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The atmosphere of the story is a world desolate after a cataclysmic war. There has been a brutal conflict that has taken place and, from what we gather, one side definitely won but it came at such a cost that there are really no definable "winners", in the traditional sense. The mood of the men is a survivalist one. They know that they must live in this world, with the cold winter impending, and they must adapt to the fact that the world they once knew is not coming back. Making the transition to survive in this world is obviously a challenge. Recall that no institution or social mechanism from the old world remains. As the reader, you might have to examine how you would feel if put in this situation, or even how you feel reading about it. Is this something that you can envision and imagine? Is this something that you can grasp? Is this something that is recognizable to you? Recall that this was a prominent vision when the threat of nuclear conflict between the superpowers was present. The characters feel awkward about their situation. Their worshipping of music and literature is in stark contrast to the nothingness in front of them now. There is a small grasp at community with the men that meet in the cave, but little else. The characters feel as if the end of the world has been seen and a new world is present. In addition to this, the book and music symbolize the best from the old world. They represent the highest caliber of human achievement and human greatness. At the same time, this level of greatness and achievement represented its opposite for the war that created desolation was caused at the hands of humans. The innovative spirit that allowed the great literature and art of the former world to emerge is also that same spirit that ended the world as the characters knew it.
The atmosphere is cold, bleak, dark, wretched, nearly unbearable and uninhabitable. It is the atmosphere of a wasteland. These four men seem doomed. They are being reduced to a primitive existence without the survival experience of the American Indians who lived there before them. Furthermore, the land has been ruined by the climatic conditions created by the atomic war. They are civilized men who have lost their civilization, and they are consequently lost without it. It seems like winter but it might be summer. The poisoned atmosphere has brought about a permanent winter.
Out of the sunset, through the dead, matted grass and isolated weed stalks of the prairie, crept the narrow and deeply rutted remains of a road.
There must have been land warfare in addition to the violent exchange of nuclear bombs and missiles.
The frozen mud still bore the toothed impress of great tanks...
The setting with its atmosphere of desolation and despair plays an unusually important role in this story because the author's intention is to paint a word-picture of the aftermath of an atomic holocaust as a warning. This was the kind of aftermath that many people feared during the Cold War, although few had the ability to imagine it as vividly as Walter Van Tilburg Clark.
When William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951 he told the assembled audience:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?
By some miracle, humanity managed to survive that perilous phase of history, but the danger has not completely vanished. There are still enough atomic weapons in existence to bring about the reality Clark envisioned.
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