Oryx and Crake

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History, Language & the Humanities Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Scientific Progress & Its Costs Theme Icon
Corporate Power & Commodification Theme Icon
Humans & Animals Theme Icon
The State of Human Relationships Theme Icon
History, Language & the Humanities  Theme Icon
Extinction & Evolution Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Oryx and Crake, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
History, Language & the Humanities  Theme Icon

Oryx and Crake portrays a world in which the humanities – history, literature, even language itself – have become devalued in the face of the rise of science, consumerism, and entertainment culture. History has become little more than fodder in video games, such as the game “Blood and Roses” that Jimmy and Crake play, while one of the last colleges to focus on the humanities, the Martha Graham Academy, is run down and a subject of jokes by those in the sciences. Language and writing is primarily a tool for corporations to advertise and market their goods, and as a result language becomes superficial and flat, unable to evoke deeper human feelings or ideas.

Even so, the novel emphasizes the importance of language and the humanities, and their vital role in making humans human. Jimmy knows that being a “word person” makes him inferior in his society, but he cannot give up his love of language, often repeating to himself lists of old words that, though no longer used, bring him at least some happiness and comfort. And the novel implies that Jimmy being a “word person” in fact humanizes him. While Jimmy is literally one of the last actual humans on Earth after the plague, the novel implies that in a sense that Jimmy is one of the last true humans even before most other humans die from the disease. His humanistic or “general thinking” as Crake calls it, is what saves him, figuratively and literally.

The novel worries that a progress-obsessed culture which only looks forward, and fails to attribute meaning and significance to the past, might cause people to fail to see themselves as members of a unified human culture; might cause them to cease to be “human” in a way we would recognize. The book suggests that an unchecked pursuit of scientific progress has a dehumanizing effect—Jimmy’s feeling of isolation and alienation and his desperation to hold on to obsolete and outdated words and images is indicative of this. Even more importantly, though Crake tried to breed such “cultural” and “humanistic” needs out of the Crakers, they continue to have an interest myth, religion, and even art. Crake developed the Crakers because he believed them to be the most “elegant” solution to the problem of survival. That he could not breed out their interest in history, language and art suggests that these things are not simply a source of happiness or ethical integrity but actually integral to human survival itself.

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History, Language & the Humanities ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of History, Language & the Humanities appears in each chapter of Oryx and Crake. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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History, Language & the Humanities Quotes in Oryx and Crake

Below you will find the important quotes in Oryx and Crake related to the theme of History, Language & the Humanities .
Chapter 1 Quotes

It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

There's no better symbol for order, scientific rigor, and civilization than the clock. As human beings have learned more and more about technology, their clocks have gotten steadily more accurate, to the point where they can measure time to within mere billionths of the correct figure.

In the present sections of this novel, however, civilization isn't what it used to be. Snowman lives in a post-apocalyptic world in which order, science, and civilization have broken down. The world is a dark, chaotic place, and Snowman is frightened of it. Snowman, we later learn, was raised in a world in which time was taken for granted--simply to be alive is to know what time it is. The absence of official time, then, is a brilliant symbol for the collapse of humanity and the return of timeless, primeval nature.


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There are a lot of blank spaces in his stub of a brain, where memory used to be.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Snowman, we're slowly learning, is our window into the fictional society of the novel: he's the main character, and his experiences of the world comprise the novel's plot. And yet in his present self Snowman isn't a particularly reliable witness: as we learn here, he's suffering from various mental problems, brought on by the horrors of civilization's collapse. In all, then, Snowman's account of history will be fractured, fragmented, and generally full of "blank spaces." In such a way, Atwood suggests the fragmented nature of history itself. In a society that's broken down to the point where it can't even keep time, history has distorted to the level of myth. Snowman will do his best to remember the past, but we won't always be able to take his account one hundred percent seriously.

Chapter 3 Quotes

From nowhere, a word appears: Mesozoic. He can see the word, he can hear the word, but he can’t reach the word…this is happening too much lately, this dissolution of meaning.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Snowman, in the present, experiences a crisis of the mind. He's suddenly conscious that he's losing his command of language--he remembers the word Mesozoic, then realizes that he's forgotten what, exactly, the word means.

