In the morning, the group discovers that the anthropologist is gone. The psychologist, who seems shaken, explains that what the anthropologist saw in the tunnel unnerved her, and she didn’t want to continue with the expedition, so she went back to the border to await extraction. The surveyor notes that she left her gear, including her gun. The psychologist tries to say that she only took what she needed, and the biologist wonders why the psychologist isn’t using hypnosis on them.
The anthropologist’s disappearance here begins to illustrate how the biologist’s mistrust and self-reliance are advantages in this situation. Even though they’re part of a team, the biologist knows that she has to look out for her own survival, and it’s increasingly clear that the psychologist is untrustworthy, as her response to the anthropologist mysteriously dropping out of the expedition seems suspicious.
Sensing that the psychologist is lying, the biologist knows that she and the surveyor have a choice: they can accept the explanation or reject it, which would only cause even more conflict. The psychologist quickly changes the subject, saying they should stick with their plan to investigate the tower. The biologist doesn’t want to leave Area X before completing this investigation, so she agrees that they should continue the mission without the anthropologist. The surveyor grudgingly agrees.
The possibility that the psychologist is lying further confirms that the biologist’s self-reliance, mistrust, and isolation is justified. The surveyor also seems increasingly skeptical of the other team members as well, and their expedition is at risk of completely breaking down.
At the tower, the surveyor and biologist plan to spend the full day inside while the psychologist stands guard at the top of the tower. They have their weapons and breathing masks, but the biologist is wary of the psychologist, wondering what she is trying to guard against. The surveyor says that going down together would be safer. The psychologist replies that there’s no “reward in the risk” of everyone going down, using a tone that hypnotizes the surveyor and causes her to agree with the psychologist. The biologist has no choice but to agree, despite her fear of what the psychologist might do.
Again, the manipulation that the psychologist is using on the surveyor—and that the biologist is now immune to—is beginning to break down their expedition. This further justifies the biologist’s mistrust, since the psychologist is simply using hypnosis to take advantage of them rather than to keep them calm and safe. Even though the biologist feels that she has no choice but to agree and go along with the psychologist here, the fact that she can question the psychologist’s motivations shows how her self-reliance continues to protect her.
The biologist notices on this descent that the tower is breathing, as though it is made of living tissue. The biologist sits down next to the wall and frantically presses the surveyor’s hand to it, asking if she can feel the wall. The surveyor is afraid, saying that the wall is only made of stone. The biologist wants to explain everything—about the psychologist hypnotizing them—but she doesn’t. She knows the surveyor can’t experience what she’s experiencing, so she has no real proof. The surveyor worries about the biologist, but they continue on, the depths now revealing much greater biodiversity and beauty.
This exchange reinforces how difficult it is for a person—and especially for two people—to truly be objective about what they’re both experiencing, particularly when immersed in a given environment. Because of the spores’ influence, the biologist now knows information about the tower that the surveyor doesn’t. Yet even though the biologist clearly believes in her own perspective, there is no way to make the surveyor believe that she (the biologist) is the one who can see clearly. Neither of them can be fully sure what the objective truth is, because they can’t pull back from the environment that they’re in.
The biologist chose her career path due to an overgrown swimming pool in her backyard growing up. Her parents were neglectful, and so they did not clean the pool. This led to it becoming a brackish bog with moss and towering plants; dragonflies and beetles; and eventually bullfrogs, local birds, and turtles. Within months of their renting the house, the pool became a functioning ecosystem, and the biologist loved to observe it.
The biologist’s recounting of her origins as a scientist illustrates the persistence and power of nature. Even in a human-made environment like a swimming pool, nature is able to retake its territory and build this fully functioning ecosystem as the biologist describes. This shows how easily nature can resurge and take over human environments when given the chance, even outside of Area X.
The biologist’s parents scolded her, thinking that she was too introverted. But when she told them that she was being bullied, they let her continue to observe the pool, day and night. One day, however, her parents couldn’t afford the rent anymore, and they moved to a tiny apartment. The biologist worried about the fate of the pool under a new tenant. She never went back to discover what happened to it, and she hasn’t looked back in any of her projects since. She just waited for the moment it would all be taken away.
