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Earth Abides Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart is a story about Isherwood Williams. Isherwood’s tale takes place as he adapts to a world affected by the Great Catastrophe, which wipes out a significant portion of the population. The story begins with Isherwood in college, working on his thesis. He is bitten by a rattlesnake after finding an old miner’s hammer, but manages to survive the bite and accompanying infection. He is unaware just how bad things are getting out in the world. The acting president of the United States has suspended any and all government operations. Following his recovery, Isherwood makes his way to his parents’ house. He finds a dead body on the side of the road with a newspaper that explains the Great Catastrophe. Upon returning home, he discovers his parents are gone.
Isherwood remains in his family’s house for a little while, during which time he finds other survivors, some of whom have lost their minds due to shock. He decides to leave.He fills a station wagon with supplies and drives east toward New York City. Along the way, he takes in a dog, which he names Princess. With hospitals and doctors a thing of the past, he becomes anxious that even the smallest injury could lead to death. Realizing that he can’t live with the fear of such things hanging over him, he revels in driving at high speeds in his quest to reach New York.Isherwood meets several more survivors but doesn’t want to settle with any of them so he returns to California—specifically, to San Francisco. There, he meets Em, who is ten years his senior.
Soon after they settle together, they meet Ezra and his two wives, Molly and Jean. The three join Em and Isherwood, and then they take in three more survivors: Evie, a simple-minded girl; George, a carpenter; and Maurine, George’s wife. None of these characters were married prior to the Great Catastrophe, but now chose to do so as a matter of survival and adaptation.
They call themselves the Tribe, and over the next few years, they grow in number as the women in the group have children. They survive off canned food scavenged from stores. They also find many supplies they need from those stores, as well. Isherwood is certain that they will be able to rebuild the civilization he knew growing up, though he does nothing to see it realized. Instead, he bases that hope on what others can and choose to do. He places his strongest hope the shoulders of Joey, his youngest, most intelligent son.
When two of the younger men in the Tribe travel across the United States, they discover that there are many tribes, all doing what they can to survive. Some rely on religion to guide them. Later, a man named Charlie visits and accidentally brings with him typhoid fever. After an epidemic breaks out, five of Isherwood’s Tribe, including Joey, perish
Isherwood and Em start numbering the years since the Great Catastrophe. Using the hammer Isherwood found on the day he was bitten by the snake, they chisel a record of the years. The hammer becomes increasingly important to the Tribe, until it inspires as much reverence as a religious relic. Initially, Isherwood tries to prevent this, but decides that if the hammer gives them comfort, they can venerate it. Another major change in Isherwood’s attitude at this point is that instead of pining for the civilization they once had, he focuses his effort and hope on finding new things they can learn that will improve their lives. For example, he teaches the younger Tribe members how to craft bows and arrows, and how to start a fire without relying on matches. After four generations, the Tribe members are skilled in both of these and rely less and less on what they can scavenge from stores. At the end of the story, as Isherwood is about to die, he’s asked to bequeath the hammer to someone else in the Tribe.
He gives it to his great-grandson, named Jack.
In addition to adaptability, another important theme is the need for companionship. This need drives Isherwood to travel first throughout his hometown, then throughout the nation, in search of people with whom to settle after the Great Catastrophe. When he finds no one he wants to keep in his company, he returns home, and finally finds people to settle with. In addition to combining skills and knowledge, this companionship provides Isherwood and the Tribe with important emotional connections that support their continuing adaptation. Ultimately, Isherwood stops dreaming of the civilization he had because he has the companionship he needs, and together, the Tribe adapts to not only survive, but to thrive.