What does it mean for the world to end? Is it the destruction of man’s monuments and enterprises? Or is it the complete obliteration of humanity, morality, and charity that marks the last breath of mankind? Post-apocalyptic literature is paradoxical, as it grounds itself in an event so catastrophic, so destabilizing, that mankind should not physically survive; yet, against all odds, it does.
It is from this paradox which makes the genre so interesting, for in the process of crippling mankind, it clears away all restrictions and social constructions holding mankind from a completely natural state which it’s true affinity an be examined. In such, post-apocalyptic literature creates a reflection of mankind and society of today’s world, suggesting that the underlying structure of man holds altruistic ideals in his core. Understanding post-apocalyptic setting and its effect on humanity, therefore, is crucial to exploring such a proposition.
Setting is the centerpiece of post-apocalyptic literature because it forces people to adapt the mantra of survival of the fittest which is backed by the fall of social and authoritative structures. In a state of survival of the fittest, the people are allowed to act s they please, meaning they have the freedom to go against any societal norms or regulations that modern day citizens must obey; therefore, rendering them in a natural state of morality and humanity.
This is due to the crippling of societal structures such as government and religion, which is supplemented by Jingjing Guo in her article, “McCarthy’s The Road and Ethical Choice in a Post-Apocalyptic World”, states: Separated from social community and devoid of the outer authorities which may monitor their conducts, these survivors wandering through the dead country suffer the inner battle between rational factor and nimal factor. Guo implies that this state of humanity is reliant on the state of social communities, and therefore people gain some independence if such communities were to be reduced, thus showing the true nature of man.
Applying Guo’s observation, one finds that governments collapse represents the removal of all imposed law; therefore, man is left to his devices to do what comes natural to them. However, the interesting trend in the genre is that man tries to create or restore some form of government, such as Gordon Krantz in The Postman, which is captivated when he notes: And maybe some eople are trying to put something right in the world again. The sunlight through that high fringe of clouds was like a luminous halo, akin to the dimly remembered sky glow of city lights, a promise that had led him onward from the midwest, searching.
The dream-hopeless as he knew it was- simply would not go away. (28) From this, Gordon captures the essence of true mankind, as it refers to the people of the wasteland trying to put something right, which in this case is government, back into the world to provide hope and stability to others. This is important due to the nature of the gesture, as it signifies that free men will orfeit their freedoms in order to create a governing body, which restricts such freedoms, in order to gain stability in the world.
Along with government, religion acts as a social structure that motivates people to be kind and charitable towards their fellow man. With its destruction there is a lack of social influence to guide man along a set path, therefore man receives the option to act without the pressure or consequence of straying away from the social norm. While the absence of religion allows men to act without morality and humanity, religion is not entirely ost, as the genre typically re-envisions or re-incarnates it just as it does with a government body.
This is most notably seen in The Road, when the son is brought into the new family, where McCarthy states: She would talk to him sometimes about god. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it passes from man to man through all of time. (286) Through this passage, McCarthy asserts that the charity and the morality of religion, formal or not, is crucial to he human condition and thus man must create such an establishment to carryin in a land of lawlessness.
This aspect of humanity is amplified even further by the point where people such as the son who have no knowledge of past religion are willing to forgo their freedom of morality in order to follow a social construct of faith to maintain such morality in mankind. Moving past setting, in the apocalypse symbolism becomes crucial as it provides what the people view are good or bad in a state of natural freedom. In the article, “Trauma and Memory” by Denis A. Foster, the idea which ‘meanings depends on the tructural considerations that are apart of past human culture’ is introduced when analyzing James Berger’s work After the End.
This idea proposes that past social structure and culture provides meaning to post traumatic events, therefore symbols from the past provide the surviving populous meaning and direction in life. With this mindset brought by Foster, one can analyze the symbols in apocalyptic literature to gain insight on the natural state of man, such as in The Postman, which is rich in symbolism. In the Postman, the most prevalent and outstanding symbol in the book is the postman uniform, for it ymbolizes hope in the resurrection of government, society, and order in a chaotic wasteland.
The meaning of this symbol and its effect on the people of the genre represents man’s instinct to create and adhere to a structure of government that promotes moral and ethical codes. This acceptance of morality over liberty is representative as man being altruistic, for they are willing to sacrifice their absolute liberty to create a system that promotes morality for them and future generations. This altruistic ideal is also represented by “the fire” in Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, as “the fire” represents the good nature of man.