This episode hints at the origins of the biologist’s introverted tendencies by suggesting that her childhood was filled with bullying and isolation. The fact that she never went back to the pool—and that throughout her life, she was constantly waiting for things to be taken away from her—also connects her self-reliance to that isolation. The episode suggests that this mistrust has contributed to her relationships breaking down or not forming in the first place, as she is worried that the things (or the people) she loves will be taken away from her.
The biologist and the surveyor continue to descend into the tower, and the biologist almost wishes that she weren’t aware of the tower’s true nature, wondering how the psychologist withstood the knowledge. The biologist again observes the words on the walls, which continue in one long nonsensical sentence: “to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives…”
The vastness and eeriness of the tower, as well as the unsettling words on the walls, underscore the tower’s sublime and incomprehensible nature. The biologist is now able to understand the reality that the psychologist was able to see, but this doesn’t mean that she can understand it. Being unable to comprehend what is right in front of her eyes is part of the inexplicable nature of Area X and the tower.
The biologist and surveyor are both able to see the words and the creatures living among the words. But only the biologist can see that the walls subtly rise and fall, like breathing, or that there are markings of words that had been there previously. The biologist wishes that the linguist was still with them, but eventually she can make out some of the phantom letters discussing “wickedness,” “God’s love,” and a “higher power.” She wonders if they come from prior expeditions and feels defeated not understanding what the markings mean.
The fact that the tower seems like a beast that can breathe, and that the biologist and surveyor seem to be descending into its “gullet” again illustrates the power of nature in Area X—it can literally consume them. The rest of the tower’s words also reinforces its sublime feeling. The words again hint at some biblical meaning, and they are both sacred and eerie. This evokes both awe and fear, and the biologist’s inability to interpret them reinforces how some mysteries simply cannot be solved.
After an hour descending the stairs, the surveyor notices that the words seem to be fresher. The biologist asks the surveyor to turn off her light, and the surveyor hesitates, still rattled from the biologist’s earlier outburst, but she ultimately complies. In the dark, the biologist can see that the glowing colors seem brighter than before, and the words sway with the inhale and exhale of the walls. The biologist says that “something” below them is writing this script, and the surveyor seizes on the biologist saying “something” rather than “someone.” The surveyor then says they should get out their guns, though the biologist is wary of doing so.
The biologist and surveyor’s interactions illustrate how the biologist’s self-reliance and mistrust of the world around her is undermining their relationship. Because of the biologist’s earlier outburst, and her insistence that she could see something the surveyor could not, the surveyor is now extremely skeptical of the biologist. Likewise, the biologist worries about what the surveyor might do if they take out their guns. In this way, the lack of camaraderie between them is starting to make them turn on each other.
The energy becomes much more charged as the biologist and the surveyor continue to descend, walking more swiftly and speaking quietly. After 20 minutes, they notice a residue on the floor, like slime, as though something has slid down the stairs. There are also a variety of marks and tracks on the ground that the biologist finds fascinating but can’t identify. Then they find a set of boot prints—their own, the biologist thinks, noting they look “so mundane in comparison.” But then the surveyor indicates that it is actually a third set of boots, heading up the stairs rather than down.
This section, as the biologist starts to discover hints about the creature that she believes is writing on the walls, also evokes the sublime. The comparison of the biologist’s own boot print as “mundane,” in contrast with the creature’s tracks, suggests that the creature is complicated and incomprehensible to her at this point, and that she herself is less worthy of consideration than the beauty and mystery of Area X.
According to the records the group received, the first expedition reported that there was nothing unusual about Area X, but the second and third expeditions did not return, and subsequent expeditions had varying success. The biologist’s husband was on the 11th expedition as a medic. He was recruited by a friend, and though he was unsure at first, their superiors gradually convinced him, which caused a great deal of conflict between the two of them. The biologist hopes that her account shows her to be a credible, objective witness—someone who volunteered for Area X to fulfill the purpose of the expedition. But she knows that she was affected by her husband’s experience there.
