Earth Abides Characters

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Isherwood Williams

Ish is a young man who is working toward his college degree when the virus strikes. Ish, as he's known, is bitten by a rattlesnake just as the virus outbreak apparently hits it peak. He later believes that there's some connection between the rattlesnake bite and his own survival of the deadly disease. Ish has never fit in well with others, preferring to slip off by himself to read a book rather than go to a dance. He first feels that this trait is a benefit to him in the world after the virus kills so many, but later sees it as a "vice." He spends the first months wandering around and observing the changes that happen to his world without encountering more than a few people. When he meets Em, his life changes and the two of them are immediately drawn to each other, effectively ending Ish's singular lifestyle. He does continue to live somewhat "outside" the others that join their little community. He is constantly observing and fears that they are not making the progress back toward their previous civilized culture as much as they should.

Ish is somewhat proud of himself. He believes that his intellect is superior to those around him and because of that he carries an incredible burden. He spends most of his life after the virus believing that it's up to him to resurrect civilization. He carries on the idea for many years thinking that he must teach the children to read and write and to do mathematics. He worries that the next generations will be forced to revert to the ways of the cavemen once there are no more bullets or matches and he wants to teach them to read so that they can cash in on the vast stores of knowledge in the books of the public and university libraries. He eventually comes to terms with the knowledge that the world has changed and what the next generation needs is the ability to adapt to that world. He stops holding school and teaches them to create a bow and arrow and to start a fire without matches.

After the virus, Ish and Em are joined by a small group, and Ish is the last of them to die. In his old age, he's revered by the younger ones, almost as a god. He is consulted almost as one would consult a psychic for directions on specific matters. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren live without running water or electricity or motorized transportation, but he realizes that they've survived and continue to live. Even without the knowledge of reading, they survive. In his final moments of life, Ish comes to peace with the life he has lived.


Ish meets Em in California after the months of traveling. From his own home one day, he sees smoke that was likely from a chimney. He resists the temptation to go to it but later feels that was probably a mistake. That night, he sees a light from her house, muted because there is no electricity and she's using a gas lantern. He drives to her house but having already met some mean and devious people, isn't certain whether to approach the house. He's just decided to leave when his dog, Princess, runs to the door. Em opens it and shines a light into Ish's eyes. She then turns her attention to Princess and invites Ish inside where Princess is already running laps around the house. Em had been married, had two children and apparently lost them all to the virus. She was some ten years older than Ish but the two of them connected immediately. He spent the night and they moved to his house the following day.

Em is a strong character. She believes in the good of others and seems always anxious to lend her own strength to anyone in need. When some fear that an outbreak of typhoid is because they've provoked the wrath of God, Em is quick to point out that God would not punish them for doing what they believe to be right. Even Ish, who is a solitary person by nature, tends to draw strength from Em whenever he begins to doubt himself. Em can see past the immediate present to realize that there is a purpose to having children. When Ish is afraid of the dangers and feels there is no reason for it, Em reminds him that his view means mankind would simply die out.


Joey is the youngest child of Ish and Em and has a twin sister, Josey. Ish admits that he's not particularly bonded with any of the children though he talks of wrestling with them on the floor when they are children. Ish has half-heartedly taught the children to read and write and do simple math but suddenly realizes that Joey can read fluently and is above average with regard to book learning. Ish pins all his hopes for a return to civilization on Joey, believing that if any child can carry on the old ways to take the people back to the days of civilization, it will be Joey. However, even Ish realizes that it is a huge task and worries that it would be too easy for the little boy to push too quickly. Once, at the university library, Joey asks his father about the light bulbs that hang unused in their homes. When Ish explains about electricity, Joey then asks if he might someday restore the electricity.

Joey is a frail child and unable to keep up physically with the other children. However, he is something of a brat, according to Ish, when it comes to lording his intellect over the others. He sometimes seems not to want learning for learning's sake, but to show the other children what he can do. Joey is among the five who succumb to typhoid when a man named Charlie comes into their midst and spreads the disease.


