The biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, and the psychologist all start out for Area X; they are the first expedition to travel there in more than two years. The group is entirely women, and the psychologist is the expedition’s leader. She put them all under hypnosis while crossing the border to make sure they stayed calm; they then hike four days to base camp. The expedition’s purpose is to continue the government’s investigation into Area X, working their way out from base camp. They have supplies for six months, but their mission could last years.
The book’s opening pages hint at the incomprehensibility of Area X—first and foremost, in the Area’s name, as “X” often stands in for the unknown. This suggests that its unknown nature is the foundation for the government’s desire to investigate it. The biologist—who is the narrator of the book—also establishes the group dynamic among the women: she is part of this team headed by the psychologist. These facts already hint at some secrecy and mystery surrounding Area X, because they have to be hypnotized in order to cross the border.
The group has no watches or compasses; their only equipment is a measuring device made of black metal with an indicator. If it glows red, they have 30 minutes to get to a safe place, but they have no idea what the device measures or why they should be afraid if it glows red.
The black metal device hints at some of the secrecy that permeates the expedition and the biologist’s early mistrust. Even though the box is supposed to indicate danger, they understand very little about the danger, even though everyone in the group is well-educated and trained in their respective fields. This adds to the eeriness and mistrust that Area X inspires.
The group reaches their base camp, where they replace obsolete or damaged equipment. The members of the previous expedition disappeared abruptly from Area X, and when they appeared back across the border, they had no memory of recrossing the border, unlike prior expeditions. So, the current expedition has to look out for anything that could cause this kind of memory loss.
The fact that the previous expedition came back with severe memory loss hints that the nature in Area X has the upper hand over the human expeditions. Area X appears powerful enough to prevent humans from acquiring information about it.
As the group approaches base camp, which is situated next to a forest filled with plant and animal life, they also notice eerie signs of long-ago human habitation. There is an odd, powerful moaning each day at dusk, and it is difficult for them to recognize which direction it comes from. The biologist relays that even their basic experiences—seeing the black water in nearby bogs, the grass, and the gray forest, and hearing the low moaning—are difficult to fully communicate or understand. Area X is beautiful and also desolate.
Here, the biologist establishes the sublime (unknowable and awe-inspiring) nature of Area X. She suggests here that the moaning and the environment are so beautiful and desolate as to be incomprehensible and incommunicable to others. This passage also returns to the idea that nature is more persistent and powerful than human beings, because nature has overrun the civilization of whatever humans lived there previously.
On their fourth day in Area X, the group finds what the biologist calls a “tower.” It is about 60 feet in diameter and rises up from the ground only about eight inches. The northmost point of the tower opens up to reveal a spiral staircase winding down into the darkness. The biologist doesn’t know why she calls it a tower, considering it tunnels below the earth, but it is the word that comes to her—she remembers the lighthouse on the coast that they saw when they arrived at Area X, and she views the tower as an extension of that lighthouse into the ground. She writes, in hindsight, that this is the first “irrational” thought she had.
This passage, describing the tower for the first time, not only hints at the biologist’s difficulty in remaining objective in Area X, but it also illustrates that this is a story the biologist is continuing to grapple with. Her comment that this was her first irrational thought in hindsight suggests that she is recounting this story from an unspecified future time. Additionally, this comment introduces the idea that her experiences of Area X may not always be reliable ones, because she was thinking “irrationally” at the time.
The surveyor is shocked to see the tower, as it is not on any of their maps. The anthropologist isn’t quite sure how to identify the tower’s origins, as the materials are hard to identify. The group has no way of informing their superiors of the discovery, as it is a rule that expeditions do not make outside contact (for fear of some kind of contamination), and they have no technology to do so. They do, however, have weapons: knives, handguns, and one assault rifle.
Here, the book hints that the expedition—particularly the biologist—is already tending toward mistrust in the face of these revelations. Although the biologist doesn’t comment on these facts directly, mentioning that they can’t make outside contact but that they have weapons illustrates her mistrust in their superiors. It seems that perhaps they’ve inadequately prepared the group for the mission and the potential threats that they face.
It is expected that they will all keep a journal like the one the biologist is writing, which will either return with them or be recovered by the next expedition. They have been ordered to provide maximum context but not share their journals with one another, because too much shared information could skew their observations and lead to too much subjectivity. But the biologist knows that true objectivity is hopeless.