This passage calls the biologist’s objectivity and reliability as a narrator into question. She states that she has hidden the fact that her husband was on the 11th expedition in order to prove herself as a credible, objective witness. And yet, withholding this information actually has the opposite effect—showing that she is deliberately withholding and manipulating information to bias readers’ perceptions of her.
About a year after the biologist’s husband left for the expedition, she lay alone in bed at night when she heard a noise—he appeared in her kitchen, eating and drinking furiously. He didn’t remember how he left Area X and had only vague memories of the expedition. He was calm except for moments of panic about his amnesia. He had also lost memories of how their marriage began to disintegrate—he now was as emotionally distant as he accused the biologist of being in the past.
As the biologist starts to provide hints about her relationship with her husband, she illustrates that they, too, had a great deal of distance and mistrust in their relationship. She implies that her guardedness and self-reliance created a deep conflict in their relationship, to the point that their marriage nearly disintegrated.
After talking, the biologist helped her husband shower and change before they had sex, and she realized that he only vaguely remembered her, as if through a fog. The next evening, the expedition’s leaders came to collect him, and the biologist could only visit him in the observation facility afterward. She never really pierced his amnesia, and he died six months later of cancer. Whatever happened in Area X, he had not truly come back.
The fact that the biologist’s husband came back from Area X completely changed—and unable to express how he had changed or what had happened—illustrates nature’s power over the human beings. It seems that something in Area X’s environment affected him severely, giving him amnesia and cancer, the latter of which ultimately killed him.
The biologist and surveyor continue to descend into the darkness, and the biologist wonders if her husband took the same journey or saw something completely different. The path of slime grows thicker, and despite their concerns, they press on, their curiosity outpacing their fear. But then, the surveyor rounds a corner and immediately doubles back, explaining in fear that there’s a body below them, slumped on the side of the wall. The biologist convinces her to keep going so they can examine the body, and then they can turn back. The surveyor agrees.
Despite all of the horrors and oddities that the biologist and her colleagues experience, the biologist’s curiosity always outpaces her fear; she tries to appreciate Area X’s mysteries even if she may never understand them. This is not true of all the expedition members, however—the surveyor’s fear seems to outpace her curiosity at times, as it does here when she spots the body.
The biologist goes first, and she realizes that the body is the anthropologist. Her face is burned, her jaw is broken, and her legs appear half-melted. Her black box lays crushed several feet from her body, and there are also glass vials strewn around her. The surveyor follows, drawing out her assault rifle and aiming it into the darkness. Above the anthropologist on the wall, words read, “the shadows of the abyss are like the petals of a monstrous flower that shall blossom within the skull and expand the mind beyond what any man can bear.” The biologist posits that the anthropologist interrupted the writer of the words.
The discovery of the anthropologist’s body underscores nature’s power over human beings, in that the writer of the words was able to have this kind of destructive effect on the anthropologist. In addition, the fact that the anthropologist’s black box —which was theoretically supposed to warn of danger—has been crushed reinforces the idea that nature is much more powerful than any human attempt to stave off danger. The words also tie into the sublime nature of the tower, suggesting that what lies in the tower (“the monstrous flower”) expands the mind “beyond what any man can bear,” which is true of the anthropologist because her face and jaw are so severely injured. This suggests that there are some things that human beings simply cannot bear to understand.
Surveying the ground, the biologist realizes that whatever left the slime had turned in a frenzy in a clockwise swirl, but the anthropologist’s boot prints were on top of the swirl. The biologist begins to form an image in her mind of the anthropologist creeping down alone in the dark, perhaps hoping to take a sample. But a dozen steps up, there is another, fourth set of boot prints. The biologist then realizes that the psychologist and anthropologist came down together, and the psychologist hypnotized the anthropologist. She forced her to walk up to the thing that was writing the words on the wall and try to take a sample, which led to her agonizing death.
The biologist’s realization that the psychologist lied about what happened to the anthropologist and actually led the anthropologist to her death further undermines her trust in the psychologist and justifies her self-reliance. The biologist’s mistrust will presumably continue to protect her from the same fate, even at the cost of destroying the team dynamic.
