By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Last Night of the World’ is a short story by the American writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), published in Esquire magazine in February 1951 before being reprinted in his 1952 collection The Illustrated Man. In this story of just a few pages, a husband tells his wife that the world will end later that night. You can read ‘The Last Night of the World’ here, at the Esquire magazine website.
‘The Last Night of the World’ is a classic example of Bradbury’s talent for writing brief tales with a moral, using his clear, understated prose style and ear for dialogue to let the salient themes of his story come to the fore. Let’s explore some of those themes – but before we come to the analysis, let’s briefly summarise the ‘plot’ of the story.
‘The Last Night of the World’: plot summary
The story begins one evening, with a husband asking his wife what she would do if she knew this was the last night of the world. He then reveals to her, as they drink coffee, that the world will indeed end later that night. As they talk, their two daughters are playing nearby.
The wife wants to know how the world will end: war? No. A nuclear bomb? Also no. Germ warfare? Also no. Instead, the husband says he bases his belief that the world will end that night on a ‘feeling’ he has, based on a dream he first experienced four nights before. When he woke up after the dream he thought nothing more of it, until he got talking to other people at work and learned that they had had the same dream. Indeed, everyone seemed to have had exactly the same dream.
Accepting this news, the wife asks whether they deserve this fate. The husband says deserve hasn’t got anything to do with it. The wife seems to take the news more readily than the husband had expected; but it turns out that she, and the other women in the neighbourhood, have also had the same dream, though she thought nothing of it until her husband pieced things together.
The wife says she isn’t afraid, because the end of the world seems the logical conclusion given the way they have lived their lives. The husband says the only thing he’ll miss about life his her and their daughters. They reflect that people will live their last evening on earth like any other, doing normal things.
The husband wonders why tonight of all nights – the date is 19 October 1969 – has been ‘chosen’ as the night the world will end, but the wife suggests it doesn’t have to make sense. They wash the dishes and put their daughters to bed, before sitting and reading the papers and listening to the radio together. The husband kisses the wife for a long time before they go to bed, wishing each other goodnight for the last time.
‘The Last Night of the World’: analysis
One of the most notable features of ‘The Last Night of the World’ is the sense of calm that both the husband and wife feel about the imminent end of the world. If the opening words of the story recall the opening line of a poem by John Donne, ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’, then the end of Bradbury’s story seem to echo the closing lines of T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’, in which the world ends ‘not with a bang but a whimper’.
Many of Ray Bradbury’s short stories from the early 1950s reflect the Cold War anxiety of the time, with the wife’s fixation on warfare showing that, to many people at the time, the imminent end of the world seemed like a frighteningly real prospect. When she asks her husband how the world will end, she fires three possible explanations at him (war, a hydrogen or atom bomb, and germ warfare – all of which he rejects) which are, really, variations on the same single explanation: war.
Later, when her husband observes that there are bomber planes in the sky which will never reach their destination as the world will end while they’re still mid-flight, the wife responds that that is one reason why the world is ending. War, bombs, the misuse of advanced technology: all of these things have led, if not directly to the world ending, then to a general sense that humankind going extinct cannot be considered a wholly bad thing.
This might explain why both the husband and wife can greet the annihilation of everything they hold dear, including their two daughters, with such equanimity: they have been mentally prepared for the last night of the world for some time now. And someone of the wife’s cast of mind, with an understanding of the dangers and damage wrought by war, cannot see this as all that surprising. If man has not literally brought about the end of the world, he has at least given her little reason to lament its demise.
But what are we to make of Bradbury’s decision, then, to avoid offering a dramatic ‘bang’ in favour of a rather zen-like whimper? Bradbury’s understated and plain writing style perfectly suits the placidity of the characters’ acceptance that they are fast approaching the very last night of the world. But what does this symbolise? And what are we to make of the fact that everyone appears to have experienced the collective dream foretelling the end of the world?
We might analyse ‘The Last Night of the World’ in light of another important context. Bradbury’s story was published just six years after the end of the Second World War. The full horror of Nazi Germany and the horrific scale of the Holocaust were only beginning to emerge in full.
Hannah Arendt, whose The Origins of Totalitarianism was published in the same year as Bradbury’s story, would later coin the phrase ‘banality of evil’ to describe figures like Adolf Eichmann who had presided over the Nazi regime. Such men were not inherently evil, but were aimless and thoroughly ordinary individuals who drifted towards tyranny because they sought power and direction in their lives. And millions of others had stood by while the Nazis had committed their atrocities.
This is probably what the wife is referring to when, in response to the husband’s question (‘We haven’t been too bad, have we?’), she tells him that they haven’t, but that while they have been simply being themselves, big parts of the world have been ‘lots of quite awful things’.
All this raises the question of whether we are supposed to entertain a Christian, or at least generally religious, interpretation of Bradbury’s story. Has God (or, to borrow from Louis MacNeice, ‘whatever means the Good’) decided, in the wake of the invention of the atom bomb, the dropping of that bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Final Solution, that it’s best simply to put an end to the world?
Bradbury doesn’t say, and religion is notably absent from his story. Its message of quiet acceptance can be analysed as secular rather than (or as well as) religious: humane in the face of inhumanity. It’s not about mankind deserving to be wiped out, as in the story of Noah and the Flood; Bradbury’s story suggests instead that the world has talked itself, as it were, out of existence, or at least of having a good reason to go on existing.