U.S. Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, Tragedy or Farce?

Brent Bellamy, University of Alberta |

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.” – Karl Marx


Frank Herholdt, no title from the series “Nightfall” (n.d.), photograph, used with permission of the artist http://frankherholdt.com/

In his seminal work on post-apocalyptic narrative forms, James Berger articulates their double movement, echoing, albeit unintentionally, Marx’s famous statement about tragedy and farce. Berger puts it best when he claims that “the end is never the end” (5), and that, instead of marking an end point, apocalyptic writing stands as a testament to and representation of the aftermath of a massive, “disorienting catastrophe” (7). Berger’s use of the adjective “disorienting,” with its spatial overtones and negation of a determinable location, emphasizes the bait and switch of post-apocalyptic narratives. In U.S. post-apocalyptic fiction what appears to be a break in the fabric of daily reality, upon inspection, is constituted and underpinned by those very elements of commonsense that seem most natural and orderly. While, for Berger what returns marks a traumatic failure in reconciling the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, for me what returns in U.S. post-apocalyptic fiction – a mailman, a single can or a whole case of coca-cola, a new mother, father, and siblings, or a new appreciation of the family you have – offers an ideological lesson that has everything to do with orientation. [1]

One way to grasp the question of my title (‘tragedy or farce?’) is to return to the birth of the modern form of the comedy, as well as science fiction, which also happens to take place in the interregnum between Marx’s historicized poles: I am asking us to consider a comparison of the ending of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). [2] Frankenstein enacts one version of tragedy, when, the monster asks Frankenstein to fashion him a wife, Frankenstein refuses, shattering any hope that a narrative resolution can be met. The novel illustrates the dynamic of the tragic closure, which is made unbearable when the possibility of a complete resolution, if only for an instant, seems attainable and is then dashed away. Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, narrates many minor tragedies time and again, bringing Elizabeth and Darcy close together and then pushing them apart.[3] But, in Austen’s novel the bittersweet sting of a nearly fulfilled love is finally realized in understanding, union, and marriage. The insidious nature of Austen’s text moves beneath its surface, where the seemingly natural event of falling in love laid the groundwork for the ongoing bourgeois cultural revolution.

The closure of Austen’s novel, unlike the anti-closure of Shelley’s, works to cement marriage as the narrative possibility after which no further narration is needed, and to naturalize domestic family life as the inevitable conclusion to any good story. The very domestic life that Austen doesn’t depict is, in a reversal of narrative intent, the most deeply necessary work to maintaining the present both economically, reproducing labour power, and ideologically, arresting the movement of history with the Bourgeoisie on top. In light of this comparison, the question of post-apocalyptic fiction’s (dis)orientation takes on a decidedly ideological character. Indeed, interpretations of post-apocalyptic fiction hinge on considerations of closure, and what is often at stake at the end of these novels is the overwhelming presence of the family.[4]

Disorientation and reorientation, the family acts a signpost en route to stability and normalcy for many post-apocalyptic novels: George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) features a protagonist who is shocked at the way knowledge had degraded only one or two generations after his; the state of Florida becomes a nuclear wasteland in Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon (1959) but at the end of the novel the small community that develops there declines evacuation, deciding instead to stay and survive as they can; Sherri S. Tepper’s The Gate To Women’s Country (1978) addresses concerns about the return of patriarchy through a careful modification and control of procreation practices; Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore (1984) maintains family groupings in an expanded commune setting; Stephen King’s The Stand was re-released in 1991 with expanded content and ends with its new parents certain that their newborn’s future remains uncertain; Nick Sagan’s Idlewild (2003) projects the rebirth of humanity through technology; and, Alan DeNiro’s Total Oblivion, More or Less (2009) describes the effects of the apocalypse on a teenage girl and her family.