It's telling that Snowman, in a post-apocalyptic world, is forgetting language. (Although Atwood also makes a point that in the pre-apocalyptic world, there is a "dissolution of meaning" as well.) Language, like time, is a symbol of civilization as its best: language is rigorous, standardized, and useful for understanding the world. As order breaks down, so does meaning: it's as if Snowman is reliving the collapse of civilization via the collapse of his vocabulary. (It's also darkly humorous that Jimmy can't remember the meaning of "Mesozoic," which refers to a long-ago period in time, before human beings existed--human beings appear to be headed for another Mesozoic era.)

Strange to think of the endless labor, the digging, the hammering, the carving, the lifting, the drilling, day by day, year by year, century by century; and now the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere. Sandcastles in the wind.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Snowman contemplates the slow deterioration of civilization. Human beings themselves are long-gone (except for Snowman, seemingly). And yet the emblems of their civilization are still around: cities, statues, paintings, machines, etc. Now, the second phase of human extinction is beginning: the slow deterioration of the things humans built.

The passage is lyrically poetic: it compares the slow destruction of material culture to the destruction of a sandcastle, suggesting that, for all their impressiveness, even the great buildings and machines of mankind are "mortal." The labor and ingenuity that went into building such devices, while not exactly wasted, didn't protect the devices from the elements or the slow destruction of time.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“We give people Hope. Hope isn’t ripping off!”
“At Nooskins’ price it is. You hype your wares and take all their money, and then it's no more treatments for them…Don’t you remember the way you used to talk?...you had ideals, then.”
[…] “There’s nothing sacred about cells and tissue.”

Related Characters: Sharon (speaker), Jimmy’s father (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jimmy's parents have an argument about the morality of Jimmy's father's genetic research. Jimmy's father works for a corporation called NooSkin that's pretty clearly corrupt and immoral: it charges people huge sums of money in return for a "new skin" that won't get old or show signs of aging over time. The corporation also researches its technology by experimenting with human DNA, combining it with animal DNA in various unusual ways.

Sharon's attack on her husband's research is twofold: first, she finds it immoral that a company would cheat people into buying new skins for such large sums; second, she seems to find something immoral and even unholy about mixing human DNA with animal DNA. It's the second objection that Jimmy's father focuses on--and perhaps it's a more debatable moral objection than the first. The implication of the passage, however, seems to be that Jimmy's father, in working with DNA so frequently, has lost all sight of morality, basic humanity, and the wonders of life: to him, life is now just a product to be modified and sold for money.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Homo Sapiens Sapiens was once so ingenious with language, and not only with language. Ingenious in every direction at once.”

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Jimmy thinks back on humanity's past greatness: a greatness that has been squandered, resulting in a post-apocalyptic society. Jimmy, an eloquent man who loves words and language, is particularly impressed with humanity's grasp of language, and is mournful for this loss. He also acknowledges that mankind was impressive in many different ways: it achieved scientific, technological, and musical greatness, to name only a few examples.

And yet Jimmy's tone seems rueful and regretful. Mankind was ingenious, yes, but its ingenuity couldn't save it from destruction: in fact, its ingenuity brought about its own destruction. Again, Atwood suggests Biblical or religious themes: mankind, in daring to be great, has brought on the punishment of the universe. Its ingenuity outstripped its morality, its sciences overwhelmed its humanity (and its "humanities"), and thus it sowed the seeds of its own ruin.

On some non-conscious level, Snowman must serve as a reminder to these people, and not a pleasant one: he’s what they may have been once.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman), The Crakers
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Snowman is again interacting with the Crakers, the genetically modified human-like creatures that Crake built. The Crakers share certain traits with humans, but they are more advanced in some ways and primitive in others. Snowman is like a god and a father-figure to the Crakers: his job is to take care of them, to make sure that they don't destroy themselves.

