Z for Zachariah: A Story of Human Survival

Four Basic Facts about Z for Zachariah

Many readers believe this story is primarily about the protagonist's survival rather than human survival in general.  This is a misinterpretation.  Related to this view, it is often assumed that the world outside Burden Valley is only partly contaminated, there are probably other survivors, and it is reasonable for Ann to finally leave the valley to escape Loomis.  These assumptions are not based on strong evidence in the story.  Rather, they mainly arise from uncritically accepting the views of the narrator--particularly those she expresses in the second half of the story.  Those who interpret the story this way simply take for granted that the first-person narrator must be correct even when she ignores evidence and her judgments are unreasonable or biased by her feelings.

Below is an outline of a great deal of evidence in the story supporting the following four facts:

  1. The world outside Burden Valley is probably a dead wasteland.
  2. Ann and Loomis are probably the last human survivors.
  3. They both believe they must rely only on the resources of the valley for their survival, so they must plan long-term to use those resources wisely and maintain plant and animal species.
  4. They both think of having children together and hope in that way to help keep their own species from dying off.

The War in the Background

Ann writes that the war happened the previous May (1, 13).  She was able to see one mushroom cloud in the distance (1), but her father said "the nearest bombs had been a long way off...a hundred miles or more" (2).  Ann and Loomis both heard radio stations go off one by one (5, 62).  The last station was broadcasting from somewhere near Boston, Massachusetts (6).  She began her diary in February and guesses it was then about 3 or 4 months after the last radio station stopped broadcasting as it ran out of power (4).  Thus, the last broadcast may have been in September or October, 4 or 5 months after the war. 

After staying in his protected underground laboratory for 3 months, Loomis began to make expeditions outside wearing a prototype of a radiation-proof suit (63).  At that time, he assumed there may have still been other survivors: "Still he thought there might be other survivors in underground places like this...equipped so that the men in them could last for months" (63).  However, when he visited an Air Force command post in Chicago, he found that people inside had suffocated because air pumps were damaged when others on the outside fought to get in.  But Loomis concluded that everyone in the shelter would have died anyway: "In the end, he decided it really did not matter so much.  Because all of the underground fallout shelters, this one and others around the world, had built-in time limits, enough air and water to last three months, six months, a year, on the assumption that after that it would be safe to go outside again.  And that had not happened" (65). Loomis assumes that fallout shelters all over the world proved useless because the outside environment remained lethally radioactive long after their supplies of water, freeze-dried food, and air ran out. 

Loomis never considers that there could be areas of the world unaffected by radioactive fallout.  He speaks of the time limits of shelters "around the world" because he assumes that the only survivors anywhere were in underground shelters and died when their supplies ran out. This is a reasonable assumption because radioactive contamination from a large-scale nuclear war would spread everywhere over time.  In the 1957 novel On the Beach, by Nevil Shute, the spread of radiation in this manner finally kills all life on the planet.  In the end, contamination is carried by trade winds to Australia, where the last survivors sicken or take government-issued suicide pills.

In Z for Zachariah, the fact that there was a radio broadcast from the Boston area in September or October does not suggest there were survivors above ground.  The broadcast was probably from an underground shelter with power and supplies that were running out.  Further, the man on the radio seemed to be witnessing panic and cruelty as the few survivors with him faced imminent death: "He said that men should act with dignity even in the face of death, that no one was better off than any other" (6). Perhaps there was conflict over diminishing supplies and suspicion that certain persons had more than their share.

1. The World Outside is a Dead Wasteland

1. The war took place the previous spring.  Afterwards, when Ann's father and brothers returned from a trip to Ogdentown, their report suggested all people and animals in areas around the valley were dead: "Bodies.  Just dead bodies.  They're all dead....There were dead birds all over the streets" (Ch 1, p.3). 

2. Ann writes about what she has seen outside the valley:

On the other side of the ridge, even on the other side of Burden Hill, there are no leaves; everything is dead. (Ch 1, p.4)

I have climbed the hills on all sides of this valley, and at the top I have climbed a tree.  When I look beyond, I see that all the trees are dead, and there is never a sign of anything moving.  (Ch1, p.9)

3. Describing her family's last trip exploring to the south and west in Amish areas, Ann writes, "I know now there weren't any Amish, nor anybody in Dean Town.  They were all dead, too" (Ch 1, p.9).

