Study Guide

World War Z Themes

  • Fear

    Go figure, right? A zombie novel with the theme of fear, could things get any more unoriginal? Actually, it could get way more unoriginal because Brooks truly does some interesting stuff with fear here. Unlike a low-grade horror novel about cheap fears and thrills, World War Z explores fear as its central theme. It addresses many different types of human fears—and not just the ho-hum zombie fear of being horrifically eaten alive. It also uses fear to springboard into an exploration of human nature and government. This way, fear becomes more than just boogity-boos that make you jump in the night. It becomes the scary-pants glue that binds all the novel's layers together.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Find two scenes where fear hurts a character. This could mean it hinders the character or prevents them from making rational decisions. Your choice. Comparing these two scenes, what can you say about the theme of fear in the novel?
    2. Can you find a scene where fear becomes a useful tool for a character? If yes, what scene is it? If not, why do you suppose this is? Does this new information make you reconsider the purpose you think fear serves in the novel?
    3. How does the zombie's lack of fear make them such a horrific foe for humanity? Does their lack of fear prove to also hinder the zombies? If so how?
    4. What character would you say is the most fearful? What character is the least fearful? Does this comparison suggest anything about the nature of fear and people?

    Chew on This

    World War Z relates the zombies to scenarios and things that raise fear on a global level—for example viruses, war, plague, famine, and natural disasters.

    The novel also explores the exploitation of fear as a survival tactic through such characters as Todd Wainio and "Break" Scott.

  • Education

    "We don't need no education; we don't need no thought control." Well, okay. But, we're thinking that Pink Floyd might have been less anxious to break the wall had there been a zombie on the other side. According to World War Z, an education is the most valuable resource you can have against the deadhead army. The Battle of Yonkers is an epic fail of a military campaign. Why? The higher ups didn't study their enemy, didn't educate themselves on zombie mentality, or lack thereof. The tide only turns for humanity when it learns from its mistakes, educates its populaces, and turns those lessons against the horde.

    Questions About Education

    1. How does the world educate itself to combat the zombie threat? List specific instances. What do these instances suggest to you about the nature of knowledge and education?
    2. What reasons are given for why people choose not to gather knowledge on the zombies? Based on these reasons, what can you say about the nature of ignorance as portrayed in the novel?
    3. Pick two characters that seem pro-education in the novel. Why did you pick these two characters and what do they have in common?
    4. Why do you think the novel promotes education through this type of character?
    5. Pick two characters that seem anti-education in the novel. Why did you pick these two characters and what do they have in common?
    6. Why do you think this type of character was put in opposition to education?

    Chew on This

    The zombies don't just represent disasters as hurricanes, plagues, and war. They also represent the end result of a society that decides to no longer educate itself—because they literally can't think. Get it?

    The novel suggests that the greatest teacher is total warfare.

  • Warfare

    If you couldn't guess by a visit to our "Shout-outs" section, Max Brooks loves him some military-grade weaponry. But the theme of warfare goes a little deeper than just fancy boomsticks. World War Z dissects many different aspects of warfare. The novel focuses on the consequences war has on the individual soldiers who fight it. But it also enlarges the personal to show war's consequences on humanity as a whole. War damages societies, as it drains resources and unveils humanity's greater evils. But war can produce one good: people come together.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Why do you suppose the novel puts such an emphasis on warfare and the military life? Why does the novel have more characters in military jobs than any other? How do you feel the novel portrays this lifestyle?
    2. The only characters who return for more than one chapter—Todd Wainio and Travis D'Ambrosia—both served in the military during the zombie war. Why do you think the novel followed these characters throughout the zombie war while never returning to the others?
    3. Why do you think the novel made the zombie war a world war and not just confined to a certain country or continent? What purpose does the world war part of the title serve in relation to the theme of warfare?
    4. How is the zombie war different than any other war (besides the zombie combatant part)? How is it similar to other wars you've learned about? Comparing these two, does this tell you about the theme of war in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Although titled World War Z, the conflict isn't technically a war. A war has to take place between two political entities, and zombies have no politics—unless the even distribution of brains to snack on counts as a political platform.

    The various effects of war suggest a conservative American political point of view. Russian, China, and Muslim countries (like Iran) don't fare so well—but Britain, America, and Israel all benefit from the war (well, benefit in comparison to everyone else). And Cuba prospers only because it adopts an American economic model.

  • Primitivity

    Zombies hunt humans like animals. First, they follow their quarry for miles, then they corner him, eat him alive, and leave him to rot in the forest. But they're still only the second most primitive creature in World War Z. Human beings still get first place in primitivity here. In our desire to preserve our own life, or way of life, we're shown stabbing each other in the back, stealing, killing, and being all around jerks to each other. While self-preservation is by no means a bad thing—we do it ourselves daily—it does make us reconsider our place in the hierarchy of nature.

    Questions About Primitivity

    1. Where do you see the primitive nature of the characters coming out the most? Do you see any similarities between these instances? If so what are they? If not then why not? Either way, what does this list tell you about the theme of primitivity in the novel?
    2. What characters bring out their primitivity to the worst ends? Who are they? Do you notice anything surprising about them?
    3. Do we see any instances of primitivity as a positive force? What characters use it to their advantage and how?

    Chew on This

    The Interviewer's descriptions of some characters tries to either lessen or heighten the primitivity of his interviewees, manipulating the reader into feeling certain ways about them.

    Primitivity becomes a necessary evil for the characters to survive the zombie invasion, making the term almost irrelevant in World War Z.

