The Heat Death of the Universe by Pamela Zoline

Jossalyn Holbert

Edited by Jahna Hampshire

Art by Holly Summerson

Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” outlines a day in the life of Sarah Boyle, a married mother of an indeterminate number of children living in Alameda, California during the 1970’s. Her life consists of pink children’s bottoms fresh out of the tub, strawberry jam on a strawberry floor, cleaning her house and meticulously labelling the items within it as a means of creating some order in her cluttered space. Her home becomes an enclosed vacuum, a microcosm of the wider universe barreling quickly and unstoppably towards a state of complete chaos, entropy. Physics enters the story sideways and strangely, with the heat death of the universe occurring in Sarah Boyle’s very kitchen. She has no means to stop it, attempting every day to sweep, vacuum, dust, wipe down, and order every object before in her path – no small task given that there are 819 objects in the living room alone (4). Despite her efforts, entropy descends upon Sarah’s kitchen anyway. Throughout the text, Zoline combines a feminist critique of the heterosexual, nuclear family dynamic pervading life at the time with a metaphysical association of the home as a miniature universe. Sarah Boyle’s struggle is not only against the social norms that tie her to her kitchen, full of dripping strawberry ice cream and ‘wet jelly beans’ (8), but also the monumental, intangible, unconstrained laws of the universe. The only agency she has, then, comes with hastening the inevitable state of entropy so that it occurs all at once and by her own hands. In other words, Sarah Boyle trashes her kitchen.

The title phrase – the heat death of the universe – refers to a gradual unwinding of all matter into a chaotic state. It is theorized that eventually all available energy within the enclosed space of the universe will be used up, and entropy will maximize (3). Entropy itself is “a measure of [the] degree of disorder” within a given space (2).

I came across this piece in a science fiction class while undertaking a study abroad program at the University of East Anglia in the UK. The combination of science and feminist thought in Zoline’s work runs counter to stereotypes concerning women and scientific understanding, and as such the piece was a nice addition to the curriculum. After reading H.G. Wells, Kurt Vonnegut, and other staples of the science fiction genre, reading a woman writer in this setting provided a much needed fresh perspective to the class.

I found that this short story works well for a science fiction class, especially since the genre, like most, is typically dominated by male writers and creators. However, “Heat Death” could also function well as a literary source for a gender studies class, especially since it draws on ideas found in Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique and other feminist works that were published in the 1970s.

In “The Heat Death of the Universe” eggs are a key motif, yielding a great deal of meaning. Early on, Sarah Boyle is seen cooking eggs, and an egg timer is one of the measuring devices which, it is later revealed, Sarah uses to chronicle and categorize information about her world (28). In the last section of the story, she throws eggs about in her kitchen as she speeds up the process of entropy: ‘she throws them one by one onto the kitchen floor which is patterned with strawberries in squares. They break beautifully’ (9). Perhaps in a heavy-handed way, the eggs represent motherhood, domesticity; the creation of a home and shelter for one’s offspring. But, as Zoline demonstrates when Sarah smashes them on the ground, eggs are so easily broken. This is a brief but important rejection of destiny, the only moment of rejection that Sarah is allowed. Once it is over, she will have to clean up the kitchen to avoid her children’s bare feet from being exposed to broken eggshells, and she will have to continue as a mother every day after that. At least in this moment, though, she is liberated.

This short story combines scientific knowledge with feminist critique, providing an insight into womanhood in the midst of second-wave feminism. Zoline’s work contends with big concepts like entropy and the ordering of the universe, and both are imposed onto the writing itself. Sarah seeks the organization of words and objects, but this desire is set against the backdrop of Zoline’s disordered, segmented narrative. The criticisms present in this work reflect the foundational feminist ideas of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, but “Heat Death” is rarely taught or known, and I feel that it should be.

Works cited:

Zoline, Pamela. “The Heat Death of the Universe.”

About the author:

Jossalyn Holbert was born in Strafford, New Hampshire, but grew up in Phoenix, Arizona from age 7 to 18. They are a junior English major at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Next year, Jossalyn hopes to write a thesis on escape fiction, particularly science fiction and the Western genre. Besides writing, Jossalyn enjoys knitting, reading classic literature, and watching films.

2 responses to The Heat Death of the Universe by Pamela Zoline

  1. A. L. M.

    What if we were to take scientific theories – entropy – personally? What if we were to experience (sense, feel, suffer) entropy in what we normally think of as every-day, mundane, normal lives? What if insanity was the harbinger of entropy?

  2. Have just read it as we are doing it in creative writing class. I can’t see how class could start discussing this without reading other discussions. People wouldn’t know where to start. I can’t say a back kitchen as metaphor for the universe grabs me. I may not go to that class.

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