4. Ann assumes that the approaching stranger has seen only deadness in Dean Town and in all the lands he has travelled through:

If he came over the ridge, as he had to do, he must have seen the valley and the green trees, because the ridge is higher than Burden Hill....So you'd think he would be in a hurry.  If he walked toward Dean Town, or the other way, east on Number 9, he saw only the deadness, as I have seen it looking out, everything gray and brown and all the trees like stalks.  He has probably seen nothing else all the way, wherever he came from.  (Ch2, p.15)

5. After Loomis shoots at a rabbit, Ann makes a comment on crows in the valley, clearly thinking it is foolish and suicidal to leave:

There are quite a few [rabbits] in the valley; also squirrels, and a few crows who seem to have had the sense to stay around.  The other birds, moving about as they do, flew out into the deadness and died. (Ch 3, p.29)

6. Ann records Loomis' description of walking west from Ithaca for ten weeks through a vast wasteland with no sign of life.

It had taken him ten weeks to get from Ithaca to the valley, and all that way, all that time, he had seen no living thingno people, no animals, no birds, no trees, not even insects—only gray wasteland, empty highways, and dead cities and towns.  He had been ready to give up and turn back... (Ch 6, p.57)

7. When Loomis has radiation sickness, he refuses Ann's offer of aspirin because it might be the last uncontaminated aspirin in the world:

I thought he should take some aspirin, but he said it would not do any real good, and that we should save it—the half-dozen bottles in the store being perhaps the only usable aspirin left in the world.  (Ch 7, p.67) 

2. Ann and Loomis are probably the last human survivors

1. Until Loomis comes, Ann feels pretty sure she is the sole survivor of a nuclear war.

I was pretty sure I was the only person left in the world. (Ch 1, p.5)

2. Ann interprets the end of radio broadcasts as one sign that everyone outside the valley is dead:

Then the weeks went by and the radio stations went off, one by one.  When the last one went off and stayed off, it came to me, finally, that nobody, no car, was ever going to come. (Ch 1, p.5)

3. When a stranger

4. When Loomis gets radiation sickness from swimming in Burden Creek, Ann suddenly has a troubling dream that Loomis is her father, and she feels sure that she will be alone forever if he dies:

I thought I had become used to being alone, and to the idea that I would always be alone, but I was wrong.  Now that somebody is here, the thought of going back, the thought of the house and the valley being empty again—this time forever, I am sure of that—seems so terrible that I cannot bear it.

So, even though the man is a stranger and I am afraid of him, I am worrying about his being sick, and the idea that he might die makes me feel quite desperate. (Ch 5, p.45)




3. Burden Valley is the World

1. In one of Ann's first talks with Loomis, she finds out he is a scientist, and he comments that the existence of a valley with a self-contained weather system like that of Burden Valley is incredible: 

"A meteorological enclave.  Some kind of an inversion.  I suppose it's a theoretical possibility.  But the odds—" (Ch 6, p.56)



4. Family Planning and Preserving the Endangered Human Species

1. After letting Loomis swim in a poisoned stream, Ann worries that the dog Faro might lead him to where she is hiding in a cave.  She debates with herself whether it is wrong for her to be afraid, considers he might be the last man, and remembers her hope to start a family:

This man may be the only man left on earth.  I don't know him.  Suppose I don't like him?  Or worse, suppose he doesn't like me?

For nearly a year I have been here alone.  I have hoped and prayed for someone to come, someone to talk to, to work with and plan for the future of the valley.  I dreamed that it would be a man, for then, some time in the future—it is a dream, I know—there might be children in the valley.  (Ch 4, p.36)

2. While collecting greens in the field south of the pond, Ann smells the sweet fragrance of apple blossoms and finds a crabapple tree in bloom—looking more beautiful than she has ever seen it.  Thinking that she would like to have apple blossoms in the church if she ever gets married, Ann remembers her very limited experience with boyfriends.  Then Ann decides that she and Loomis should get married the following June.  She goes on to imagine what it would be like to someday gather greens in the same field with her own children.

