Guilt and Innocence in 'The Last Night of the World'

Ray Bradbury's Inevitable Apocalypse

Running faucet.
Image courtesy of Steve Johnson.

In Ray Bradbury's "The Last Night of the World," a husband and wife realize that they and all the adults they know have been having identical dreams: that tonight will be the last night of the world. They find themselves surprisingly calm as they discuss why the world is ending, how they feel about it, and what they should do with their remaining time.

The story was originally published in Esquire magazine in 1951 and is available for free on Esquire's website.

Acceptance

The story takes place in the early years of the Cold War and in the first months of the Korean War, in a climate of fear over ominous new threats like "the hydrogen or atom bomb" and "germ warfare."

So our characters are surprised to find that their end won't be as dramatic or violent as they have always expected. Rather, it will be more like "the closing of a book," and "things [will] stop here on Earth."

Once the characters stop thinking about how the Earth will end, a sense of calm acceptance overtakes them. Though the husband concedes that the end sometimes frightens him, he also notes that sometimes he is more "peaceful" than frightened. His wife, too, notes that "[y]ou don't get too excited when things are logical."

Other people seem to be reacting the same way. For instance, the husband reports that when he informed his co-worker, Stan, that they had had the same dream, Stan "didn't seem surprised.

He relaxed, in fact."

The calmness seems to come, in part, from a conviction that the outcome is inevitable. There is no use struggling against something that can't be changed. But it also comes from an awareness that no one will be exempted. They've all had the dream, they all know it's true, and they're all in this together.

"Like Always"

The story touches briefly on some of humanity's bellicose propensities, like the bombs and germ warfare mentioned above and the "bombers on their course both ways across the ocean tonight that'll never see land again."

The characters consider these weapons in an effort to answer the question, "Do we deserve this?"

The husband reasons, "We haven't been too bad, have we?" But the wife responds:

"No, nor enormously good. I suppose that's the trouble. We haven't been very much of anything except us, while a big part of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things."

Her comments seem particularly trenchant given that the story was written less than six years after the end of World War II. At a time when people were still reeling from the war and wondering if there was more they could have done, her words could be construed, in part, as a comment on concentration camps and other atrocities of the war.

But the story makes clear that the end of the world isn't about guilt or innocence, deserving or not deserving. As the husband explains, "things just didn't work out." Even when the wife says, "Nothing else but this could have happened from the way we've lived," there's no feeling of regret or guilt.

There's no sense that people could have behaved any way other than the way they have. And in fact, the wife's turning off the faucet at the end of the story shows exactly how hard it is to change behavior.

If you're someone looking for absolution -- which it seems reasonable to imagine our characters are -- the idea that "things just didn't work out" might be comforting. But if you're someone who believes in free will and personal responsibility, you might be troubled by the message here.

The husband and wife take comfort in the fact that they and everyone else will spend their last evening more or less like any other evening. In other words, "like always." The wife even says "that's something to be proud of," and the husband concludes that behaving "like always" shows "[w]e're not all bad."

The things the husband will miss are his family and everyday pleasures like a "glass of cool water." That is, his immediate world is what's important to him, and in his immediate world, he hasn't been "too bad." To behave "like always" is to continue to take pleasure in that immediate world, and like everyone else, that's how they choose to spend their final night. There is some beauty in that, but ironically, behaving "like always" is also exactly what has kept humanity from being "enormously good."