Annihilation’s protagonist—an unnamed biologist—has several crucial relationships in the book: with the other team members on her expedition (the psychologist, surveyor, and anthropologist) and with her husband. Yet the book also depicts how the biologist remains emotionally isolated and self-reliant, which ultimately ends up benefitting her. The other members of her team and the Southern Reach (the government agency that sent her) ultimately prove untrustworthy, having kept a great deal of secrets from her, and so her mistrust often ends up saving her life. And while the biologist has some regrets about how her own isolation and secrecy dissolved her and her husband’s marriage, she finds greater liberation in the solitude she gains in Area X. In this way, the book suggests that human beings are fundamentally alone, even when part of teams, and that it’s helpful to be self-reliant and mistrustful even when it destroys relationships.
The mistrust that the biologist feels toward the other members of her expedition ultimately ends up saving her life even as it destroys the expedition, illustrating how self-reliance can be helpful. The biologist acknowledges from the book’s outset that she is naturally “attuned to solitude” and isn’t very emotionally forthcoming. Even while training for the expedition to Area X, this mindset creates conflict on the team: when the psychologist hypnotizes the biologist while interviewing her about her life, the biologist reveals little, distrusting and disliking the psychologist—a feeling that’s quickly returned. This demonstrates how the biologist’s emotional walls create immediate divides within her relationships.
Yet this mistrust ends up proving helpful when the biologist ingests spores in Area X and keeps this fact to herself, not revealing that the spores make her immune to the hypnotism. Soon after, the biologist realizes that the psychologist has been hypnotizing them not just to keep them calm, but also to make them go along with her plans. Keeping these secrets makes her feel “estranged from the expedition,” but this estrangement is actually helpful because it allows her to understand that the psychologist and the Southern Reach know a lot more about Area X than she knows—and this clarity that helps protect her from further manipulation. Later, the psychologist’s hypnotism only ends up causing the anthropologist’s death, and the biologist realizes that the psychologist even has a command that can induce suicide in the other women. The biologist is able to avoid a similar fate because of her self-reliance and her mistrust, showing how these traits—while they have driven a wedge between the team members—have protected her from death.
The biologist’s self-reliance similarly saves her from the surveyor, who chooses to spend the night alone while the biologist investigates the lighthouse. When the biologist returns, the surveyor tries to shoot the biologist because she believes the biologist has become completely inhuman, and because—as the biologist later speculates—the solitude at camp had driven her to have a mental breakdown. This shoot-out ends with the biologist returning fire and killing the surveyor. In this way, the biologist’s isolation and self-reliance have helped her—not only to survive the mental tricks of Area X, but also to instinctively protect herself from the surveyor’s violence, even at the cost of decimating her relationships and the expedition.
The biologist’s consideration of her relationship with her husband shows a more tragic side of this dynamic. She recognizes how not opening up to him essentially ruined their marriage, even as it helped her find the freedom she craved in solitude. Prior to her husband leaving for the 11th expedition to Area X, their relationship was struggling because she was “distant” from him and “guarded.” For example, she spent many nights observing the environment in an empty lot. This was innocuous and perhaps understandable given her passion for nature, but she nonetheless refused to tell her husband where she was going, which unsettled him. In this way, the biologist’s isolation and self-reliance bred mistrust in her husband, creating conflict in their marriage. The biologist also discusses how her husband was often unhappy with how disengaged she was when they would go out to bars with his friends. However, she insists that even though her distance disappointed him, she was “happy in her little bubble of silence.” Thus, solitude brought her joy—even if it meant being emotionally distant in a way that hurt her marriage. This distance between them was part of the reason that her husband wanted to go on the 11th expedition—she had “pushed him away.” But going on the expedition leads to even more distance between them and, ultimately, his death, showing how destructive that emotional distance ended up being. The biologist eventually comes to regret her secrecy and emotional distance from her husband once she finds his expedition journal, seeing that he had a “deep inner life” that she didn’t understand. She recognizes that she “could have met him partway and retained [her] sovereignty.” In this passage, she recognizes how her fundamental tendency towards being secretive and alone destroyed their marriage, even suggesting that she may have regretted it.
In the book’s final pages, the biologist chooses to search for her husband, believing that he may still be alive somewhere in Area X. This ambiguous ending suggests two ideas: on the one hand, it hints at a newfound desire to connect with him and try to be more open. But on the other hand, she seems to suspect that she will, in fact, never find her husband. In this way, her sense of purpose and joy may actually come from knowing that she’s finally alone and autonomous, able to explore the world on her own terms.
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation ThemeTracker
Self-Reliance, Mistrust, Secrecy, and Isolation Quotes in Annihilation
Most important, however, I now could guess at one way in which the spores had affected me: They had made me immune to the psychologist’s hypnotic suggestions. They had made me into a kind of conspirator against her. Even if her purposes were benign, I felt a wave of anxiety whenever I thought of confessing that I was resistant to hypnosis—especially since it meant any underlying conditioning hidden in our training also was affecting me less and less.