  • Man & the Natural World

    Mankind has spent a healthy amount of its history trying to make its place in the natural world a comfortable one. In World War Z, a couple brain-craving zombies show up and undo all that hard, hard work. Like a hurricane or plague, the zombies knock us out of our civilized trappings, forcing us to confront the natural world on a level playing field. To make matters worse, our survival instinct has dulled so much that we're horribly, horribly out of practice dealing with nature in our day-to-day existence. Add to that those zombies we mentioned, and things aren't looking so good for us.

    Questions About Man & the Natural World

    1. When characters enter the natural world, what problems do they find? How do they overcome these problems? What does this suggest about the novel's take on nature?
    2. Sometimes, the zombies are compared to animals. Why is this? Is it a fair comparison? Why or why not?
    3. What distinctions does the novel draw between the civilized world and the natural world? Do we see these distinctions break down at any point in the novel? If yes, at what point and why is this important? If not, then why do you suppose they remain distinct?

    Chew on This

    One symbolic purpose for the zombies is to demonstrate that we cannot escape the natural world. Although we may think we've protected ourselves from the natural world, we can never truly escape it because we're a part of it.

    Once forced to rely on our natural instincts, modern-day technology and civilized society become more a hindrance than a help during a disaster.

  • Politics

    We know what you're thinking. You want the zombie apocalypse to hit because it means you'll never have to deal with another election season again. While we feel for you, we now know the truth thanks to World War Z: politics will be just as, if not more, important when the undead finally rise from their graves. Granted, it'll be the failures of a corrupted government and inefficient bureaucracy that'll lead to the zombie apocalypse in the first place. But then we as a people will have to start taking responsibility for the government's failings and change the bureaucratic problems rather than simply blaming others. (But … isn't that the point of bureaucracy?) Only then will we score the triple win of beating the zombies, fixing—some—of the political machine, and ending the political bumper sticker business once and for all.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Why is bureaucracy so inept when dealing with the zombie threat? What does this suggest about the novel's feelings toward politics? Does it connect into any other themes?
    2. According to Jurgen, what aspects of Israeli politics allow it to be receptive to the zombie threat? Are these aspects featured in the political changes that come later in the novel? Where?
    3. Do you see any point where government begins to deal with the zombie threat effectively? What point is this, and what changed from earlier in the novel?
    4. By the novel's end, what political systems come out on top? Which ones fail? What does this suggest about the theme of politics in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Although set in a modern era, the treatment of Russia in the novel shows that the politics of this world are still steeped in a Cold-War-era mentality.

    The novel's scope is global, but its politics are a little more ethnocentric. Countries that do well in the novel are those with American-like political systems.

  • Prejudice

    Racism has been important in zombie stories since the very beginning, and we don't mean people discriminating against zombies simply because they are zombies (a zombieist?). We can't really hold that form of prejudice against anyone. We mean that early zombie films like The Night of the Living Dead used racism as an important theme. Like, the idea of not working with someone because of his skin color just seems extra stupid when death is literally at the doorstep. World War Z follows this tradition but also builds upon it. Racism is present in the early chapters, and then the theme spreads out as the novel goes, brining in other forms of discrimination such as classism, nationalism, and, uh, genderism?

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. Saladin loses his racist outlook fairly early in the novel. Why do you think this change occurred where it did in the novel?
    2. The zombies lack the ability to be prejudiced against anyone for any reason. Is this fact important when considering prejudice in the novel? If yes, then why? If not, why not?
    3. Do any characters with prejudice come out on top? If so, who and why is this important when discussing the theme? If not, why not and again why is it important?

    Chew on This

    In World War Z, prejudice is present on all the economic levels, from the lower classes to the upper classes and across the global. It knows no social or cultural bounds.

    Thankfully, if a bit unrealistically, it seems every character who suffers from prejudice manages to overcome it by the end of their story.

  • Change

    In World War Z, change generally comes in two flavors: tasty change, nasty change, and the occasional swirled combination of both. But the novel's consideration of change goes beyond labeling one type of change bad and another good. The real concern here is how people respond to change. Israel understands change is inevitable and keeps an eye out for it, preparing the best they can. As a result, they weather the zombie apocalypse better than others. Countries like Russia and America want to maintain the status quo, trying to fix the problem while also keep it hidden. This response makes an already nasty change worse. So, while change can be either positive or negative, the degree relies largely on the way we respond to it.

    Questions About Change

    1. What has changed from the time before and after the zombie wars? What hasn't changed? Do you recognize any patterns?
    2. What character goes through the most change in the novel? Describe the change. Why do you think it's the most and why is it important?
    3. Is there any part of the world or human existence the zombies have not changed? If yes, what is it? It not, then why not?

    Chew on This

    World War Z seems to suggest that our modern lifestyle makes dealing with change more difficult.

    In World War Z, anything that brings about a negative change can also bring about a positive change, zombies included.

  • Love

    Shakespeare once wrote "the course of true love never did run smooth" (source). True then, true now, and doubly true once the undead being chomping their way across the globe. Love is a problematic theme in World War Z. On the one hand, love influences people to make decisions that have disastrous consequences, such as refugees spreading the plague to other countries in the hopes of saving their loved ones. On the other hand, love provides the impetus for many of the zombie war's heroes to do what they do. So while the love may have created the zombie war, it also helps bring it to an end.

    Questions About Love

    1. What character do you think embodies love to the most positive effect? Who is it and why do you think this to be the case?
    2. What character embodies love most negatively? Who is it and why do you think this to be the case?
    3. The zombies can't feel love. Actually they can't feel much of anything. Do you think this distinction between the zombies and the humans proves to be important in the novel? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Keep your score cards handy. If you tally it up, love ultimately proves a more deadly than beneficial emotion in the novel.

    Interestingly enough, there are no examples of romantic love in the novel. People just don't have the time to find boyfriends or girlfriends that aren't undead creeps.