Annihilation

by

Jeff VanderMeer

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Annihilation can help.

Annihilation: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As the biologist walks to the lighthouse, she observes the environment with new eyes: the marshes, the algae in the lakes, the oases of trees, the strange quality of light and the sense of waiting—which brings her “halfway to a kind of ecstasy.” She follows the path alongside driftwood, red grasshoppers, huge reptiles, walking for a long time without any sense of getting closer to the lighthouse.
The biologist continues to evoke the sublime in her descriptions of the landscape. This incommunicable sense of waiting, as she trudges interminably to the lighthouse, is both beautiful (as it brings her “ecstasy”) but also ominous and terrible (as it is filled with loneliness and foreboding).
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
The biologist thinks about what she found in the tower and the expedition overall. She knows an organism was writing living words along the tower, and whole ecosystems flourished among the words before dying off. The adaptation of the creatures led her to a “truthful seeing,” trying to tell her something about the tower. She has more questions: if the words mattered and where they came from, or if the organisms used words the way that birds incorporated whatever was on hand into their nest-building materials. Perhaps this is why the expeditions aren’t allowed technology in Area X, so that the organisms won’t be able to use it, either.
The spores allow the biologist to see her situation more “truthfully,” but it’s difficult to know what truth really means in this context, because she is so immersed in it. The biologist also realizes that getting a clearer look at Area X only sparks more questions, suggesting that sometimes, there is no satisfying answer to a mystery—one should simply appreciate it rather than try to solve it.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
The biologist posits that the words are essential to the well-being of the Tower or the Crawler (the thing writing the words) or both. The Crawler and the Tower could be intelligent and could have free will. They may want to create ritual, or they actually might be communicating. Perhaps the Crawler is communicating to the Tower, but the biologist realizes that there are too many possibilities, and she only has a small piece of what is a frighteningly large puzzle. By the time she reaches the deserted village at the halfway point to the lighthouse, the sense of brightness and energy in her chest from the spores continues—a feeling that she doesn’t trust.
Again, the more possibilities the biologist considers, the more she realizes that she may never truly understand the Crawler, the Tower, or the rest of Area X’s mysteries. Additionally, the infection from the spores worsens (again indicating nature’s power and persistence over human beings), she increasingly recognizes that the only way to truly satisfy the mystery is to accept that she might not ever have a full picture of the puzzle.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Prior to an Event 30 years earlier that locked Area X behind the border and began the inexplicable occurrences, the area had been part of a wilderness adjacent to a military base. People lived there on a wildlife refuge and quickly disappeared during the Event. When Area X first appeared, there was vagueness and confusion about it, and few people know that it exists: the public story is that it is a remnant of a localized environmental catastrophe, reported in stories in such a way that people didn’t notice it very much. Within a year or two, it was the province of many conspiracy theories.
This is another example of why the biologist’s mistrust in the mission and in the Southern Reach is well-founded. For years, the government lied about the public story surrounding Area X. Learning the truth of the Area only confirms how many secrets they were—and likely still are—holding about the Area. Additionally, Area X’s origin story points to the power of nature over human life, in that it was basically able to wipe out the society that lived there.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
Get the entire Annihilation LitChart as a printable PDF.
Annihilation PDF
During training, the biologist was told that the first expedition went in two years after the Event, setting up the base camp and providing a rough map. They discovered a pristine wilderness but felt a sense of being watched. Other members reported feelings of euphoria and extreme sexual desire. The biologist never saw their journals; she only heard recorded interviews. Some of their descriptions seemed inconsistent, like images of a village in a state of decay much longer than a few years old. The biologist is now convinced that she and the other members of the expeditions were given inconsistent information about Area X because their superiors knew that few, if any, of them would actually come back.
The fact that the biologist was not allowed to read the first expedition’s journals—just listen to recorded interviews, which are presumably edited—hints at the idea that the Southern Reach is trying to keep information from the 12th expedition. This mistrust is helping her separate herself from the Southern Reach’s mission and focus on her own desires to understand the mysteries in Area X to find liberation in solitude. In addition, the first expedition’s descriptions of what happened to them in Area X are not dissimilar to her own—everyone who comes to Area X seems to experience incomprehensible and contradictory feelings of euphoria and unease.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
When the biologist reaches the deserted village—halfway to the lighthouse—she sees it has 12 or 13 houses. Few of them have roofs or exterior walls that remain, leaving open views of their interiors: chairs, tables, a child’s toys. There are eruptions of vegetation that form approximations of limbs and heads and torsos—one “standing” and several “sitting” in a living room with a coffee table and couch, all facing one direction. The biologist takes samples of everything she can.