Even though the intent in not sharing information is to be objective, the biologist explicitly recognizes that being truly objective is impossible. This is particularly true when telling a story about one’s own experiences, as the biologist is doing. Not sharing observations also isolates the women from one another, making them increasingly mistrustful of one another’s judgments.
The psychologist is excited by their discovery and asks if the others are also excited. The biologist feels like the psychologist’s tone is like that of a bad actor, but she says that she’s excited, even though she feels a growing sense of unease. The surveyor shrugs, and the anthropologist nods. The biologist doesn’t use the others’ names because they were told that their personal lives should be left behind—and besides, only the surveyor will survive beyond the next day.
The biologist’s unease in this moment, despite her agreement that she is excited about the tower, points to the biologist’s mistrust of the psychologist and feeling of separation from the rest of the group. The fact that they don’t use names or reveal anything personal on the mission also adds to the overall sense that despite being part of a team, in reality, the women are quite isolated from one another, because there’s no camaraderie or personal relationships between them. In noting that only the surveyor will survive beyond the next day, the biologist foreshadows that this lack of connection between them will contribute to the expedition’s failure and the other women’s deaths.
Originally, the expedition had five members and included a linguist. To reach the border, the biologist recalls that they had to enter a white room with a door and a metal chair with straps around it, which alarmed her. The facility was under the control of the Southern Reach, the government agency that dealt with everything connected to Area X. The biologist doesn’t remember much of the process to get ready for entry into Area X, but the linguist never reappeared—the psychologist explained that she had second thoughts.
The description of the room the team entered also hints at an ominous beginning to the expedition, shrouded in a nondescript government agency. The fact that the biologist doesn’t remember experiencing anything in the white room also adds to the secrecy surrounding the exact purpose and reasoning behind certain elements of the expedition. This provides some context as to why she may mistrust the other people involved in the expedition—particularly the psychologist, who seems to be the team’s leader.
The psychologist then hypnotized the other members so that they would not experience hallucinations when crossing the border, but the biologist isn’t sure that this is the real reason she hypnotized them. When she woke up, she was in full gear across the border, lurching with the new weight of 40-pound backpacks and supplies on their belts. The psychologist seemed almost smug as the others struggled to adjust.
The more that the biologist relays about the psychologist, the clearer the implication that she does not trust the psychologist or the reasons that she was hypnotizing them. The biologist is much more inclined to rely on herself rather than others. Her observation that the psychologist was smug in reaction to their struggles also suggests the beginnings of a conflict between them.
Looking around, the biologist found herself on a dirt trail with ants and beetles and tall pines on both sides. They marked their location with a red cloth; if the psychologist became incapacitated, the others were told to return here to wait for “extraction”—though they were never told what “extraction” meant. They were told not to look back upon arrival, but the biologist did anyway when the psychologist wasn’t looking. However, she only saw a hazy, indistinct light—perhaps a gate or a trick of the eye.
The biologist’s short vision of the border illustrates two key points: first, it shows how she does not trust the government agency or the psychologist. She is trying to get extra information about Area X despite their warnings not to—particularly because so much of their expedition has already been characterized by tightly controlled information and secrecy. Additionally, the fact that the biologist can’t get a good view of the border hints that the human mind cannot fully understand some things about Area X.
The biologist qualified for the mission because she was familiar with complex ecosystems, and Area X had many of these different environments, with forest and swamp and beach all coexisting close to one another. She understood why no one lives in Area X, but she chose to believe that it was simply a wildlife refuge that she was discovering. And, she thought, it hardly mattered what lies she told herself, because the real world had become empty to her.
Here, the biologist illustrates where she begins in terms of how she thinks about nature: as something to be studied, controlled, and protected, as in a wildlife refuge. In this way, she falls into the common belief that humans are stronger than nature. Additionally, the biologist hints that she is telling herself lies because the real world has become uninteresting and meaningless. This foreshadows her eventual reveal of why she has come to Area X, and it again suggests that she is not being fully transparent or objective in her narration.
The fourth night, the group discusses the tower, though the other three insist on calling it a tunnel. There is a vague protocol between them, where they each have some autonomy to decide on what they want to explore, according to their skill sets. The surveyor has medical and firearm experience, the anthropologist was once an architect, and the biologist knows very little about the psychologist.
