Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651
The novel takes its title from a religious alphabet book that Ann had as a child, which began “A is for Adam” and concluded “Z is for Zachariah”—a progression that led the toddler to deduce that if Adam was the first man, then Zachariah must be the last. This point emphasizes that O’Brien’s narrative will be an inverted Creation story, although it is less about the creation of a new world than it is about the hoped-for reclamation and reformation of an old one. O’Brien uses such reversals throughout the story, from Loomis’ hypothesis that the valley has been preserved through “some kind of an inversion” to the author’s use of the younger character to embody the values of tradition (literature, the pioneer spirit, and religion) and the older character those of inventiveness, change, and iconoclasm, as Loomis scoffs at Ann’s churchgoing and burns her copy of Treasured Short Stories of England and America. Similarly, O’Brien goes against stereotypes in associating his female character with physical labor in the out-of-doors, while the male character stands for weakness and confinement to domestic spaces. Gender, indeed, is something that Ann has relinquished, as she has learned to enjoy the “male” tasks that she once disliked and to feel comfortable in the male clothing that circumstances have forced upon her, so that Loomis’ attempt to coerce her into the female sexual role is doubly a violation.
Yet, Ann is less an inversion of femininity than a new version of it—and, perhaps, of humanity overall. If she is the culture-bearer, preserving through her piano playing and poetry reading the intellectual equivalent of the seed crops that she tends in order to enable future agricultural bounty, she simultaneously symbolizes the rejection of certain mistakes that her culture has made in the past. Loomis’ lack of human connection (he seems indifferent to his childhood and never founded a family of his own), his calculating and haunted personality, his obsession with achieving absolute mastery over his surroundings—all hint at the failings that have caused this society to destroy itself. Ann’s very different mode of intelligence and competence suggests that when she finds her future home—and the narrative gives readers reason to hope that she will indeed discover a new place to live—she will teach the rising generation another way to live, without abandoning the independence and capacity for hard work that she and Loomis have in common.
The novel is also a coming-of-age narrative in which the protagonist must come to terms with adult sexuality (which she is allowed to reject), with the recognition that romantic dreams may have little to do with reality, and with the necessity of leaving the “garden” of the home in order to enter a difficult and inhospitable world. In this sense, Z for Zachariah goes beyond the boundaries of conventional science fiction or pacifist/political didacticism to become a quasi allegory about maturation and the changes that it demands of a peacefulness that might threaten to turn into stagnation. The happy ending here requires that Ann and Loomis switch places instead of returning to the roles that each occupies at the beginning of the story: Loomis needs the fertile and productive isolation of the valley if he is to gain the perception—the knowledge of good and evil—that he lacks, while Ann needs not calm but flux, not a community of one or two but a larger community where she can both learn and teach. That O’Brien offers hope in this rewriting of Genesis even for the snake, as one last hears Loomis calling out to Ann with directions that may lead her to new life, reminds readers that growing up, even under adverse circumstances, is as positive as it is pain-ful. To come of age is necessarily to go forward, even if it means leaving Eden behind.