Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury, “The Last Night of the World”


Ray Bradbury

This short-short story, published in the February 1951 issue of Esquire, shows Bradbury’s particular feel for folks who find themselves in an unexpected and off-kilter world. Reading like a script for a radio drama, “The Last Night of the World” tells of a husband and wife about to turn in for the night—and for eternity.

Each discovers that they and everyone they know have been having the same eschatological dream. The world is coming to an end, not with a bang or even a whimper.  When they go to sleep tonight, they will simply never wake up again.

Written in the shadow of atomic bomb tests and mushroom clouds, the story taps into the anxiety that swept through the collective consciousness of the early 1950s. But in true Bradbury style, the end comes gently, like maybe an overdose of sleeping pills. No hysteria, no grisly disasters, catastrophes, or cataclysms. Just put out the lights.

I thought of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia as I read this one. There is at the end of that film the same calm acceptance of the end of all things. It’s a chilling fantasy that is also strangely comforting. Who knows what Lars was thinking, but I think I can guess what Bradbury had in mind.

It’s just a story, he would say. And yet it’s not. We all die, and the night will surely come that we never wake from. Until then, be gentle to each other and kind to yourself. Above all, be here now. Don’t miss a minute of your sweet life.

“The Last Night of the World” is currently available online here. For more comments on Ray Bradbury, click over to Patti Abbott's blog.




Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries (1910)

10 comments:

  1. Been a long time since I read this one by Bradbury. What a talent. Thanks for reminding me of it, and you last words are very true.

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    1. The man could probe our phobias and fears with such a gentle touch.

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  2. Thanks for discussing this story which reminds me of two things that I have thought about for decades. I was just a child in the early 1950's but I was sure that the world would end with an atomic World War III. This thought was always in the back of my mind and influenced me in many ways. So far I've been wrong and hopefully I'll not live to see such a disaster.

    The other thing concerns the end of life. For billions of years before 1942 I did not exist and time passed like a flash for me. Eventually I'll return to that timeless nothingness and like the couple in Bradbury's story, there is nothing to regret or worry about. It's just the way things are and there is nothing we can do about it.

    Perhaps, if we don't blow up the world, mankind will discover the secret of immortality. Our children's children will look back on our short lives with pity and sorrow. Or maybe they will just shrug and say "tough luck!"

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  3. Like you, Walker, I am a product of that era. Growing up on the brink of nuclear holocaust leaves a life-long mark.

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    1. Ron, did you practice "duck and cover" in grade school in the early 1950's? Many times the alarm would go off and we would have to stoop and hide below our desks, as if that would save us from the atomic bomb. Also the Trenton area often practiced siren alarms which were supposed to warn us of a nuclear attack. The funny thing is we would have been doomed in such an attack because of being near NYC, Washington, DC and such posts as Fort Dix and McGuire Airforce Base. The whole east coast would have been dust.

      When I graduated from high school I figured why bother going to college when the future looked so bleak. But after a couple years of low paying jobs I realized I had to get a degree in order to pay the bills. When I started classes the Cuban Missle face off occured. Recent evidence shows we almost ended civilization with Kennedy and the Russians ready to pull the trigger. I almost dropped out of college at that point...

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    2. Walker, I grew up in a farming community in Nebraska. Never did duck and cover, but we were 100 miles from SAC and I'm guessing the missiles would have found us one way or another. Years later, I was working in northern Pennsylvania at the time of Three-Mile Island.

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    3. You were where the action was, Ron! Meanwhile, of course, the Kennedy and Khrushchev admins weren't about to pull the trigger, even though they were making (particularly JFK) all kinds of machismic noise about it. It was a very quiet trade of (removal of) US missiles in Turkey for (no) USSR missiles in Cuba. It should've been a loud, but civil, quid pro quo. I remain convinced that all the bluster around it, aside from scaring most of the world, was a large part of what got JFK shot and Khrushchev purged. But, by golly, wasn't it worth it, to pound chests for a month or so.

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  4. I am going to have to add Bradbury to my list. I have read far too little.

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  5. I haven't read this story yet and as for my reading I'm hoping to make 2013 the Year of Ray Bradbury. I agree with Charles: you have ended this post on an inspiring note. Thanks, Ron.

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