The Clay’s Ark virus transforms those afflicted in such a way that biologically, they are no longer human. Such a prospect is terrifying, especially because it results in absolute uncertainty and a lack of control. The changes, though at first subtle, force those stricken to straddle what is human and what is animal, both physically and mentally. The younger generation, those with two infected parents, is even less human, as they walk on all fours, grow considerably more hair, and are faster, stronger, and smarter than a human child would otherwise be. The adults experience similar changes, and though they grow extremely thin, they are still very powerful. Mentally, the Clay’s Ark virus creates unspeakable urges and compulsions, as those infected are suddenly filled with desires that they might not have had before considered – incest, rape, violence, and murder. Their bodies take control, and smell becomes such a powerful sexual trigger that appearance and emotion no longer have anything to do with intimate desire. The difference between who is healthy and who is sick is very clear because of both how one smells and how one looks, and the infected are filled with overwhelming desires to spread the disease – to touch and to scratch. And yet, they resist. They cling to the only thing that might still define them as “human” – their morality.
The desires of the sick are much more primal than they are human. Eli notes that “he preferred his food raw and unseasoned” (Butler 515), and Rane believes that the raw steaks that she steals and eats at the ranch are the best thing that she has ever tasted. Yet, Eli “would go on eating cooked food. It was a human thing that he clung to… it [the virus] tempted him by making nonhuman behavior pleasurable, but most of the time onto as much as his humanity as he could” (Butler 515). I believe that Eli’s observation here is the best way to describe how the Clay’s Ark family maintains their humanity. It would be easy to follow the urges that the virus prompts. It would be easy to spread the disease and to rape and to kill. In fact, such actions would likely also bring them immense pleasure. But, they do not make the easy choice. They choose to be as human as they can, and fight for their humanity with everything they have. It is very possible that without Eli serving as the head of the family, the disease would run rampant. Yet, he and Meda make the decision together to isolate themselves from society and deprive themselves of the luxuries that a different lifestyle might afford. By taking and infecting people only when absolutely necessary, they are doing the most humane thing that they can. Each infected human is necessary to fulfill the disease’s biological imperative to breed. Some humans are sacrificed, but their sacrifice preserves the physical humanity of the world.
Meanwhile, the novel exposes us to what is left of civilization. The world is a much more dangerous place, and the sewers depict the dredges of society. Though good people do still exist, it is likely only a matter of time until the world is devastatingly immoral. The sewer family is a representation of the pinnacle of this immorality. In fact, I believe that they serve as a foil for the Clay’s Ark family, both in how they handle their urges and whether or not they are infected. First, both Eli and the sewer family infiltrate another family’s ranch. Eli is welcomed with open arms, but he cannot resist his urges enough to keep himself from spreading the disease. Though this is not at all his intent, several of the infected cannot withstand the physical toll that the disease takes, and they die as it takes over their bodies. The sewer family storms the ranch, kills the men who lived there, and rape the women and children. Both families kidnap people along the highways and bring them back to their respective ranches. Although for the sewer family, the ranch is not a permanent settlement, it serves as their primary holding place for Blake, Keira, and Rane, as well as the other people they kidnap. The Clay’s Ark family remains on their ranch to prevent the spread of their disease, leaving only to take more people to infect and to get necessary supplies. Once on the ranch, the Clay’s Ark family infects the kidnapped, but they are otherwise treated humanely and welcomed into the family. The sewer family rapes and tortures, and no matter how many times I read their sections in the novel, I cannot understand why they do what they do. Their violence is senseless. This raises the question of who is the less “humane” and “human” group of people. Should the diseased be feared more than the healthy simply because of their different biological makeup? Keira and Rane offer unique perspectives for either side of the spectrum. Keira sees through what is physical and uncovers the humanity of Eli and his family. She does not fear the children, and she welcomes the touch of the infected. She understands that greater evils exist. Rane, on the other hand, begs her father not to signal to Eli for help, pleading that “I cannot stand them. They’re not human. Their children don’t even look human”, to which Keira replies “that’s the way I feel about these car people. They are different and dangerous, but I’d rather be with them than here” (Butler 577). Neither sister is absolutely correct in her judgment of her two captors, but it is clear that the Clay’s Ark family is working much harder to maintain their morality. They feel all of the same compulsions as the car people, but they do not act on them as the car people do. In this way, the car people, though completely human in the biological sense, are more animalistic than any person on the Clay’s Ark ranch.
I understand why Rane feels the way that she does about those infected with the Clay’s Ark virus. In her article “The Synonymy of Disease and Sick: A Critique of the American Diabetes Association”, Savannah Johnson discusses the stigmas that come with being a chronically sick person. She references the novel The Difference That Disability Makes, in which Rod Michalko contends that “contemporary culture, particularly Western culture, represents disability as something that should be prevented or cured and sees disability as a tragedy that befalls some people.” Johnson, who is diabetic, recounts how people pity her for her disease. In many ways, it others her. She abhors how people treat it as something that must be fought – a counterproductive notion because like the Clay’s Ark virus, there is no cure for diabetes – and believes the ADA is toxic because it “normalizes the pitying of disabled bodies.” The Clay’s Ark family certainly receives more fear than they do pity, but they are still treated differently because of a biological alteration of their “normal” bodies. However, in the context of Clay’s Ark, it is important to remember that the disease makes those it afflicts different, but better – stronger, smarter, and most important, more moral (though this morality is not a symptom, but rather indicative of the development of a social conscience). And so, perhaps getting the virus isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Perhaps the virus can serve as a conscience for mankind. Unchecked, society could easily become as corrupt as the sewers. However, the desire to prevent the spread of the disease makes the urges that come as a result of it much more manageable. And, perhaps, if the disease never existed, society would continue to devolve at the rate it had been until all that remained was the sewers. Ultimately, and despite Eli and his family’s best efforts, the virus spreads, and the restrictive impetus of the fear of spreading the disease is destroyed, leaving the world with two options. Mankind can either maintain its humanity, or burn.