The fact that the biologist calls the passageway a tower, while the other women call it a tunnel, demonstrates how difficult it is for people to be objective about an environment they’re immersed in. The biologist can’t help but think of it as a tower, while the others can’t understand why she sees it this way, illustrating that perception is inherently subjective.
The discussion of the tower is the group’s first opportunity to test the limits of disagreement and compromise. The anthropologist wants to explore farther and map out what’s around them before returning to the tower. The surveyor believes they should start with the tower to make sure there’s nothing invasive or threatening in it. The biologist agrees with the surveyor, interested that it seems deliberately excluded from their maps. Inwardly, the biologist is fascinated with the structure—she can’t tell if she craves or fears it.
The biologist’s senses of craving, fearing, and being fascinated by the tower all evoke sensations that are similar to her arrival in Area X. They again connect to the idea of the sublime—that some things are so beautiful and terrible that they cannot be fully understood, even as people are drawn to them. Moreover, the biologist’s desire to explore the tower shows her reliance on herself rather than other people.
The psychologist weighs all of the opinions and asks if anyone wants to leave yet—everyone shakes their heads. The psychologist agrees that the tunnel unsettles her and that they should investigate it. They then bid each other goodnight, as it has become dark. Sitting alone with her thoughts, the biologist wonders what could be hidden at the tower’s base.
The psychologist’s unsettled reaction to the tunnel is similar to how the biologist feels about it. Even when looking at the same structure with the same facts, the women cannot make sense of it or even agree on what the structure is. Additionally, the biologist’s fixation on the structure and what could be at its base hints at the unknowable mysteries that lie there.
During the four-day hike from the border to the base camp, the group experienced nothing out of the ordinary. However, on the last day of their journey, a 700-pound wild boar appeared and charged at them. The surveyor grabbed the assault rifle to take aim at the boar. However, when the boar approached, the biologist noticed a spark in its eyes, a kind of inner torment. It veered left abruptly with a cry of anguish and threw itself into nearby underbrush. When the group arrived at the spot where it landed, the boar was gone, and the biologist thought it might have been victim to some neurological parasite.
The encounter with the boar illustrates how persistent nature is, in that it is actively trying to defend itself from the humans who are trying to investigate and conquer it. Even though the surveyor is able to ward the boar off, it survives, and its resilience hints at more severe encounters to come. Additionally, the description of the boar as having inner torment and a spark in its eyes foreshadows the biologist’s later revelations about the mysterious origins of some of the creatures living in Area X.
The morning after the group discovers the tower, they rise early. The surveyor gives them each a handgun and grabs the assault rifle herself as they approach. With the gun, the biologist feels a new tension. Members of the second expedition had committed suicide, and members of the third had shot each other, which makes the biologist nervous. They are the 12th expedition.
The weapons continue to ratchet up tension in the group. The grim history of the expeditions makes the biologist even more mistrustful and self-reliant, as she worries about the potential for violence on this expedition. Thus, her isolation and mistrust aren’t just an emotional wall between her and the rest of the groups—they’re also helpful protective instincts.
At the tower, the group examines the structure. The psychologist comments on the tower’s different measurements: its height, its diameter, and its building materials. She wonders whether a storm may have uncovered the entrance, which is why it was not previously on their maps. The biologist thinks that the psychologist is simply trying to reassure herself with facts, and that it must be difficult to lead a mission like this.
The psychologist’s reliance on facts illustrates her desire to be objective, particularly as a scientist. But the biologist recognizes that relying on facts is a somewhat fruitless reassurance—not only because even facts can be manipulated, but also because these facts don’t do much to explain the tower’s mysteries.
The biologist reiterates that she thinks of the structure as a tower, not a tunnel, and the others grudgingly accept her perspective. The surveyor descends first, struggling on the short steps. She calls out that everything is clear to the first level, and the biologist and anthropologist follow the surveyor as the psychologist stands watch at the top. Underground, the stairwell is cool, dusty, and slightly damp. Twenty feet below the surface, the structure opens out to a lower level with an eight-foot ceiling and blank, off-white walls. There is another staircase opposite the opening where they arrived, and the biologist still thinks that she’s correct about this being a tower.