The biologist explains her theory to the surveyor, noting that the psychologist has been hypnotizing them while she (the biologist) has been impervious. The surveyor is aghast, wondering why the biologist did nothing if she knew about the hypnotism, and wonders if it’s even true. The biologist tells the surveyor that they may need to restrain or kill the psychologist, because she clearly has some kind of ulterior motive. They put in earplugs, hoping to avert the hypnotism, and turn back to confront the psychologist. Before they leave, the biologist finds one of the glass tubes strewn around the anthropologist with a sample in it.
The surveyor’s reaction to what the biologist is telling her only further emphasizes how destructive the atmosphere of mistrust has become, even though it is helping the biologist survive. The biologist has no faith in the psychologist—but the surveyor also isn’t sure who she can trust, whether the biologist’s story is true, and if it is true, why the biologist didn’t do something about it earlier. This illustrates how the secrecy in their relationship—even though it is a helpful survival instinct—has broken the expedition down.
As they ascend, the biologist is amazed at her own gullibility and how there was so much misdirection in their mission—starting with the map. Memorizing its details stopped them from asking questions about it, and the biologist realizes that it may have been a cue for hypnotic suggestion. As part of the training, she had become familiar with Area X’s ecosystems, but she also received a refresher course on fungi and lichen that she realizes was likely the true purpose of her studies. The group largely trained apart rather than together, and they knew very little about one another. By the time they were ready to cross the border, they knew “everything… and [they] knew nothing.”
Even though the members of the expedition were all part of a team, the fact that they trained apart illustrates that, in reality, they are fundamentally alone. The biologist realizes in hindsight how little she questioned the mission’s procedures or the information she was being given (which she characterizes here as “nothing” useful). But in accepting the sinister nature of Area X and how the expedition’s leaders were manipulating them, the biologist is better suited to continue on because of her ease with isolation and her inherent mistrust of others.
When the biologist and surveyor emerge, the biologist is shocked at how mundane the outside world feels in comparison. They cannot find the psychologist. Even at base camp, they can’t find her, but she took half their supplies and most of the guns, so they know that she is alive. In less than a week, they have lost three out of five members of their group, and the surveyor decides to believe the biologist’s story. The biologist, meanwhile, is still grappling with the horror that the psychologist coerced the anthropologist into her own death.
Again, the biologist underscores how sublime and complicated the tower is by comparing it to the “mundane” aspects of the rest of the world. Additionally, the biologist’s mistrust of the psychologist is now completely justified, as she is convinced that the psychologist manipulated the anthropologist into her own death. Therefore, relying on herself and keeping her immunity to hypnosis a secret has been incredibly important to protecting her own life.
With the surveyor wondering what to do next, the biologist decides to examine the samples and photographs they took and return the next day. The surveyor, fighting some internal impulse, says that she doesn’t want to return to the tunnel. Instead, she wants to go back to the border and wait for extraction. The biologist refuses, saying that she’s not ready to go back. The surveyor notes that the biologist really likes it in Area X. To convince the surveyor, the biologist says that they should look at what they brought back, and they can always return to the border the next day. The surveyor agrees. The biologist can’t bring herself to say that they might not really make it back—they might be amnesic, like her husband was.
The surveyor’s acknowledgement that the biologist really likes it in Area X underscores the biologist’s innate desire for isolation, her reliance on herself, and her mistrust of others. This is underscored by the fact that she still isn’t fully forthright with the surveyor in mentioning that they may not be able to make it back over the border in the same state. This is causing tension in their relationship, but it hints at the idea that the biologist does indeed feel freer, and even safer, being on her own, isolated in the wild.
The biologist spends the rest of the afternoon looking at samples and developing photographs. She finds most of her samples confusing—organisms that she doesn’t fully understand. The sample that the anthropologist collected, however, is unique. It is brain tissue that looks human, with some irregularities. The biologist questions if it’s actually human or if it’s just pretending to be human, and she wonders how the anthropologist took the sample. She also wonders if, having been infected by the organism’s spores, she might be causing a reaction in the sample.
