Em, the Woman Left Behind {a critical analysis of “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart

The novel Earth Abides by George R. Stewart explores the rebuilding of a small society after a catastrophic event. Afterwards, the rebuild is chronicled through the generations of a family, Ish and his wife, Em. This book shows the progression of the generation that follows the one that survived the catastrophe and how, as the years go by, their children revert to a lifestyle more suited to their environment. While adapting to this rehashed hunter-gatherer lifestyle, however, what you notice about this novel is how quickly women fall to the wayside. In the development of characters, many women in this book, including Em, were relegated to the margins of their own story. Each woman is more or less a mere copy of the other ones mentioned, leaving a great flatness in half of the population of “The Tribe,” the women contributing almost nothing besides bearing more sons who become central characters. In this novel, Stewart does not do the women characters of his reconstructed world justice, especially Em.

Em who is given the title of “Mother of Nations,” is only referred to when she gives birth to children after the first part of the book. Besides the first section of the book, her involvement and actions seemed to be based solely upon birthing and raising children. While some may assume that this is reasonable in hunter-gather type societies, based upon the need to survive, most roles in these types of societies were actually egalitarian. Now, the argument could be made that if a woman is rearing children then it should be intuitive that they are relegated to restricted roles, because they would not be able to provide food. However, in studies of the origins of gender, such as the one done by Sandra Bowdler and Jane Balme, they say:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single hunter must be in want of a gathering woman. In other words, it is generally the case that in all known hunter-gatherer societies in the ethnographic present, men hunt and women gather. In Balme and Bowdler (2006) we argued that what distinguished humans from other primates (and all other mammals) is this division of labour, based on the eating of meat, and systematic food sharing among the social group. We suggested that there are no constraints imposed by female reproductive activities on females performing any activity performed by men,” (pg 391)

In reflection of the novel, this point matters in particular because The Tribe had become largely meat eating. As evidenced by Ish’s reflections on his family at the breakfast table, his inner monologue as follows, “The children, of course, liked nothing better. In fact, they made the principal part of their breakfast on the beef-ribs, because they had grown up being largely meat-eaters and expecting or wanting little else,” (Stewart, pg 170).  Hunter-gatherer societies, being predominantly meat-eating, would need a larger base of able-bodied adults to be constantly going out to find food, compared to agricultural or pastoral cultures where the resource is very near to the group. Therefore, in the hunger-gatherer societies, women would not actually have a choice but to be largely integrated in the hunting of food sources.

Furthermore Stewart misses the possibility of addressing important intersections of race and gender, as they could have rounded out Em as a character.  Instead Stewart completely dismisses Em’s experience of having lived her whole life as a woman of color, wiping her of her very selfness and dismissing any complicated societally-bred issues that could not have just disappeared in a matter of a few years. Ish quiets and comforts Em with his idea,

“The senators and the judges and the governors are all dead and rotten, and the Jewbaiters and the Negro-baiters along with them. We’re just two poor people, picking at the leavings of civilization for our lives, not knowing whether it’s to be the ants or the rats or something else will get us. Maybe a thousand years from now people can afford the luxury of wondering and worrying about that kind of thing again. But I doubt it. And now there are just the two of us here, or maybe three, now,”(Stewart, pg 120).

In this way a very critical and reflective person, who even later in the book reflects upon the lingering superstitions of his past world affecting his family and Tribe, somehow has a lapse in his logic in this instance. This very dismissive view of the intersectional identity of Em, and then later by proxy the effects that could influence the children they both raise, is one of the reasons Em remains one-dimensional. Kinatra D Brooks discusses the issues that come with ignoring these intersections in works of science fiction. Brooks states,

Centering the white male experience and its repugnant fascination with black men or white women is not only problematic, it ultimately fails to illustrate the various intersections of race and gender that interrogate whiteness and maleness. Furthermore, this practice remains unapologetically exclusionary, propagating the Western hierarchical framework of privileging the experiences of the white male.(461)

In the rest of her piece, which focuses on Black womanhood, specifically in zombie apocalypses, Brooks describes her larger criticism of apocalyptic science fiction. This criticism focuses on how the never-ending possibilities of science fiction have been limited and how repetitive the views are. Even in a situation where the whole of civilization is wiped out, a white man (Ish) still ends up being in the seat of power, and he dismisses Em’s fears of lived experiences as being unimportant. That is not revolutionary writing at all; it is, as Brook discusses, merely propagating the norm.