The image of vegetation forming limbs and heads—and the description of them as bodies that are essentially “standing” and “sitting” in houses—again suggests the power of nature. The image evokes the idea that nature has completely overrun the human beings that used to be here, essentially turning them into vegetation and integrating them into the landscape.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
As the biologist leaves the village, she sees something coming towards her in the nearby canal. She pulls out her gun until dolphins rise up out of the water. But when one swims close to her, she notices that the dolphin’s eyes seem “painfully human.” She only catches a glimpse as they submerge again, unsure of what she is seeing. She is shaken, worried that the natural world has become a kind of camouflage for something, and she continues toward the lighthouse.
This is another example of the mysterious nature of Area X, and it hints at how nature has completely overtaken humanity in the Area. It’s implied that the humans who lived or visited here have somehow become part of the landscape—perhaps transforming into dolphins with “painfully human” eyes, as the biologist says, or being somehow integrated into and repurposed for nature.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The biologist reaches the lighthouse around noon, exhausted. She takes her gun out, leery of the little window halfway up and the large windows at the top. Up close it looks more like a fortress than a lighthouse, with outer fortifications that appear to have been built after the original construction. There are lines of sight for rifles placed in the walls, along with shards of glass attached and barbed wire forming a collar around the lighthouse for defense. 
Again, the biologist’s inherent mistrust of the psychologist (and now the mission as a whole) is helping to protect her, even as it destroys their relationship. The image of the lighthouse again illustrates how the perceived safety in that symbol—perhaps standing in for the safety of human relationships—is, in reality, a lot more foreboding. The biologist is also outside the lighthouse, suggesting that she doesn’t share in that security (and perhaps that she also no longer shares in that humanity).
Themes
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The lighthouse is also in disrepair: an external wall on the landward side reflects years of neglect, and the door to the lighthouse is now only fragments of wood. Vines have started to “colonize” the walls. Warily, the biologist picks up a stone and rolls it through the front opening, but she hears no other sound. Gun still drawn, she enters silently, sliding against the wall.
The use of the word “colonize” to describe the vines taking over the lighthouse is a crucial detail. This word is typically used to describe humans taking over land or other people, and here it suggests that nature has agency and is reclaiming the lighthouse, demonstrating its power over humanity.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
The outer rooms at the lighthouse’s base are empty. It is dark inside, so the biologist uses her flashlight. In the front rooms, the floor is covered in debris, and oak tables have been overturned to form defensive barricades, full of bullet holes and half-melted. There are bloody splotches on the walls, and dust has settled over everything.
The remnants of a bloody confrontation indicate that the lighthouse is not, in fact, a symbol of safety—being here is perhaps even more dangerous than being immersed in Area X’s natural environment. The evidence of a struggle here also shows how destructive human beings are, and how they can quickly turn on one another.
Themes
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The biologist then ascends the stairs, finding more bloodstains on the walls, phrases that tracked remaining supplies, and confessions from people who must have thought they would die very soon. She finds discarded shoes, vials of samples, a crucifix, a clipboard, and a dilapidated toy—though the biologist didn’t think any children had come to Area X.
The chaos and implied violence inside the lighthouse again suggest that believing it is a safe harbor, superior to the nature surrounding it, is mistaken. Instead, it was easy for nature to overtake it, showing its persistence over humanity and human-made features.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
The biologist comes to another landing, which has seemingly been cleaned. Opposite a tiny window is a faded photograph with two men and a girl at the base of the lighthouse. A circle is drawn around one of the men, who is about 50 years old with a sharp eye and a thick beard. To the biologist, it seems like this man was the lighthouse keeper. In the photo, the lighthouse looks to be in good repair, and she wonders when the photograph was taken. She thinks that none of his work mattered in the end, before thinking that he could possibly still be there, waiting for her. She pockets the photograph, thinking that she was not the first to do so, nor would she be the last.
Even here, the biologist starts to reconcile herself to the fact that Area X will outlast everyone who encounters it, demonstrating nature’s persistence. The lighthouse keeper and his lighthouse were completely overrun by nature’s influence. Additionally, the biologist seems to acknowledge the cyclical, unending nature of the missions in saying that she is not the first nor the last to pocket the lighthouse keeper’s photograph. For all the people who come through Area X and either die or are irrevocably changed, Area X and its mysteries continue.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
The higher the biologist climbs, the more she thinks that someone must be living there—it smells like soap, and the walls are clean. She takes her gun out, but when she reaches the lantern room, no one is there: just chairs and a rickety table and a rug. The beacon itself is dormant, and she can see for miles—the village, the base camp, and the Tower. There is a kind of phosphorescent brightness emanating from the Tower, and she is frustrated that she is the only one who can see it and that she is the only one drawn to “that stirring of the inexplicable.”
