“I’d say no,” Verlaine said over the P.A. “That’s all just pretty much basic human feeling right there.”
In George Saunders’ short story, Escape From Spiderhead, we follow the trials and experimentation of basic human nature. Spiderhead is all about empathy; do we have innate feelings of basic recognition for other humans or all we just a composition of chemicals and hormones?
Saunders explores this concept through our narrator Jeff, a convicted killer who is a test subject for new drug trials. Throughout the story, Jeff is pumped full of various drugs which forcibly make him fall in love with other subjects or eloquently speak whatever is on his mind. We see Jeff forced to have these feelings and then have them taken away to see if they remain. In a tortuous moment of watching another test subject, Heather, succumb to suicidal depression-inducing drugs, we see that Jeff has no lingering feelings of love for her but still wholeheartedly believes that she deserves life and love. Despite having no chemical feelings for Heather or knowing anything about her life, Jeff believes that Heather and “every human is worthy of love,” (69).
Jeff’s innate empathy is further put to the test when he finds out he will be forced to watch another girl be drugged the same way as Heather. Jeff, once again, has no feelings of love for this girl and even finds out she too is a convicted killer, but he refuses to participate in the experiment. Jeff doesn’t stop with his refusal though, going as far as to willingly overdose on drugs that quickly kill him. Jeff sacrificed his life to spare another person’s pain, despite seemingly having no feelings for her.
Saunders makes us question what humanity is truly made of with this story. Is it chemicals that can be manipulated or is there an innate empathy that belongs to all of us? In a bittersweet ending of Jeff’s death, we do find that certain human traits are inherent and cannot be removed with any amount of drugs.