The primary issues with both of the main points above are that Em becomes limited and flat as a character after the first third of the book.  This transforms someone from being deemed as very important at the beginning as “Mother of Nations,” to little more than a highly praised kitchen maid after the first couple chapters. This is very limiting to the larger view of the Tribe. From Ish’s standpoint, this limitation of in-depth reflection of the women in his world was not something that only affected his wife. The rebuttal to my argument could be made that Ish loved his wife and his daughter, and therefore Stewart, as an author, has not done Em or the women in this novel a disservice. This book should be used as a point from which to draw comparisons and conclusions about issues and relationships with women. Yes, Ish loves the women of his family but it is not with any true depth. In Ish’s reflection of his daughter Mary there is only one instance of momentary depth in his thoughts of her,

…but Ish doubted whether some of them–such as Mary, who was now a mother with two babies–could at the present moment do more than spell out words of one syllable. (Though she was his own beloved oldest daughter, he admitted to himself that Mary was not intellectual–no need to say she was stupid.) (Stewart, pg 145)

This is the only instance within the book that Ish actually reflects upon the depth of his relationship with any of his daughters. In contrast to this, there are many passages describing Ish’s relationship with his favorite youngest son, Joey, and a significant turn in the plot revolves around their relationship. Ish himself freely admits this, saying “Except for Em and Ezra, now that Joey was gone, there was no one to whom his heart really went out,” (280). Later in the book, Ish’s second wife remains unnamed, but one of the sons he raises with her is named Walt, and he develops a closer relationship with this son. We, as readers, never hear much more than brief snippets about Ish’s relationships with the other women in his life, and no more about Em’s possible brilliance, outside of how aesthetically appealing she is to Ish and that he loves her. None of the women in this book have any true reflective depth in and of themselves.

This reflection of the literature matters to an analytic reader, because the character of Ish is built to be a logical, well-informed, and educated individual. As headstrong as he was throughout the novel, it is highly unlikely that he would promote, or even allow, archaic visages of pre-Tribe days to hold back the logical progression of what his new society needed. Ish’s level of intelligence is inconsistent in his interactions and relationships with women. This creates a questionable inconsistency on behalf of the author, as to why he would make it so the women are rarely mentioned or fully developed as characters in this work of literature.

Stewart’s reconstruction of the hunter-gatherer society does not accurately portray the more egalitarian roles women tend to play in such societal constructs. Issues like this reflect the author’s inconsistencies in conducting research for his novel, thus making the ideologies of his characters feel disconnected with his portrayal of them. Toward the end of the main character’s life, Ish reflects upon how the patriarchal traditions of old America influenced The Tribe, after The Tribe intermarries with a new clan: “When they intermarried the children were always of their father’s clan, although Ish had wondered whether the mother lineage might not prevail, as with many primitive people. But the old tradition of the Americans was too strong,”(307). Ish knows that these standards are unreasonable and can identify them as incompatible with the society he had helped to create. This brings about the reflection of another inconsistency with how women should have been portrayed in this work. Stewart was aware of the world’s practices and could have given more depth to Em and the other female characters in the book, but he fell short.


Works Cited

Brooks, Kinitra D. “The Importance Of Neglected Intersections: Race And Gender In Contemporary Zombie Texts And Theories.” African American Review 47.4 (2014): 461-475. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Bowdler, Sandra, and Jane Balme. “Gatherers And Grannies.” Australian Feminist Studies 25.66 (2010): 391-405. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.

Dyble, M., et al. “Sex Equality Can Explain The Unique Social Structure Of Hunter-Gatherer Bands.” Science 348.6236 (2015): 796-798. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

Stewart, George R. Earth Abides. Random House: New York. 2006.


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