In contrast to the psychologist’s reliance on facts, the biologist continues to introduce her subjective perspective that the structure is a tower, rather than a tunnel. As the women descend, and the biologist continues to reaffirm her point of view, the tower symbolizes the idea that when one is entrenched in an environment (even literally, in this case, as they are completely surrounded by the tower’s walls), it is impossible to truly be objective about that environment.
While the group is familiar with the lighthouse that they saw on their first day at base camp, the tower’s purpose is totally unfamiliar to them. The biologist feels uncomfortable in the silence, and she asks many questions as to the tower’s potential origins and purpose, hoping to stave off that silence.
The biologist’s comparison between the lighthouse and the tower illustrates their different symbolic purposes: while the lighthouse represents a point of safety that is familiar to them, the tower represents the unknown and the sublime, because it inspires both fear and fascination in the biologist.
The group looks down into the second stairwell, where the biologist observes glowing green vines along the left wall, progressing into the darkness. Eventually, she realizes that the vines spell out words: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that…” before the vines continue to descend into the darkness.
The words along the tower walls add to the ominous incomprehensibility of the structure—it’s both beautiful and terrifying. Even though the biologist has difficulty deciphering the words, the references to “strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner” perhaps alludes to the biblical tale of Adam and Eve. In this story, God forbids Adam and Eve (the first man and woman, according to the Bible) to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they disobey, God exiles them from the Garden of Eden (paradise). Thus, the message in the vines implies that trying to pursue knowledge—in this case, trying to understand Area X—will “bring forth the seeds of the dead,” rending them from their paradise, much like Adam and Eve. This suggests that knowledge may not always be good, and that some things are meant to be unknown.
The biologist gets closer to the vines, which in reality look like a green moss or fungi, packed close together. When the biologist leans in closer to the words, the W spews out golden spores, which get stuck in the biologist’s nose. Concealing the spores, she tells the others that the letters are made of some sort of fungi. They can’t seem to understand how the words got there, and it unsettles them.
Consuming the spores is a turning point for the biologist. First, it shows nature’s power over human beings, in that the fungus is able to infect her and, presumably, subsequently influence her. And second, the way the biologist hides the spores from the others again shows that she doesn’t trust them enough to reveal that she has been infected. She would rather rely on herself to deal with the problem, which will prove crucial.
The biologist tries to remain calm, but she is worried that she might be infected with something. She also realizes that the further she explores, the more the air will be full of potential contaminants. She decides not to tell the others anything and explains that they should go back up, hoping to prevent them from becoming exposed. As they all climb back up the stairs, the biologist has a moment of panic, thinking that the walls now have a fleshy aspect to them, like they’re traveling inside the “gullet of a beast.”
Keeping her contamination secret—despite the knowledge that the spores could be harmful—shows that the biologist inherently mistrusts the other members of her group. She doesn’t want to tell them that she has been infected perhaps because she is more worried about their reaction than she is eager to receive their help, showing her tendency toward self-reliance and isolation. In addition, this passage illustrates how the biologist’s perceptions are already being affected by the spores, in seeing the true nature of the tower. Moreover, the description as the tower as the “gullet of a beast” adds to the ominous atmosphere, as it gives the impression that the tower is a kind of organism that’s consuming the women.
At the top, the biologist tells the psychologist what they saw, and the psychologist insists on going down to observe the words. When the biologist suggests they get masks to avoid toxins, the psychologist says, “Paralysis is not a cogent analysis.” Later, the biologist realizes that the psychologist tried to bind her with a hypnotic suggestion before descending. At the top, the biologist wonders what the psychologist is doing and becomes agitated. Fifteen minutes later, the psychologist returns.
Again, the biologist starts to foreshadow the later conflict between her and the psychologist. While the biologist’s mistrust of the psychologist has been bubbling throughout the early part of the book, here the biologist realizes that her mistrust has been justified and even helpful, because the psychologist is manipulating them.
The psychologist flatly remarks that what she saw was very interesting. This offends the anthropologist, who becomes hysterical, exclaiming that she has never seen anything like the words before. The psychologist asks if the anthropologist needs to be calmed, but the biologist butts in to say they should decide what to do next. They return to camp for lunch and complete their regular tasks, while the biologist monitors herself for any biological changes from the spores. Gradually, she relaxes, hoping that the spores will have no effect even though she knows that they could simply have a long incubation period.