I got to thinking about it.  Next June I would be seventeen, and in my entire life I had only had one real date, and that was when I was thirteen, in junior-high school. A boy named Howard Peterson asked me to go with him to a dance at the school.  My mother took me—it was in Ogdentown—and stayed for the whole dance, sitting on the side with some other mothers.  The only way you could tell it was a "date" was that Howard paid for both tickets, fifty cents each.  I have had other boyfriends, but I only saw them at school, or after school. ... 

So to me the idea of getting married seemed like quite an enormous step.  Still I thought, when Mr. Loomis recovered from his sickness, there was no reason why we could not plan to be married in a year; that is, next June, perhaps on my seventeenth birthday.  I knew there could not be any minister, but the marriage ceremony was all written out in the back of the hymnal.  There should be a ceremony; I felt strongly about that, and it should be in the church, on a definite date, with flowers.  The whole idea was thrilling.  I thought I might even wear my mother's wedding dress.  I know where it is, folded up in a box in her closet.

Then it occurred to me: Mr. Loomis had not indicated the slightest interest in any such idea.  But of course it was much too soon, and he was very sick.  We would talk about it when he had finally recovered.

And I thought: what would it be like, ten years from now, to be up here gathering greens some morning with children of my own?  But that thought made me feel lonesome for my mother, a feeling I have tried hard to avoid.  So I stood up to change the subject.  I got out my pocketknife and cut a bunch of apple blossoms.  Mr. Loomis could have a bouquet for his sickroom.  (Ch 8, p.80-81)

Ann's thoughts here are NOT merely a daydream.  There is no textual support for such an interpretation, and it ignores the actual evidence of the text.  When Ann writes the first time about wishing for a man to come so they could have children, she adds, "it is a dream, I know" (Ch 4, p.36).  At that time, she dismisses the idea as a fantasy because she is still afraid Loomis could be an unkind man who will make her a slave.  But when she is at the apple tree thinking of marriage and children, she says nothing about it being a dream.  Rather, she says explicitly, "there was no reason why we could not plan to be married" (81).  Moreover, she actually plans to talk with him about the idea when he gets better.  People do not normally plan actions based on their daydreams.  When Loomis' condition worsens and she fears he will die, she feels sad to remember her feelings at the apple tree and while plowing, and she decides (unwisely, I think) not to tell Loomis about them (Ch 10, p.101).  

The crab-apple tree should also be viewed as an important symbol in the story, since Ann's feelings and plans there become associated with the tree.  Thus, we are reminded of them when she later passes the tree while hiding again in the cave and taking a furtive approach to the farm (Ch 21, p.200).  After she decides to steal the safe-suit and leave the valley, she again feels sad to think of her plans to marry Loomis and have children: "It is sad when I think how happy I felt when I was plowing the field" (Ch 25, p.235).

3. After Loomis tells Ann how to get gas for the tractor, she plows a field happily and remembers a favorite poem, thinking that she and Loomis will help keep the world from dying:

I am very fond of poetry, and this one, one of my favorites, was a sonnet.  It began:

Oh earth, unhappy planet born to die,

          Might I your scribe or your confessor be...

I had thought of that poem many times since the war, and of myself, by default, as "scribe and confessor."  But now I was neither of those.  I was the one, or one of the two, who might keep it [Earth] from dying, for a while at least.  (Ch 9, p.96)

When Ann writes that she and Loomis can keep the planet from dying, she is not just talking about saving plant species from going extinct.  She probably also means that they can keep the HUMAN SPECIES from dying off.  The poem she recites from among her favorites is "Epitaph for the Race of Man," by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  This sonnet sequence describes how humans are clever and strong-willed enough to survive natural calamities, but they will bring their own ruin through greed, intolerance, and lack of sympathy for one another.  As the poem's title suggests, Ann is clearly thinking about threats to the human race and its ability to endure despite adversity.  It is likely, though, that she does not fully appreciate the poem's theme that the main threats to human survival come from people's attitudes towards one another. 

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