplies?  The situation of Ann and Loomis in Burden Valley is very different.  Later, when Ann fears Loomis wants to control the valley and her, do his behavior and words up to this point really give her good reasons to be afraid?  On the night Loomis enters Ann's room after she wakes, is it reasonable for her to be sure he thinks she is sleeping?  Is it probable he would try to rape her and still expect her to cooperate in a long-term project of starting a colony? 

(3) We can evaluate how characters' personal interests or feelings might bias their judgments.  It is sometimes clear that certain feelings have a strong influence upon a character's thoughts and behavior.  For example, Ann has a strong fear of being controlled by a man even before she meets Loomis, and there are many signs that Loomis has a great fear of being alone.  Readers should evaluate to what extent Ann's view of Loomis at a given time seems to be caused by his behavior or by her own fearful imaginings.  We should also recognize, as Ann herself considers, that Loomis's behavior might be caused by his fear of being alone rather than any wish to exploit her. 

Inconsistent Thinking can be a Sign of Unreliability

Inconsistencies in a character's thoughts can help readers see that the character's thinking is not reliable. Ann's thinking is inconsistent in several ways:

(1) She is inconsistent in her feelings and desires.  She longs for companionship.  Then she fears the only other survivor will enslave her.  Then she fears being alone forever, talks with Loomis, and soon hopes to marry him.  Then she fears again that he wants to control her.

(2) She is inconsistent in her reporting of facts.  She says she is unsure if Loomis made a mistake to swim in Burden Creek. Then she says she knows the stream is dead, and she is only unsure why it is dead. During Loomis's sickness, Ann writes that she is terrified he will die and she will be alone again.  But after he reminds her that she held his hand, she writes that it didn't show special concern for him--she only wanted to let him know she was there.

(3) Reported facts are not consistent with her judgments. She reports that Loomis spent over half a year looking for other survivors. But when she later debates how wrong it was for him to kill Edward, she thinks his decision to head west on his own shows he wanted the safe-suit only to save himself. 

(4) Some statments are logically inconsisent (i.e., contradictory).  She self-defense  ????

(5) Her behavior is inconsistent with her stated beliefs and feelings. at the end especially  She knows she shouldn't rely on the store, but she does.

Ann is sometimes inconsistent in her reporting of facts Ann has inconsistent ideas during the course of the story, and suggest a character's views are not reliable . For example, Ann recognizes there are good reasons for thinking Loomis killed his co-worker Edward in self-defense. Yet, she later ignores these reasons as she becomes increasingly afraid Loomis wants to control her.

A Note on the Difference between Possibility and Probability

Finally, in judging what is probably true, readers should also understand that qualified statements using words such as "might," "may," and "perhaps" do not indicate significant uncertainty or only a 50% chance that the expressed view is true.  These words indicate only that complete certainty is not possible.  In such cases, a reasonable person judges the probability of a statement's truth based on observed facts and what is most practical to believe.  Obviously, when Loomis says the store contains "perhaps the only usable aspirin," he does not take a "glass-is-half-full" outlook and think optimistically that there probably is more aspirin to be found somewhere, so they shouldn't worry about using it all up!  Rather, he judges that it is wisest for them to assume for practical purposes that there is no other aspirin in the world.  That's why he decides not to use it even though he has severe radiation sickness. 

Some readers seem too willing to seize on any suggested possibility of life outside the valley in order to believe there is a good chance it exists.  This is unreasonable and leads to a false interpretation of realities in the story based on wishful thinking.

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