Even though the biologist is trying to monitor herself for biological changes, she doesn’t have a way of doing so objectively. Being consumed by the spores herself, the biologist wouldn’t have a way of knowing whether she was changing, because the spores’ effects could also involve psychological changes. This provides another example of the idea that it’s impossible to be objective when one is immersed in a situation or environment.
Back at camp, the group splits off to focus on individual tasks. The biologist sees a red and green tree frog, climbs up a pine tree, and stares at the ocean. She finds it much more refreshing than the world back beyond the border, which is “dirty, tired, imperfect.” In Area X, there is a wealth of life, and she often feels like the animals there are watching her—an impulse she fights, because she wants to remain objective about them.
The biologist’s comparison suggests that outside of Area X, the world has become “dirty, tired, imperfect” because it has been overrun by humans. In Area X, however, it’s implied that nature has once again become pristine and free of human influence. This suggests that nature can be just as powerful in reclaiming its territory as human beings are in destroying nature.
At dinner, the tension has lifted, and the group finds a renewed sense of camaraderie—though the biologist writes that it will prove short-lived. The biologist gets along with the surveyor, though she finds herself thinking that the anthropologist seems to lack mental toughness. As night falls, the moaning starts once more—but the beast in the marshes now sounds like “an old friend compared to the tower.”
In this moment, the biologist feels slightly less isolated and mistrustful of her peers. This camaraderie and ease even seem to extend to the moaning in the marshes, perhaps hinting at an external force that is now altering the biologist’s perception, because some things in Area X feel inexplicably more familiar than others. However, her statement that this ease will prove short-lived gives a sense of foreboding, and it suggests that her mistrust was perhaps justified and useful in terms of avoiding potential threats.
The psychologist decides that the next day they should return to the tunnel wearing breathing masks and investigate it further. Then the psychologist says, “Consolidation of authority,” and immediately the surveyor and anthropologist go slack, with their eyes unfocused. The biologist tries to mimic what they do, hoping the psychologist doesn’t notice. The psychologist says that they will retain a memory of discussing the tunnel and ultimately agreeing with her about that course of action. They will experience calm and continue to see a structure made of coquina and stone. They will not remember this conversation after she snaps her fingers but will follow her directives.
This is another major turning point for the biologist, as she recognizes that the psychologist is using hypnotism to influence her and the other team members. She also realizes that the psychologist is giving them a biased view of their surroundings (in contrast to their desire to stay objective about the place) by saying that they will continue to see a structure made of coquina and stone. This implies that the tower is not, in fact, made of these materials, and that the women’s “objective” perception of their environment does not actually reveal the truth. Witnessing this, the biologist sees that her mistrust has been helpful, as it helps her recognize the psychologist as a potential threat.
After the psychologist snaps, the women return to their tents. The biologist realizes how much control the psychologist has been exerting over them, and she guesses how the spores have affected her: they have made her immune to the psychologist’s hypnotic suggestions. This makes her a kind of conspirator against the psychologist; she now holds secrets that estrange her from the others.
Here, as the biologist reckons with her new discovery about the psychologist, the book implies that her isolation from the group and her mistrust of the psychologist has actually proven useful. Even if her closed-off nature is destructive to the expedition as a whole, it’s allowed her to see how the psychologist is taking advantage of them through hypnosis.
Estrangement is typical of the missions, as the biologist knows from having watched reentry tapes from members of the 11th expedition. They all said they experienced no unusual phenomena while in Area X, but all of them eventually had an intense desire to return home. Still, they could not explain how they managed to come back. They seemed to have a dreamlike calm about them, seeing the world through a kind of veil. At the time, the biologist was seeking “oblivion,” and she wanted the kind of benign escape they had—a death that meant not being dead.
Even though the biologist does not yet reveal what put her in the state that made her want to seek “oblivion,” it suggests again that there are personal reasons for her decision to seek out Area X. Moreover, it suggests that she is not being objective or forthcoming about her own story, even as she is trying to tell it plainly. She also seems to have an innate desire for isolation, as part of her motivation to participate in the expedition was to escape the outside world and find greater freedom in Area X.