The Importance of Personal Conflict in The Stone Sky

One of the most powerful moments in The Broken Earth occurs in its final confrontation. “This moment would be when Essun and Nassun finally meet up after years of travel, “I watch you and your daughter face each other for the first time in two years, across a gulf of hardship” (The Stone Sky, 371). While of course the action and confrontation to follow this would have large ramifications for the entire world of the Stillness, this moment overshadows any other portion of the novel. It is incredibly significant, and this scene defines the entire series.

What makes this moment so interesting is a combination of time and growth. Essun’s primary goal has been to find Nassun, it was the catalyst for many of the events of the series. But Essun’s memory of Nassun is of a small girl, and the differences themselves add to this scene. “The girl framed by the doorway is taller than you remember by several inches. Her hair is longer now… You barely recognize her” (The Stone Sky, 370). Not only physical changes, “the biggest changes are immaterial… The wariness in her gaze, nothing like the shy diffidence you remember” (The Stone Sky, 372).

As the plot near the end of the series heated up and focused more and more on worldbuilding in the form of Syl Anagist, or wider plot developments through obelisks and other world-defining events, the scope of the story widened. I felt focused less on the personal story of Essun searching for Nassun, and more on the fate of the entire Stillness. The smaller details almost fell away as the sort of “lorists record” element of the events became more and more real. Even the individual stories were tied to something larger, like the fate of Castrima. Large groups, taking massive actions, as the cast grew and Essun’s responsibilities increased. I entirely expected the final confrontation of the series to be something like a massive battle.

But instead, the importance is placed on the smaller story that started out in The Fifth Season. It is focused on how time has changed our two characters, and how they have grown both physically and mentally. The build-up to the final moments is a deeply personal confrontation between mother and daughter, with few words spoken.

And while the following finale does end the Seasons, free the orogenes, and change the world forever, that is not the part I found myself focusing on. What interested me most of all was not entirely the effects of Nassun’s decision, but for the reason for it. As I have quoted in many of my previous posts, “Fix the world. This, Nassun sesses-feels-knows, was your last wish” (The Stone Sky, 387). This is the most powerful line in the entire series because it defines so much about The Broken Earth.

The world is broken, the systems within the Stillness do not work. The Fulcrum, comms, relationships between stills and orogenes, and many elements of the stonelore have failed. The Seasons rage on, and people suffer on a global scale. But the real solution to these problems at a global scale is with the individual. In the case of Nassun, a young girl fighting with her mother. The world is saved through simple humanity. The smaller personal story is tied to the larger impersonal.

But why does this matter? Jemisin’s world is reflective of our own, with subtle societal dangers being replaced with more apparently dangerous ones. Seasons, bandits, and hostile Guardians are easier to see and understand than societal dangers. But Jemisin’s solution remains the same. When tackling racism, prejudice, and the whole host of issues that still plague society, the solution is not easy. Rather than solving these issues in an impersonal matter, with large battles or institutions such as the Fulcrum, it’s up to the smaller individual. These real-world problems are precise, and can’t be solved with a hammer. Like Essun and Nassun’s confrontation which existed both at the level of their own relationship and the entire world, it’s up to personal realization, growth, and sacrifice.

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