Character analysis: Isherwood Williams from EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart

Essay by TheTimmehHigh School, 10th gradeA+, February 2009

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During trying times throughout American history, people have had to adapt to immense struggles and adversity in order to survive. During the Pilgrims’ first winter, the American Revolution, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, individuals pushed themselves beyond their limits and out of their comfort zones to face down loss and hardship. Following in their footsteps, Isherwood Williams from the book Earth Abides overcomes an unforgiving environment, numerous tragedies, and (most importantly) himself in order to help himself and his “tribe” succeed against all odds in a post-apocalyptic world.

Immediately following the Great Disaster, Ish returns to find his city frighteningly hollow and deserted, and he soon realizes what has happened. A plague has swept across the country, and he is the lone survivor, or one of very few. However, he does not let the shock of the event destroy him, and before long he is out on the road with a clear understanding that the world has changed, as evidenced by his treatment of the first person he discovers:“‘You stay here,’ he said to the collapsed body, on chance that it might still be able to hear.

‘I promise to come back.’ Having said this, Ish felt he had fulfilled a kind of minimal duty. He had really no hope. The eyes showed that Mr .Barlow had seen too much; the pulse, that he had gone too far. Ish drove away, making note, however, of the location” (Stewart 31).

After coming across the drunkard and seeing his condition, Ish quickly determines what he should do, and though he feels great pity, he does not let his emotions or sentiment keep him from doing it. Unlike Mr. Barlow, he has a purpose, and doesn’t let himself get distracted.

Ish continues to explore the country and eventually comes across a pair of survivors who he finds very pleasant. They are Milt and Ann, two city-dwellers who are still enjoying life despite the tragedy that has befallen the world, and they invite Ish to stay with them. However, after analyzing their situation much like he did Mr. Barlow’s, he again decides that he must move on.

“They were like the highly bred spaniels and Pekinese who at the end of their leashes had once walked along the city streets. Milt and Ann, too, were city-dwellers, and when the city died, they would hardly survive without it. […] The Drive curved, and he knew that they would now be out of his sight, even if he turned around” (Stewart 75).

Despite the fun he has with them, he still doesn’t forget his survival instincts, and he has the strength to let go when the time comes. Ish’s ability to make such difficult decisions will continue to serve him throughout his journey.

After weeks spent on his own, Ish finally discovers someone who he wants to spend the rest of his life with. Her name is Em, and before long they are expecting a child. This moves Ish to see the world in a different light, and realize the new obstacles in front of him.

“Now there lay before him no longer the mere drama of a world without men and of its constant adaptation. No longer would personal readjustment be his own dominating problem. Now there stretched away in the years ahead, the unfolding drama of a new society, reconstructing itself, moving on” (Stewart 124).

The prospect of a new and burgeoning society being created before his eyes is a life-changing moment for Ish, and he boldly takes on this new challenge. He knows that his life is not the only one at stake now, and he pushes himself to ensure the safety of his now-growing family.

Many years pass, and Ish’s community grows with the arrival of other survivors, as well as new children of his own. They look for guidance and leadership; Ish breaks out of his old shell and does his best to provide it.

“As he stood there, he was only in his own living-room, and he was talking only to the few people who were there. He knew that they were only a few, and yet it seemed to him not so much as if he were talking just to these few in this little room, but rather that he was in some great amphitheater and talking to a whole nation or to all the people of the world” (Stewart 153).

Ish has overcome his shyness and gained confidence in himself, but his audience proves to be a little less enthusiastic than he expected.

“’That’s the fine old speech again, Dad,’ Roger remarked. Ish glared at him angrily for a moment; having really been the leader of The Tribe for twenty-one years, he did not like to have himself put down thus as merely an old codger with some funny ideas. But then Ezra laughed good-naturedly, and everybody joined in the laughter, and the tension fell off” (Stewart 154).

Despite their initial reaction, Ish’s words are actually effective (to an extent), and, in his own way, he is able to inspire his people and call them to action. He is no JFK or Martin Luther King, but he has pushed himself past his old inhibitions, and that’s what matters more.

As Ish changes and develops throughout the story, he proves to himself and the reader that he can not only grit his teeth and survive on his own, but lead his community in the face of trials, tribulations, loss, and despair. He brings himself to terms with the world he’s thrust into after the Great Disaster, and accepts that he’ll have to do difficult or uncomfortable things in order to survive. Ish, the Last American, perseveres like so many Americans before him, and leads himself and those around him to live in relative happiness in an otherwise tragic world.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:Stewart, George R. Earth Abides. Random House, 1949.