In this passage, Snowman realizes that the mythology and stories he's been teaching the Crakers is a kind of warning: Snowman is a survivor of the old world, and so paradoxically, his presence among the Crakers is a warning that the Crakers are flawed--they share DNA with an ugly, imperfect being. Ironically, Snowman, because he's one of the only survivors of the pre-apocalyptic human civilization, is taken as representative of that civilization, despite the fact that he's always hated it.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Crake thought he’d done away with all that…God is a cluster of neurons, he’d maintained…They’re up to something though. Something Crake didn’t anticipate. They’re conversing with the invisible. They’ve developed reverence.

Related Characters: Crake, The Crakers
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Snowman thinks about the new society that's arisen on Earth, after the decline of humanity. The Crakers have been bred by Crake to be uncreative, emotionless, and basically atheistic. And yet the Crakers are still drawn to art, mythology, and religion: they have a strong religious instinct, apparent in their embrace of the mythology Snowman has invented for them. The Crakers, against all the odds and their own genetic makeup, have maintained a human capacity to worship the divine.

The passage is interesting because it suggests the rivalry between Jimmy (Snowman) and Crake: Jimmy seems to be getting revenge on Crake by teaching the Crakers to worship everything that Crake hated (religion, stories, myths, etc.). Crake, we can tell, was an atheistic person with a highly scientific turn of mind: he didn't believe in "myth" of any kind, whether it was religion, poetry, or fiction.

Chapter 8 Quotes

So a lot of what went on at Martha Graham was like studying book binding or Latin: pleasant to contemplate in its way, but no longer central to anything, though every once in a while the college president would subject them to some yawner about the vital arts and their irresistible reserved seat in the big red-velvet amphitheater of the beating human heart.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Related Symbols: Inside
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

Jimmy doesn't go to a very prestigious school: Martha Graham is a run-down school devoted to the humanities, an area of human knowledge that few, if any, people continue to value in his society. Jimmy is perfectly aware that his society no longer values what he's interested in studying: the subjects at Martha Graham seem esoteric and "useless" compared to most of what Jimmy has seen in the professional world (Jimmy grew up around scientists and businessmen, after all). Even Jimmy himself doesn't seem very enthused when the president of his college makes a speech about the importance of the humanities to the human heart and one's inner life--Jimmy likes the arts, but he has no illusions about their importance to society.

The passage could be interpreted as Margaret Atwood's assessment of the place of the humanities in her own society. As the world becomes more technologically advanced and consumer-oriented, art and literature seem to be growing more and more unimportant--it's possible that someday they'll be considered as esoteric as book binding.

Chapter 9 Quotes

The striped-pyjamas guy upstairs must have been a word person, then: a RejoovenEsense speechwriter, an ideological plumber, a spin doctor, a hairsplitter for hire. Poor bugger, thinks Snowman.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Snowman surveys the ruins of what was once the headquarters of a mighty corporation. Snowman discovers the corpse of a former employee of the corporation--and on closer inspection, he discovers that the employee owned poetry books, suggesting that he was a humanities person, just like Snowman. The employee must have spent his life writing copy for the corporation--selling his verbal talents for money.

The passage conveys some of the pitfalls of the futuristic humanities major (or, for that matter, the present-day humanities major). People who study English and writing don't have many job opportunities--and as a result, they often end up working for large corporations. The advantage of working for such a corporation is that one has a job--the disadvantage is that one's writing is strictly controlled; it has to be centered around the same basic message, "Buy our products." In short, the passage reminds us that Jimmy's world didn't place much stock in words or the humanities in general, unless they were in the service of making money.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“If you take ‘mortality’ as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then ‘immortality’ is the absence of such fear. Babies are immortal. Edit out the fear and you’ll be…”
“Sounds like Applied Rhetoric 101.”

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman) (speaker), Crake (speaker)
Page Number: 303
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Jimmy first meets the Crakers, the genetically modified beings that Crake has created. Here Crake claims that the Crakers have been programmed to die when they're 30 years old. But Crake also explains that they are "immortal" in the sense that they don't have any concept of death (like Adam and Eve before their fall, in another possible Bible reference).