The observations that the biologist makes again suggest that she is trying to be as objective as possible about Area X. However, she again hints at the idea that it may be impossible for her to actually be objective, because she has been infected with the spores. This not only illustrates the power that nature has over her body and mind, but it also underscores the idea that being immersed in an environment makes it impossible for her to be objective about that environment.
The surveyor then examines the photographs they took in the tower, noting that they are all out of focus, as if the walls were emanating something that distorted the image. The biologist also realizes that she should have sampled the walls, because she knows they were part of something living. The surveyor also reports that there’s nothing in the maps and papers, except that they all seem to be focused on the lighthouse. The surveyor asks what to do now, and the biologist says they should eat dinner, look along the perimeter for the psychologist, and think about what to do the next day. The surveyor insists that they’re not going back into the tunnel.
This exchange sets up a contrast between the lighthouse and the tower, even though the biologist has stated that she views the tower as an extension of the lighthouse. Whereas the lighthouse is a familiar structure to them—they know a lot about it, and it suggests the idea of safety, like boats being shown the way home—the tower is exactly the opposite. It represents the mysterious, the sublime, and the unknowable—even to the point that they can’t seem to get a proper picture or sample of it.
The familiar moaning begins at dusk again, but the biologist hardly notices it. It begins to rain as the biologist and surveyor eat in silence, and then when they set off for bed, the biologist and surveyor take turns standing watch in the storm. When it’s the biologist’s turn, she steps outside into the storm and feels as though the life she left behind was a dream, and that this is the only place that exists. Through the darkness, the biologist sees a flicker of orange, which she realizes must be coming from the lighthouse. After a few minutes of flickering, it becomes snuffed out, and the biologist grows restless.
The biologist’s thoughts that Area X is the “only place that exists,” and that the outside world is completely unreal, further suggest her unreliability as a narrator. She has become so affected by and immersed in Area X that she has lost her grip on the world beyond what she can see in front of her. And here, the book begins to illustrate how the lighthouse, though a traditional symbol of refuge, now seems just as insecure as the rest of Area X. It is now the home of something unknown, and its light, which is usually its guiding beacon of safety, is both literally and symbolically snuffed out.
The final weeks before the expedition, the biologist and her husband argued violently. She shoved him and threw things at him to break his resolve, hoping to prevent him from going on the mission. Their relationship had already been struggling, because he was gregarious, and she preferred solitude. This once brought them comfort, as they balanced out each other’s personalities, but no longer. She thinks that at first, she must have been mysterious to him, like a puzzle to be solved. He thought she pushed him away—even saying her isolation caused him to want to go on the expedition.
Here, the biologist emphasizes how her isolation and secrecy in her relationship essentially destroyed her marriage. In the end, this dynamic fostered mistrust, which consequently split them apart. As the biologist’s husband suggested, her isolation pushed him away and caused him to want to go on the expedition—which ultimately led to the end of their marriage and to his death. This suggests that even though the biologist’s isolation is both innate and helpful to her in certain situations, it also harms her relationships.
Once, the biologist told her husband about the pool, which made him think there were more revelations to come. He said he would have found her surly and grim at that age, but also fascinating—he would have followed her anywhere. They took pride in having a strong relationship as opposites, until their marriage revealed the difficulties in this fact and “destroyed [them] over time.”
Again, the biologist emphasizes how mistrust and secrecy in a relationship can “destroy” it. It has become clear through her narration that she isn’t always forthcoming about herself, and this led her husband to feel that she didn’t trust him and that he couldn’t trust her.
The biologist brought up none of their arguments when her husband returned from his expedition, knowing that their time together was likely running out. He was blank and mournful, which he had never been before, and this frightened her. They talked about his journey—though he remembered little—and about her new research, which was rather boring to her. They had breakfast, had sex, watched television, and tried to play a board game. But the fact that he was not entirely present and had gaps in his memory became more and more apparent.
The course of the biologist’s husband’s day at home with her, following his time in Area X, calls back to the biologist’s comparison of the sublime and the mundane. The mundanity of their day puts into stark relief the mystery of what he experienced in Area X—which is particularly tragic, given the fact that he remembered so little and was changed in ways that the biologist couldn’t understand.
