The Potential Dangers of Technological Progress
In the story, the catastrophe called the Great Burning appears to have destroyed most of human civilization. Although the exact reason for the Great Burning is never revealed, it is suggested that technological progress allowed humans to develop weapons powerful enough to destroy each other on a massive scale. When John sees a vision of the Great Burning, he describes it as ‘‘fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned.’’ The suggestion that the catastrophe was brought by warfare is reinforced by the advice John’s father gives him when he returns from the Place of the Gods: ‘‘Truth is a hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth. It was not idly that our fathers forbade the Dead Places.’’ This suggests that the ancestors of the Hill People feared that knowledge of the Dead Places would eventually lead humans to resume along the same path they traveled before, which would again lead to catastrophe and devastation. John accepts his father’s warnings and agrees that ‘‘the truth should come little by little’’ in order to prevent the same mistakes from happening again.
The Quest for Knowledge
Although the story clearly offers a warning about technological progress, the main character of John represents humanity’s enduring quest for knowledge. Although it is forbidden for the Hill People to travel to the east, John makes the journey anyway because he is driven by a desire to discover for himself the truth about the Place of the Gods. This desire is also seen in his earlier behavior, such as his willingness to hold the metal from the Dead Place and his curiosity over the food of the gods, which leads him to taste it. When he reaches the great river, he is briefly overcome by fear, and considers ending his journey there. However, even though he thinks he will die by setting foot in the Place of the Gods, he still chooses to go because if he does not, ‘‘I could never be at peace with my spirit again.’’ His desire for knowledge overcomes his fears regarding his own safety.
In the story, John’s quest for knowledge is generally shown to be a positive attribute. If he had obeyed the laws of his people, as everyone else had—including his father—he never would have discovered the truth about the Place of the Gods. Presumably, this insight allows both John and the tribe to learn a lot about the humans who once lived in the Dead Places. In this way, the author suggests that bold and independent thinkers in search of knowledge and truth are the ones who lead humankind on its journey of progress.
Taboos and Omens
John’s tribe, the Hill People, are heavily reliant upon taboos and omens. The taboos function as the only apparent laws of their society. The taboos are intended to protect the Hill People from the dangers presented by the Dead Places and their products. Although John breaks the taboos to satisfy his thirst for knowledge, he fully expects to be punished severely or to die as a result of his transgressions. Before he decides to make the journey to the Place of the Gods, John fasts and waits for a sign or omen to guide him. He sees an eagle flying east and takes that as an omen that his journey eastward is the correct course of action. He even waits for another omen, concerned that the first omen might be a trick played by evil spirits. He then sees three deer traveling east, and one of them is a white fawn; this is very significant to John, who sees it as a most encouraging sign and begins his journey immediately.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Published by Gale Group, 2010