Author: skr330

The Evolution of Zombies in Literature

On Sunday we discussed the ideas of ‘zombies’ in the texts we have read and compared them to that in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. We arrived at the conclusion that in previous works, the notion of The Zombie – though never explicitly mentioned – alluded to the idea of an infected being wilfully infecting another. However, given that Whitehead’s novel is based primarily on the subject of zombies, this definition does not lend itself as simply to the storyline, considering that we encounter elements of the zombie on many different levels – from that of ‘skels’ and ‘stragglers’ to the idea of the pre-apocalyptic world being trapped in a perpetual zombie-like state. Considering how the definition/ the use of zombies change depending on the work and the time in which it was written, I think it is necessary to look at a timeline of the major representations of zombies in literature.

1.The Epic of Giglamesh (dating back to 1000BC): recounts the struggle between the hero, Giglamesh, and the Gods, as he embarks on journeys and that displease and angers them. In the 6th (of 12) tablet, there is the suggestion of a zombie when the Goddess Ishtar claims that she will attempt to raise the dead who in turn will outnumber and outlive the living by devouring them.

2. The Bible (!): There is reference to zombies in the Bible itself:

Ezekiel 37:10: So I prophesised as I had been told. Breath entered the bodies and they came to life and stood up. There were enough of them to form an army.”

Revelation 11:11: “After three and a half days, a life-giving breath came from God and entered them and they stood up; and all who them were terrified.”

3. The Revenant: A zombie figure established in the Middle Ages. These zombies would return from the dead in a skeletal human form, to avenge wrong that was done by them when they were living.

4. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818): Although not a zombie novel, it dwells upon the notion of a character that is a walking, murderous corpse, with his only distinction from the modern day zombie being his ability to think and speak as the living do.

5. H.P. Lovecroft’s Herbert West – Reanimator (1922): define what we now understand as a zombie. The novel recounts the life of a mad scientist named Herbert West who endeavours to reanimate corpses, creating violent and primal beings.

6. The ‘Romero Zombie’:  Godfather of the modern zombie George Romero (horror writer and director), defined the zombie that we know of today – walking, mindless, dead, decomposing figures with the intention to devour the living. Romero introduced the idea of the zombie apocalypse – that there was absolutely no escape from these predators. His production Dawn of the Dead is the first to elaborate upon the effects on the world after the apocalypse, where the living struggle to survive and the zombies (the un-dead) outnumber their prey.

7. Today: In literature today, much like Whitehead’s Zone One, the notion of zombies is used to allude to apocalyptic fear; the fear for the safety of the world; the fear that humans – once infected – have the ability to inflict this chaos, and harm each other. 

Zombies have also featured in movies for decades, and they have indeed evolved over time. This video demonstrates the evolution of zombies in film, which is similar to the evolution of zombies in literature works after the 20th century. The fact that zombie movies are still being made today (Warm Bodies and World War Z (2013)) shows that the appeal of zombies is very much alive (pun intended). 


Polio: The Nemesis

So far in Philip Roth’s Nemesis we encounter Bucky Cantor – a primary school PE teacher – who is the playground director in the summer, the season of Polio infestation. Cantor has been denied membership in the army due to his poor eyesight, which as left him feeling inadequate and ashamed – he feels he is being judged by the wider community for his lack of participation in the war effort:

“He was ashamed to be seen in civilian clothes, ashamed when he watched the news reels of the war at the movies, ashamed when he took the bus home to Newark from East Orange at the end of the school day and sat beside someone reading in the evening paper the day’s biggest story…he felt the shame of someone who might by himself have made a difference as the US forces in the pacific suffered one colossal defeat after another” (p.27).

It is evident that Cantor has a strong affinity towards the children, and is distraught by the fact that they are dying as a result of this “summertime disease”, so much so that when his girlfriend Marcia, suggests that he leaves the school to accompany her and, to some extent, save himself from contracting the illness, he refuses, saying that “I can’t leave them. They need me more than ever. This is what I have to be doing” (p.85). This bond he shares with these students is seen once again in his resentment towards God for directing this disease towards the children only:

“But for killing Alan with polio at twelve? For the very existence of Polio? How could there be forgiveness – let alone hallelujahs – in the face of such lunatic cruelty?” (p. 75).

We see in this instance, a central question the novel poses: what is the significance of polio being contracted by young children as opposed to teenagers, adults or those of an older generation?

It is clear that Cantor is disappointed with God. He has taken away his father, his mother and most importantly his paternal figure and mentor in life – his grandfather. This naturally brings about the next question: why does God do the things He does – why does He interfere in this way? Can we link this involvement of God during contagion-based crises to any of the other texts we have read so far? How do they compare to Nemesis?

This interference has made Cantor reflect upon the idea of what a “real family” should be, and how himself had not grown up in one, as he was raised by grandparents as opposed to the boys in his class who were “sons of their parents” (p.123). What are some elements that define what a family truly is, looking at previous texts?

We see Cantor’s distress over the fact that children are dying as opposed to adults, with the death and funeral of Alan, who will “remain twelve forever” (p.63). This idea of death freezing one’s existence in time alludes to the notion of the timelessness of death – a concept that appears subtly in the novel and primarily when Cantor reflects as to whether his mother would have looked as his grandmother does, had she been alive, which goes to show that the image that he has of her is a picture frozen in time, unchanged by external circumstances, as is now the case of Alan.

It is undeniable that the playground has a sense of eeriness to it. It seems to be the both the breeding ground for polio, and is slowly consuming the children – it appears to be an entity of its own and a central cog in the drama of the novel, affecting several, if not all, of the plots and subplots. Can you think of instances in previous texts where a non-human figure has been this influential in the action of the story? Perhaps blood and money in Dream of Ding Village? Can you think of any others?

We have encountered an array of narrators in the texts we have read. What is the significance of this text being narrated by a man (who was once a child in the Newark playground), who was infected by polio, keeping in mind what we have aforementioned about the degree of unfairness about children being the targets of this disease?

We hope this leads to an interesting class discussion about this text!

By Camila, Simi, Sudikchya and Silviu