Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

Joanne Greenberg’s main concern in “The Supremacy of the Hunza” is with the encroachment of civilization and technology on human society. The central question raised by the events of the story is: What role can, or should, an individual take to preserve a way of life about which he or...

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Joanne Greenberg’s main concern in “The Supremacy of the Hunza” is with the encroachment of civilization and technology on human society. The central question raised by the events of the story is: What role can, or should, an individual take to preserve a way of life about which he or she feels strongly? The simplicity of the question belies the complexity of the answers suggested by this story. The central characters, Margolin and Westercamp, present two contrasting attitudes toward the question.

Westercamp is an idealist, but his idealism appears at first to be founded in a kind of blind naïveté. He has only a superficial knowledge of more primitive civilizations. They exist for him not as real communities but as symbols of a pristine form of human society that has become overwhelmed by the march of progress. He comes alive when he is working for a cause; he wastes away when he cannot generate enthusiasm for his ideals. His vision is Utopian, and he is willing to work to bring about his ideal society in the real world.

Margolin perceives Westercamp’s activism as folly. Unlike his neighbor, Margolin takes only those steps that he believes will not interfere with his own routines: He calls his lawyer and he calls the power company. These are clearly civilized responses. On the other hand, Margolin has what he believes is a firmer understanding of societies such as the Chontal and the Hunza. His anthropological studies have provided him some insight, it is true: He knows, for example, that such societies were racked with disease, that hard work caused the population to age prematurely, that living in these communities often amounted to no more than grubbing out a day-to-day existence against the harsh elements of nature.

His experience with the young Indian in the mental hospital shocks Margolin into realizing that the heritage of these primitive societies is in fact disappearing; civilization has indeed destroyed what was good in these peoples as it alleviated their physical deprivations. Further, he realizes that his own knowledge of such societies is also defective. His wife’s observation that he does not “know primitive man any more than” Westercamp does hits home. As a result, as he comes to understand the commitment that drives Westercamp to continue his activism in the face of defeat and disappointment, he realizes that such beliefs are necessary if modern humanity is not to be overwhelmed by its own inventions.

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