I now hid not one but two secrets, and that meant I was steadily, irrevocably, becoming estranged from the expedition and its purpose.
I know this information might not be hard for anyone to find out, but I have hoped that in reading this account, you might find me a credible, objective witness. Not someone who volunteered for Area X because of some other event unconnected to the purpose of the expeditions. And, in a sense, this is still true, and my husband’s status as a member of an expedition is in many ways irrelevant to why I signed up.
At first, I must have seemed mysterious to him, my guardedness, my need to be alone, even after he thought he’d gotten inside my defenses. Either I was a puzzle to be solved or he just thought that once he got to know me better, he could still break through to some other place, some core where another person lived inside of me. During one of our fights, he admitted as much—tried to make his “volunteering” for the expedition a sign of how much I had pushed him away, before taking it back later, ashamed. I told him point-blank, so there would be no mistake: This person he wanted to know better did not exist; I was who I seemed to be from the outside. That would never change.
This was really the only thing I discovered in him after his return: a deep and unending solitude, as if he had been granted a gift that he didn’t know what to do with. A gift that was poison to him and eventually killed him. But would it have killed me? That was the question that crept into my mind even as I stared into his eyes those last few times, willing myself to know his thoughts and failing.
But there is a limit to thinking about even a small piece of something monumental. You still see the shadow of the whole rearing up behind you, and you become lost in your thoughts in part from the panic of realizing the size of that imagined leviathan. I had to leave it there, compartmentalized, until I could write it all down, and seeing it on the page, begin to divine the true meaning. And now the lighthouse had finally gotten larger on the horizon. This presence weighed on me as I realized that the surveyor had been correct about at least one thing. Anyone within the lighthouse would see me coming for miles. Then, too, that other effect of the spores, the brightness in my chest, continued to sculpt me as I walked, and by the time I reached the deserted village that told me I was halfway to the lighthouse, I believed I could have run a marathon. I did not trust that feeling. I felt, in so many ways, that I was being lied to.
But fun for me was sneaking off to peer into a tidal pool, to grasp the intricacies of the creatures that lived there. Sustenance for me was tied to ecosystem and habitat, orgasm the sudden realization of the interconnectivity of living things. Observation had always meant more to me than interaction. He knew all of this, I think. But I never could express myself that well to him, although I did try, and he did listen. And yet, I was nothing but expression in other ways. My sole gift or talent, I believe now, was that places could impress themselves upon me, and I could become a part of them with ease. Even a bar was a type of ecosystem, if a crude one, and to someone entering, someone without my husband’s agenda, that person could have seen me sitting there and had no trouble imagining that I was happy in my little bubble of silence. Would have had no trouble believing I fit in.
“How many of your memories do you think are implanted?” the psychologist asked. “How many of your memories of the world beyond the border are verifiable?”
“That won’t work on me,” I told her. “I am sure of the here and now, this moment, and the next. I am sure of my past.” That was ghost bird’s castle keep, and it was inviolate. It might have been punctured by the hypnosis during training, but it had not been breached. Of this I was certain, and would continue to be certain, because I had no choice.
I didn’t tell my husband my walk had a destination because I wanted to keep the lot for myself. There are so many things couples do from habit and because they are expected to, and I didn’t mind those rituals. Sometimes I even enjoyed them. But I needed to be selfish about that patch of urban wilderness. It expanded in my mind while I was at work, calmed me, gave me a series of miniature dramas to look forward to. I didn’t know that while I was applying this Band-Aid to my need to be unconfined, my husband was dreaming of Area X and much greater open spaces.
Slowly, painfully, I realized what I had been reading from the very first words of his journal. My husband had had an inner life that went beyond his gregarious exterior, and if I had known enough to let him inside my guard, I might have understood this fact. Except I hadn’t, of course. I had let tidal pools and fungi that could devour plastic inside my guard, but not him. Of all the aspects of the journal, this ate at me the most. He had created his share of our problems—by pushing me too hard, by wanting too much, by trying to see something in me that didn’t exist. But I could have met him partway and retained my sovereignty. And now it was too late.
I plan to continue on into Area X, to go as far as I can before it is too late. I will follow my husband up the coast, up past the island, even. I don’t believe I’ll find him—I don’t need to find him—but I want to see what he saw. I want to feel him close, as if he is in the room. And, if I’m honest, I can’t shake the sense that he is still here, somewhere, even if utterly transformed—in the eye of a dolphin, in the touch of an uprising of moss, anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps I’ll even find a boat abandoned on a deserted beach, if I’m lucky, and some sign of what happened next. I could be content with just that, even knowing what I know.