Ezra meets Ish and Em soon after the two of them set up house together. Ish notes that there had been travelers who stopped by briefly and that he and Em never wanted any to stay until Ezra. Ezra does leave but soon returns with two women, a young girl and the son of one of the women. He introduces each of the two women as "wife," and sets up the practice of bigamy in the little community. Ezra has the ability to help others work well together, to smooth over tense situations and to make friends. Ish says that it's a testament of that ability that he has two wives and that the two often work together, never seeming to argue or become jealous. When Charlie arrives on the scene, Ezra backs up Ish's concern that the man is trouble and Ish, saying that Ezra seems to like everybody, is relieved to have the man on his side. As Ish nears the end of his life, only Ezra who remains at his side. He and Ish often sit in the sun, as two old men in any time period are apt to do, talking of the old days and wondering about the next generations.

Jack, the Great-Grandson

Ish becomes aware of Jack one day as the young man shows him an arrow. Ish, it seems, had been greatly unaware of his surroundings for some time but is suddenly interested in this young man who is so eager to talk about any number of topics. It's from Jack that Ish learns that the young people all carry bows and arrows for two reasons - that the guns are too unreliable and that anyone can shoot a gun whereas it takes skill to hunt with a bow and arrow. As Jack shows Ish an arrow he made himself, Ish notes a pointed arrowhead of some type of metal. He learns that the younger generations have learned to shape coins into arrowheads. Jack says that the thicker ones - nickels - are harder to shape and less often used than pennies, dimes and quarters. Jack carries Ish away from his home once the fires threaten their living area. When Ish realizes that he's dying, he is pushed to decide who will get his hammer - a symbol of leadership and power in the community. He chooses Jack.


George is a carpenter who survived. Ish describes George as a plodding person and notes that you can hear a pause in his thinking even before he says anything. It's George who keeps the houses in good repair and can fix almost anything. George was originally an acquaintance of Ezra's. It's not until Ezra returns to Ish and Em that George and the woman he's taken as a wife, Muriel, join them.


Charlie is in the company of Richard and Robert who travel out from Ish's tribe in order to report on the condition of the world outside their own community. Charlie charms several of the older people and some of the younger and apparently has sex with Evie, a young, simple-minded woman. Charlie tells Ezra that he has sexually-transmitted diseases, and it's known that he carries a gun. Charlie is hanged by a unanimous vote of the makeshift council of rulers as they fear what he will do to their community and their young people. Soon after Charlie's death, typhoid breaks out in the community, and five die. Some believe it's the wrath of God for killing Charlie but Ish is certain that Charlie brought the disease with him. After that, they are careful about allowing outsiders access.


Maurine is the woman who lives with George. She has been nothing but a housewife, and Ish is always amazed that her home looks like a decorator's showplace. She has surrounded herself with lamps, a phonograph and fancy clock, though none of them work without electricity. She carefully crumples scarves on the tables to achieve a specific look. While Ish can't understand, Em says that it's simply her way of consoling herself - by surrounding herself with the pretty things she would have wanted in a normal lifetime.


Ezra brought Evie along when he arrived back on San Lupo Drive. She was apparently about five or six-years-old when the virus attacked and had survived by eating whatever she could find, mostly from cans. Evie grows into a beautiful young woman and is not many years older than two of the boys of the tribe, including Ish's own son. However, the older ones teach the younger men that Evie is not to be touched, fearing that she'll have half-witted children who would become a severe drain on the small self-contained society. When Charlie takes her sexually, the others are forced for a time to restrain her physically inside the house. She seems to want to find Charlie. Her condition is not mentioned again until her death some years later.

Milt Abrams

Milt is a former jewelry store owner who has survived in New York City. He is living with a woman named Ann who is clearly not his wife, and Milt seems somewhat embarrassed by the fact. Milt and Ann are living in a nice apartment having had the opportunity to take their pick of places. They play cards together and intend to remain in the city. Their fate is unknown.


Mary is Ish and Em's oldest daughter and the first to marry. She weds Ralph, the son of Molly who is one of Ezra's wives. Ish notes that Mary and Ralph would have previously been considered too young, but in the new culture it's accepted and encouraged to marry early. Ish says that Mary becomes stolid with age and with each child she produces. While he continues to value intellect, he says that could actually be a very good thing and that people like Mary would likely do well in this new culture.

This section contains 1,993 words
(approx. 5 pages at 400 words per page)
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