In the novel, the father tells his son that ‘the fire is within him and has always been with him'(279), meaning that the goodness of man- morality, ethics, and humility- were always with him and that it was his duty in life to carry it forward. This is a symbolic altruistic act, as the father wills the son to carry the fire onward rather than to die along with him, showing that the act of carrying on this fire- preserving morality in man- is something that’s more important than just them as people, as it promotes the betterment of humanity.
The setting and symbols of apocalyptic iterature gives way to expose the true underlying nature of mankind through the presence of ethics and morality which boils down to a battle of good versus evil. However, in such a state as the apocalypse, the black and white perception of the good and bad become skewed, as it becomes more of a grey scale were some men are more dark than others or vice versa. On the moral high end of the spectrum, we have the “heroes” or “legends”, who are focused on acting for the betterment of mankind and restoring ethics in man.
Inversely, there are the “bandits” and “raiders”, people who act only for the betterment f themselves with no regard towards other men, leaving ethics and morality behind in the rubble of past civilizations. While these are the most noticeable and flashy of the spectra, it is the crescendoing voice of middle area that creates meaning in the work. These “survivors” and “scavengers” are what truly drive the genre’s message, as they represent the collective personality of mankind in a state of absolute destruction and chaos.
Therefore, it is from their actions and interactions with other grey area personas as well as the polar ends that meaning is derived. Through the analysis of the grey area, the genre implies hat man, while under the pressure of survival, is inherently “good” at heart. This is seen most prominently observed in The Road, when the Father and Son encounter the thief who took all| their belongings and subsequently was stripped of his, in which the following passage red ds: .. Just Help him Papa, just help him. The man looked back up the road.
He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die. He’s going to die anyway. He’s so scared, Papa. The man squatted and looked at him. I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? l’m scared… You’re not the one who has to worry about everything. He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one… They went up the road calling out in the empty dusk, their voices lost over the darkening shore lands. They stopped and stood with their hands cupped to their mouths, hallooing mindlessly into the waste.
Finally he piled the man’s shoes and clothes in the road. (259) The father in this moment could have left the thief to waste and keep his few belongings for him and the boy; yet he instead heads to his son and goes out of his way to try and return the thief’s possessions; thus, heading to morality and ethics. This is especially significant when the father speaks to the boy saying, I’m scared, don’t you understand l’m scared too’ as it implies that while he is in a vulnerable state where selfishness is easy to resort to, he still heads to morality.
Continuing with the interaction of the father and thief, it is important to note that the interaction is one between a “survivor” and “bandit”. As the above quote implies, the man listened to his son and decided to help the thief even though it puts him and the ones he loves at risk, revealing the common man capable of withholding certain altruistic principles n a state of natural freedom; willing to sacrifice safety for the betterment of mankind.
It is also important to understand the interaction between the survivor and the “legend”, more specifically when the son informs his father ‘l am the one who worries about everything’, for Cormac McCarthy is asserting that the good nature of man must worry about all man in this new setting; that it is up to all of humanity to keep in touch with their humanity to survive. While the actions of apocalyptic literature are not entirely transferable to today’s world, as it is not subject to the same pressure and principals, it is however ndicative of why man in today’s world behaves as they do.
This is consequential to the fact that all men receive some magnitude of these natural urges and impulses no matter their environment; therefore, when the environment is changed, say to the wasteland of an apocalyptic event, the strength of said urges are increased or decreased in response, therefore an approximation of the human condition can be made due to the amplification of these natural tendencies. Therefore, postapocalyptic literature delineates mankind as altruistic at its core; revealing that man ultimately cares for others above any gain they may receive.
This is most notably seen through the primary sources, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Postman by David Brin, with the help of second hand sources, “McCarthy’s The Road and Ethical Choice in a Post-Apocalyptic World” by Jingjing Guo and “Trauma and Memory” by Denis A. Foster, via the analysis of the setting, symbolism, and conflict that is indicative of the genre. So, when man is free to act in a state of pure liberty, post-apocalyptic literature reveals that they will carry on this trend of altruism to create a better tomorrow for themselves and the upcoming generations that are to follow.