Here, the biologist acknowledges the idea that Area X’s mysteries are “inexplicable,” calling back to the idea of the sublime. Part of the mystery even lies in the fact that she seems to be the only one drawn to its mysteries. Yet this also hints that she is becoming more and more integrated into the nature around her because of the spores, and that she is losing her humanity. Thus, she is more invested in Area X.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
The biologist searches the room. When she pulls back the rug, she finds a trap door. She opens it, pointing her gun, and she gasps at what she finds: a space 15 feet deep and 30 feet wide. The psychologist has been there, as her knapsack and other supplies are there, though she is not in the room. But there are also hundreds of journals like the one she was issued—many more than could have been filled by only 12 expeditions. She asks if the reader can imagine what it was like to see that, before commenting that they might be staring at that exact view now.
The biologist’s mistrust in the other team members and the mission as a whole continues to be well-founded. Finding the journals in the lighthouse, the biologist realizes just how distorted the information she received from the Southern Reach was, because there have been far more expeditions to Area X than she realized. She also acknowledges again that she is only the latest in a long cycle, positing that the reader might be on the next expedition, because her mission has failed so utterly in the face of Area X’s power.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The biologist’s third field assignment out of college involved traveling to a remote location in a very cold climate, where forest had grown up around rock formations. Bears, panthers, and elks lived in the forest, and she lived in a village of about 300 people near the coast. She made no friends there, and neighbors seemed not to be friends either, except in the local pub. This was four years before she met her husband.
The book again explores the biologist’s isolation. Her time in the remote village shows how, in her case, solitude allowed her to flourish and do what she loved most: study biology. Her self-reliance does preclude her relationships, but at the same time, it gives her the liberation that she continues to crave.
Themes
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
Every day, the biologist drove a dangerous winding road to a place called Rock Bay. It held complex tidal pools that she would photograph and take measurements of. She could lose hours there, grateful for the solitude. During the drives back, she grieved the end of this happiness, knowing that her research grant only covered two years. She gradually spent more and more time in the pub, and she would wake with a fuzziness, sometimes with a stranger.
The book illustrates how isolation in places like the tidal pools brings the biologist happiness, even though it secludes her from the rest of the world. The biologist was so distraught at the idea of leaving this insular environment that she began drinking heavily and having casual sex with strangers. The appreciation for solitude that she fostered during this time has seemingly enabled her to flourish in Area X, as the environment here is similarly isolating.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
The biologist thought, after a time, that she had become part of the community—the “old biologist” the locals saw out on the rocks, obsessed with the mussels, who’s been there for ages. Looking at the journals, the biologist feels that she has truly become that “old biologist,” the world “colonizing” her and forcing her to “live in its reality.”
Just as she used “colonizing” to describe the vines, here the biologist acknowledges that she is becoming a part of Area X in the same way that she thought she was a part of the natural tidal pools during her research earlier in her life. Again, nature has the agency in this case, not her; she is becoming a part of its world.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
At some point during their relationship, the biologist’s husband started calling her the “ghost bird,” as a way of teasing her for not being present in his life. If they went to bars with his friends, she wouldn’t talk much with them. All of her hobbies were bound up in her work, but she didn’t like to talk about her research and wasn’t interested in pop culture. She liked being out but existing apart. Her disengagement, however, ate into his enjoyment of talking to his friends. Observation has always meant more to her than interaction, like observing the pool, and she liked to observe the bar ecosystem rather than live within it.
The biologist’s husband’s teasing nickname for her,  “ghost bird,” further illustrates that she prioritized solitude and isolated herself from him, as ghost birds are known for being difficult to spot. The biologist is attuned with and consumed by nature (like the tidal pools), more than she’s interested in normal, everyday experiences (like hanging out in a bar with her husband). But even as the isolation made the biologist feel more fulfilled, it hampered her relationship with her husband.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The journals confront the biologist with her husband’s death all over again, knowing his account is likely there. Once, he asked her if she loved and needed him. She loved him, but she didn’t need him, and she felt that was the way it was supposed to be for her. Nothing could override the desire to understand the tides, seasons, and rhythms around her.
Again, the biologist emphasizes that her isolation is intentional, and she doesn’t feel the need to change herself and be more open—particularly when it helps her protect herself—even if this leads to a degradation of her other relationships. On the other hand, her description about her desire to understand nature illustrates the power that it has over her.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
Some of the journals are turning to mulch in the bottoms of stacks, embodying the scraps of writing in the Tower: “the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives…” The biologist lays the table across the entrance to the stairwell, so that if the psychologist comes, the biologist will hear her. The biologist again feels a growing brightness inside her, and she lowers herself into the cool, dark space.