After a nap, the biologist realized that her husband had left their bed. She panicked, eventually finding him on the side of the house, standing in front of the boat he bought a few years earlier. He looked at it as though he remembered that the boat was important to him but not why. After a while, she couldn’t take his silent distress and brought him inside; he didn’t resist.
The biologist’s husband’s amnesia makes the distance that he always felt between them more literal for the biologist, as she experiences the heartbreak of not knowing what is going on in his inner life. This relates back to the secrecy and isolation she held onto in their relationship, which made her husband heartbroken prior to his going to Area X.
After dinner, men came for the biologist’s husband in unmarked cars with a surveillance van. They approached him with watchful gentleness, like he was an unexploded bomb, and he left without protest. The biologist couldn’t have stopped him, but she also didn’t want to. He was a shell of himself—someone she never knew—and that’s why she called the phone number to take him away.
This passage illustrates how the disconnect between the biologist and her husband eroded their relationship, to the point that the biologist made the decision to destroy it. This isn’t so different from what her husband did in choosing to go to Area X—pulling himself away from their relationship because he couldn’t face the distance between them.
The biologist later visited her husband in the observation facility, where he had little to say except to express a deep and unending solitude, which eventually killed him. However, the biologist wondered if the solitude would have killed her if she went on the expedition, too. As she labored at her job, she kept thinking about Area X, wondering what it would be like to go there. Several months after her husband died, she volunteered for the next expedition. She thinks they accepted her as an experiment, but she wonders if they always expected her to sign up.
This is another example of how the biologist is drawn to things she doesn’t understand. She knew that her husband’s fate was terrible, but she wondered if she might experience something entirely different—perhaps even enjoying Area X because of the freedom and solitude it might afford her. Additionally, her ominous assessment that her superiors may have always thought she would volunteer for Area X hints that they may know much more information about Area X—and about her—than they let on, again justifying her mistrust in them.
At base camp in the morning, the biologist feels a “brightness” spreading through her chest from the spores. She now has a decision to make, because she knows someone was in the lighthouse the evening before, and she’s torn between the lighthouse and the tower. The surveyor has no interest in either, even though it might be the psychologist in the lighthouse—she’s worried that the psychologist will have a much better vantage from the lighthouse, and there are weapons there. The biologist argues that it’d be better to find the psychologist before descending into the tower.
The fact that the biologist feels the “brightness” from the spores spreading throughout her chest symbolizes the idea that nature is overtaking her, literally spreading throughout her body and making her a part of that nature. Her decision to visit the lighthouse rather than the tower shows how she, too, is drawn to the lighthouse as a symbol of safety, even though she logically knows that it will actually put her in a very unsafe position with the psychologist.
The surveyor scoffs, realizing that the biologist still thinks that they’re continuing with the mission. The biologist says, “There’s no reward in the risk of going back to the tower right now.” The surveyor is temporarily disoriented, but it becomes clear that she knows the biologist tried to use one of the psychologist’s hypnotic cues and resents her for doing so. She says that the biologist would do anything to get her way, and the biologist starts to get nervous that the surveyor is the one holding the rifle.
The mistrust, secrecy, and lies continue to undermine the biologist’s relationship with the surveyor, as she echoes the psychologist’s words from earlier in order to try to control the surveyor. The biologist’s isolation and mistrust are helping her to protect herself, but as a result, she is completely destroying any remaining ability to work together and help each other.
The surveyor explains that she has been bothered by the fact that everything they have is made from 30-year-old parts, and that they’ve been living in some sort of reenactment. The biologist doesn’t respond to this, but she instead asks if the surveyor will stay until the biologist comes back. The surveyor grudgingly says yes, and the biologist says not to promise anything she can’t back up—the biologist no longer believes in promises. The surveyor curses at the biologist, who sets off for the lighthouse.
This exchange shows how the surveyor and biologist’s mistrust in each other has completely fractured their relationship. The biologist no longer believes in anything the surveyor says, and the curse she earns in return shows that the feeling is mutual. But despite the destruction of their relationship, the biologist finds a greater freedom in letting herself investigate the lighthouse, knowing that she might be better able to protect herself alone.