The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

by

N. K. Jemisin

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The Fifth Season: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Still speaking in the second person, the narrator says that the “you” he is addressing is Essun, the orogene whose son Uche is dead. Essun has lived in Tirimo for the last 10 years, working as a teacher at the local “creche.” Her husband is named Jija, a member of the Resistant use-caste. Essun has two children, one who is now missing and one (Uche) who is dead. Devastated by the memory of coming home to find Uche’s body on the floor, Essun tries to stop herself from thinking altogether. In this dazed state, she sits with Uche’s body for two days, only moving to use the bathroom and get water.
From now on, Essun’s sections  are narrated from the second-person perspective, as she is seemingly the personal audience that the narrator is addressing. A “creche” is something in between a school and a daycare, depending on a community’s resources, and “use-castes” are how people are divided according to their ostensible skills in the world of the novel. Essun’s story begins with her reaction to devastating trauma, as she actively tries to shut down her thoughts and avoid the reality of Uche’s murder.
Themes
Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Disaster, Violence, and Survival Theme Icon
History, Storytelling, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Identity and Naming Theme Icon
Finally, someone knocks on the door. When Essun doesn’t answer, the visitor breaks the glass on the door and comes in: it is Lerna, a friendly young man who lives nearby and works as a doctor. Lerna sees what has happened and gently leads Essun away from Uche’s body, saying that she can rest at his house. Essun can barely speak, and she lets herself be led away. At Lerna’s house, she gets into bed and sleeps for a long time. At one point, she dreams of Jija killing Uche, with Uche laughing and wiggling even as his father murders him. Essun wakes up screaming, but eventually she falls back asleep.
Essun has tried to avoid the traumatic reality of what happened to her child, but she cannot escape it forever, and Uche’s murder now appears in her nightmares. This is the only way that she is able to deal with the disaster at this point, however, and Lerna reveals himself to be a good and caring friend to let her process her grief in her own way by offering her a safe place in his home.
Themes
Disaster, Violence, and Survival Theme Icon
When Essun wakes again, Lerna tells her that there has been a big “shake” in the north, and that the roads are full of refugees. Essun then remembers two days earlier, when she was sitting with Uche’s body and felt an enormous earthquake coming their way. Without even thinking, Essun used her orogeny to create a barrier around Uche, and the shake “split and flowed” around Tirimo, leaving the town unharmed and going on its way.
The big “shake” (which is Stillness slang for earthquake) in the north was the man breaking the continent in half at Yumenes—yet to Essun, this literal “end of the world” was just a distraction from her own personal apocalypse. Notably, Essun is here revealed as a powerful orogene and also as the person who saved Tirimo from destruction—yet the very fact that it was saved means that the townspeople will now be hunting for her.
Themes
Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Disaster, Violence, and Survival Theme Icon
Power and Control Theme Icon
Lerna is the only one besides Essun’s children who knows that Essun is an orogene. Lerna now tells her that Rask, the town’s headman, isn’t letting anyone enter or leave Tirimo. Essun quotes something from stonelore, and Lerna asks her if she really thinks the situation is that serious. Essun knows that it is, but also that she can’t explain the truth to him yet.
The invocation of stonelore—ancient commandments intended to help humanity survive—means that a new apocalyptic period has indeed begun, which Lerna is not yet able to accept. As an orogene, however, Essun can sense the break in the planet’s core and recognize that a truly disastrous era has begun.
Themes
Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Disaster, Violence, and Survival Theme Icon
History, Storytelling, and Knowledge Theme Icon
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Lerna then brings up Uche, and Essun says that she knows Jija is the one who killed him. According to Lerna, the big earthquake destroyed everything nearby except for a perfect circle around Tirimo, and Essun immediately admits that she is the one who caused this to happen. Soon she gets lost in thought and allows herself to think of Jija and the children, and she starts to retch.
Essun still sees the larger disaster of the earthquake as tangential to her own personal tragedy, and she’s only beginning to even be able to acknowledge the trauma of what has happened.
Themes
Disaster, Violence, and Survival Theme Icon
Power and Control Theme Icon
When Essun is able to speak again, she tells Lerna that she wasn’t the one who revealed Uche’s orogeny to Jija—the child must have done something that gave himself away. Essun asks Lerna if he’s going to tell Rask that she’s an orogene, but Lerna angrily responds that he has kept her secret faithfully so far and will continue to do so. He explains that the townspeople assume that Uche was the orogene who stopped the earthquake in Tirimo, and no one has yet figured out that the timing is slightly off (as Uche was killed before the quake). Lerna leaves to find the head of the Resistant use-caste (which Essun has claimed to be a part of) to tell her that Essun is all right.
Here, it becomes clear why Uche is dead: he was an orogene, and when he somehow revealed his power to his father, Jija beat him to death. This horrifying fact immediately drives home just how hated and feared orogenes are in this society. At the same time, the treatment of orogenes seems contradictory to the role that Essun has actually played in Tirimo thus far, as she saved the town and all its people from certain death. But now, she must fear for her own life because of this heroic act.
Themes
Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Disaster, Violence, and Survival Theme Icon
History, Storytelling, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Identity and Naming Theme Icon
After Lerna leaves, Essun washes her face until the tap water turns brown and trickles to nothing, meaning that a pipe has broken somewhere. Speaking to herself in the mirror, she wonders aloud where her daughter Nassun is. Essun knows that she needs to leave Tirimo, as the townspeople will figure out that she’s an orogene and come for her soon enough. The chapter ends with a quotation from a tablet of stonelore: “The shake that passes will echo. The wave that recedes will come back. The mountain that rumbles will roar.”
Though Essun has saved Tirimo, she knows that she will be the next to die once the townspeople figure out her secret. This fact illustrates the extreme discrimination that orogenes face in the Stillness—Essun is never allowed to feel safe or free to be herself, lest an angry mob kill her. Most of The Fifth Season’s chapters end with quotations from stonelore or other historical texts from the Stillness’s past, all of which hint at future events in the plot and also build out the world of the novel as a whole.
Themes
Hierarchy, Oppression, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Disaster, Violence, and Survival Theme Icon
History, Storytelling, and Knowledge Theme Icon