In this passage we get a better idea of just what Crake values and doesn't value about humanity. He doesn't have a problem with death--or at least he doesn't yet know how to avoid it--he just has a problem with thinking about death. Thus his "perfect" being (the Crakers) aren't necessarily long-lived, they just lack the capacity to wrestle with larger issues like love and mortality (essentially, what art and the humanities are all about). The Crakers don't have to suffer over sex, love, or death, but they can't achieve any kind of joy, fulfillment, or enlightenment either.

Chapter 13 Quotes

Here are Crake and Oryx, what’s left of them. They’ve been vulturized, they’re scattered here and there, small and large bones mingled into disarray…He’s grinning with all the teeth in his head. As for Oryx, she’s face down, she’s turned her head away from him as if in mourning. The ribbon in her hair is as pink as ever.

Related Characters: Jimmy (Snowman), Crake, Oryx
Page Number: 335
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Snowman, patrolling the ruins of old corporate headquarters, come to the dead bodies of Crake and Oryx: the scientist and his supposed lover. Even in death, we can tell a lot about Oryx and Crake: Crake is still grinning, as if in recognition of the fact that his plan to kill the world has "succeeded" (even if his version of "success" is pretty morbid). For her part, Oryx is an object, through and through: she's been exploited for her beauty and her sexuality again and again. Thus, Oryx's face is turned away from Snowman: she remains a mystery, both to Snowman and to us. (The turned head could also symbolize Oryx turning her back on the destruction Crake has masterminded and she has unknowingly assisted in.)

Oryx  is undeniably, transcendently beautiful, to the point where she seems to stand outside the deterioration of time--a fact symbolized by the beautiful pink ribbon in her hair. The ribbon could also evoke Oryx's creativity and hopefulness--even when the world is in ruins all around her, she radiates joy and beauty, something that transcends mere survival.

Had he been a lunatic or an intellectually honourable man who’d thought things through to their logical conclusion? And was there any difference?

Related Characters: Crake
Page Number: 343
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Snowman/Jimmy tries to make sense of Crake, perhaps the most complex character in the novel. Jimmy wonders if it's right to classify Crake as a madman--or if he deserves to be called a genius. Jimmy also wonders if his madness and genius are one and the same.

Based on what we know about Crake, it's possible to agree with Jimmy that his friend is a madman. Crake seems insensitive to the thoughts and feelings of other people, and he's singularly fixated on working for his corporate employers (even if his "plot" to kill off the world is ultimately a kind of rebellion against corporate culture) and improving the human race to make it more "elegant." Crake, one could also argue, is misunderstood: he doesn't really understand the human heart, can't really love, and actually thinks he is doing the right thing in ridding the earth of "superfluous" humanity.

On a more abstract level, Jimmy's observations about the similarity between genius and madness tells us a lot about Jimmy's civilization. Jimmy grew up in a world in which values were deteriorating even as science was constantly advancing. Humanity's genius was never in question--and yet humanity wad clearly losing its collective mind, selling cures for diseases it had just invented, and tricking consumers into buying new skins and extra kidneys. The best proof of the proximity of madness and genius is civilization itself.

Chapter 14 Quotes

“We made a picture of you, to help us send out our voices to you.”
Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble.

Related Characters: Crake (speaker), The Crakers (speaker), Jimmy (Snowman)
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

Snowman returns to the Crakers to find that they've made a picture of him. The picture, Snowman realizes, is a form of art--disproving what Crake had predicted about the Crakers (Crake had claimed that the Crakers would show no interest in art, and also warned that art was dangerous to the human species).

It's important to keep in mind that the "art" that we see in this scene isn't just art--it's also religion. The Crakers make an image of their god-figure and leader, Jimmy, to summon him back--a clear echo of the talismans and icons common to nearly all the religions of the world. Try as he might, Crake has been unable to "stamp out" the religious and creative instinct in his genetic creations: the Crakers seem to be just as hard-wired for creativity and wonderment as human beings.

Is Crake justified in claiming that art is the first sign of trouble? Atwood has shown that it's also possible that science and immoral scientific experimentation can eventually lead to destruction.The creative instinct, and the religious instinct, it would seem, are flawed, but they're fundamental parts of what it means to be human, and ultimately they're longer-lived than any scientific advance could ever be.