Since I only have the space in this episode to elaborate on one of these examples, I’d like to point to the Epilogue of Total Oblivion, More or Less, which closes the novel on the familiar register with which it begins. Macy, the young female protagonist, longs for a return to normalcy, including electricity, the retreat of the antagonistic horse warriors and the Nueva Roman empire, that cars could run again, that the plague will be cured, and that, in her words, “we’ll all go back to St. Paul and I’ll start my senior year, none the worse for wear” (3). The stakes, for her, are already set at a continuation of how life is supposed to be. Judging by her long list of apocalyptic effects, one would be hard pressed to disagree with this return to normalcy. She longs for the natural carrying-on that she’s come to expect after sixteen years of life in the American mid-west. Her reflections at the end of the novel carry a weighty reminder that things may appear to have been drastically altered in the apocalypse, but some structures, some relations persist whether or not they have been consciously maintained. Thus, in the epilogue Macy comes to a revelation, “I understand love a little bit more—and what it can cost… My living breathing family is still teaching me that” (306), which evacuates any vaguely utopian hope for the future, even if it’s the continuation of her life with electricity, cars, and high school, replacing it with the centrality of the family.

Indeed, the ideological lesson of the novel clarifies in a note written by Macy’s sister, Sophia. Sophia becomes a midwife in the midst of the great geographic and political changes that occur in the novel, which include the emergence of an empire and the deepening of the Mississippi to well-nigh Marianas Trench fathoms. The note, from “log of Sophia Palmer, midwife,” reads,

At 8:02 p.m., on the seventh day of the egret’s month, 120 yards below sea level, two miles northeast of Nueva Roma, Macy [last name redacted] was born to Em [last name redacted] and Wye [last name redacted]… She is of no nationality, no country. She is of the sea, and her parents. (297)

Is this shedding of nation and country alongside the persistence of the family form what makes up the “More or Less” of the title? The redacted last names point to a negotiation between the past and the future, as the legacies and inheritances of the old family are replaced by the hope for the future that grows in the new one. DeNiro’s novel highlights the family as the outward and visible sign of the post-apocalyptic novel’s ideological work to reorient apocalyptic crisis and revelation through the limits of the present. Post-apocalyptic fiction has a tendency to move from Shelley’s tragedy towards Austen’s comedy, seen especially in its effort to refashion the world in the burnt out afterimage of those moments just before the end—total oblivion, more or less, indeed.

The form of closure we find in much U.S. post-apocalyptic fiction is engaged in the same type of class struggle though no longer in the name of the same cultural elite. Berger’s disorienting catastrophe acts as an estrangement or defamiliarization that clears the way for a reorienting based on the structure of the family. In its maintenance of the status quo and its deep disinterest in the movement of history as such, post-apocalyptic fiction does a similar kind of work to Pride and Prejudice, though the benefactors of its cultural operations must now be considered in global terms. The old class struggle in Austen has been displaced by the mediations of an intensely globalized world where the rise or fall of a nation, specifically the U.S.A., has come to bear the weight of signification of those older class realities in spite of their continued material existence. After the end, the desire to be “of no nationality, no country” is an understandable disavowal for someone at the centre of capitalist accumulation.


Berger, James. After the End: Representations of the Post Apocalypse. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, P, 1999.

DeNiro, Alan. Total Oblivion, More or Less. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” The Marx-Engels Reader Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978. 595-617.

Moretti, Franco. The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature. London: Verso, 2013.

Wegner, Phillip. Periodizing Jameson; or, The Adventures of Theory in Post-Contemporary Times. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, forthcoming.

Wolfe, Gary. “The Remaking of Zero: Beginning After the End.” _The End of the World_. Eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander. Carbondale: South Illinois UP, 1983. 1-19.

[1] In the parenthetical list, I am referring to: David Brin’s The Postman (1985), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (2012), Octavia Butler’s short story “Speech Sounds” (1983), and Alan DeNiro’s Total Oblivion, More or Less (2009).

[2] Cf. Phillip Wegner – he makes and elaborates this comparison along these lines.

[3] See Franco Moretti – he described these minor tragedies as filler: a literary invention of the rising bourgeoisie that takes place, and takes up spaces, between narrative turning points.

[4] I’d like to thank Emily Arvay for pointing out that in “The Remaking of Zero,” Gary Wolfe has argued that post-apocalyptic fiction is structured around the loss and reconstitution of the family.

Bio: Brent Bellamy is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies University of Alberta. His website notes from after the end can be found at http://www.brentryanbellamy.com/

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