The biologist is starting to puzzle out some of the mysterious messages in the Tower—that the journals are in some ways these “seeds of the dead.” The sentence suggests that the journals have perhaps become more powerful by turning into mulch—a part of the nature around them. This relates back to the dolphin’s eyes that the biologist noticed, which gave her a similar inkling that humanity has become integrated with nature in some mysterious way here.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
The biologist chooses journals at random, realizing that the dates—found in a journal from the “first expedition”—do not make sense with the information she was given. She wonders how many expeditions there have really been, and if those details are being hidden so as not to discourage volunteers. There is also an archive of audiocassettes and photos. She wonders how to go through it all, skimming journals before coming across horrible accounts of “unspeakable acts.”
This passage reveals just how much the Southern Reach has been lying to the expedition about the previous missions and how many expeditions there have been. The fact that this has led expedition members to “unspeakable acts” only emphasizes how the biologist’s skepticism of the expedition and the Southern Reach’s motivations has, in some ways, protected her from these same incidents. She has relied on herself rather than others, as she is doing now.
Themes
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
Sometimes omissions are worse than inclusions. The biologist finds a journal in which the writer focused solely on a particular plant and never described a glimpse of base camp or his life. She perceives a “terrible presence hovering in the background of these entries,” like the Crawler, and wonders if the focus is a way of coping with that horror. She also notices that the Tower fits into this theory as well, because it is never directly referenced. She is relieved when the latter part of the book dissolves into ruined ink, because she could have read it for a long time, transfixed.
This journal that the biologist finds again hints at the mystery in Area X—one that is so indescribable that some members of these expeditions aren’t even able to write about it. The fact that they instead focus on nature suggests that the nature in Area X has an unfathomable power over humans—and that becoming more integrated in nature can actually offer a form of protection. Submitting to nature’s power thereby makes them indistinguishable from it and, in some ways, safe from threats.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
The biologist then finds a journal that isn’t the same type as her own. It dates back to before the first expedition and references building the lighthouse’s fortifications. She reads an entry about “repelling an attack,” though she doesn’t find information on the attackers, only that the attack left four people dead. Later, their desperation grows; their ammunition is low, and they can’t find rational explanations for all that has happened.
This entry underscores how the lighthouse is actually a false symbol of safety. Expedition members look to it for refuge, but in actuality, it only makes them more vulnerable to attack because they are so easy to find. But again, because the journals aren’t really able to describe their attackers, what happened in Area X remains a mystery—one that the biologist increasingly realizes she won’t unravel, despite having all of this information from the journals.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
The biologist finds that, to the expeditions, the lighthouse is a symbol providing an illusion of safe refuge. But to survive Area X, she thinks, you have to fade into the landscape or pretend the danger (the “brightness” inside the biologist) isn’t there. At some point, the biologist starts to panic at the volume of the journals, becoming literally buried in the papers when she tries to sort through them.
Here, the biologist explicitly states that the lighthouse has become a false symbol of security. Instead, the safest thing to do is to fade into the landscape or not examine the danger too closely—just as the biologist hasn’t fully examined the “brightness” inside her. In other words, the only way to survive Area X is to become a part of it, showing how powerful nature is in comparison to the humans who venture here.
Themes
Nature, Power, and Persistence Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The first sentence that the biologist found in the Tower appears in a surprising number of the journals, but the others find it just as mysterious as she does. She realizes she could search the pages for years and never understand the right secrets. She thinks that she has to either go back to base camp before nightfall or remain at the lighthouse. She doesn’t want to travel in the dark, and if she doesn’t return, the surveyor will likely leave without her.
Even with the collective knowledge of the previous missions, the biologist understands that she may never puzzle out Area X’s mysteries. This reinforces that sometimes, the only way to experience mystery is to appreciate it without attempting to understand it.
Themes
The Sublime vs. The Mundane Theme Icon
The biologist decides on one last effort, climbing to the top of a pile to find more recent journals, including her husband’s. She dreads it, feeling as though she’s stealing a private diary, even though she knows he was always open and felt she was the one hiding things. She can’t bring herself to read it yet, but she takes it and a handful of others, along with two of the psychologist’s guns, and climbs out.
Here, the biologist acknowledges her difficulty relating to her husband. Her own desire for solitude drove a wedge in between them, which is reflected in her feelings here. She was so distant and put up so many walls between them that now, she doesn’t want to invade his private thoughts, projecting that reticence onto him.
Themes
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon
As the biologist emerges from the trapdoor and sees the sky and sea’s beauty around her, she realizes that she’s no longer fooled by it, after so many people have been sacrificed to the place. She wonders why the government keeps sending expeditions. Then, when she steps out onto the outer railing to get some air, she’s horrified to notice a body in the sand below her: the psychologist.
As the biologist realizes how many people have died in Area X—and how many secrets have been kept about the place—the book illustrates that her distrust of others is well-founded. It has so far protected her from the tragedies that have befallen other expedition members—including the psychologist, as the book reveals here—because she is constantly on alert.
Themes
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Theme Icon