Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1736
On April 26, 1986, the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine region of the Soviet Union exploded, blowing hot graphite and reactor fuel fragments through the roof of the containment building; the reactor core continued to burn for days. A cloud of radioactive debris containing iodine 131 and cesium contaminated the air, vegetation, soil, water, and living population—both animal and human—throughout Europe. The Soviet authorities did not immediately release information about the nuclear disaster to the rest of the world. It was only after scientists in Scandinavia measured unprecedented radiation levels in the atmosphere that the Soviets revealed the news of the accident and opened the site to world press coverage and scientific investigation. This two-day hesitation in revealing the accident exposed most of an unwarned Europe to dangerous levels of radiation.
Christa Wolf’s novel Accident: A Day’s News, written from June through September of 1986, is a meditation on the immediate and long-term consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. On a larger scale, however, it probes the effects of man’s seemingly insatiable desire to create technology that can control nature. The novel takes place on the day that Europe learned of the “unforeseen accident”: It is a beautiful spring day with all the usual promises of new life and growth. The cherry trees are in blossom. It is a day during which the narrator, unnamed throughout the novel, otherwise would have been preoccupied with the brain surgery that her brother is undergoing. Indeed, she is preoccupied with his surgery. Her concern with her brother’s fate on this day is, however, interwoven with the news of the Chernobyl explosion and the resulting radiation.
Wolf plays with the narrative stance; the novel takes place during a single day, but the stream-of-consciousness narrative unobtrusively shifts from dramatic monologue to dialogue to memoir. The narrator records her thoughts and conversations as they occur but is also privy to later knowledge both about the effects of the Chernobyl explosion and about the outcome of her brother’s operation.
Although the narrator is mostly home alone, she has the instruments of instant communication. Her transistor radio transmits the warnings about the invisible cloud of radiation hovering above her head; the television shows pictures of the accident site and allows experts to voice their opinions about its causes and effects; the telephone puts her into immediate contact with the progress of her brother’s operation and allows her to chat with her daughters and a friend about the day’s news. She also receives a letter from a frail and aged friend, the writer Charlotte Wolff. The narrator, in identifying Wolff as sharing her name, makes the autobiographical connection implicit in this novel, as it is in such earlier Wolf novels as Kindheitsmuster (1976; Patterns of Childhood, 1984) and Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T., 1970). Chance encounters as she gardens, shops, and bicycles afford her conversations with neighbors, conversations in which the news of the disaster invariably arises. It is in the mental dialogue with her brother, however, that the narrator confronts existence in a world whose technology provides the tools and skills for delicate brain surgery even as it threatens the survival of life on earth.
Images of nature poisoned and perverted are of immediate concern. The language for describing nature has suddenly become ironic and fraught with paradox. The narrator finds it impossible to contemplate that the cherry trees have “exploded” into bloom. “The radiant sky,” she thinks. “Now one can’t think that anymore, either.” It is a cloudless day, one of the most beautiful of the year. She...
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looks at the “immaculate blue sky, this incarnation of purity, where the uneasy glances of millions are meeting” as they search for traces of the radiation cloud. Lines of poetry from Friedrich Schiller, Bertolt Brecht, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which exult in nature echo in the narrator’s consciousness: “Perhaps the problem of what to do with the libraries full of nature poems is not the most urgent. But it is a problem all the same, I thought.”
Because it is a beautiful spring day, she occupies herself with gardening, breaking up the rocky soil to plant sorrel and spinach and lettuce seed, “very thoroughly and angrily, which I noticed only because I had been accompanying my activities with half- audible curses until I stopped and asked myself just as audibly: What for?” As she is pulling weeds with her bare hands, the voice on the radio warns that it would be advisable “to wear gloves today if working in the garden was unavoidable.” The narrator spontaneously rejects the advice, yet when she returns to the garden after lunch, her nettle-pulling hands are protected with pink rubber gloves.
Food can no longer be taken for granted: The eggs she cooks for lunch are fresh, but not fresh enough to have been contaminated. She will eat lettuce in a green salad one last time without a guilty conscience, although she has already discarded the tender dandelion greens that she had automatically picked. As she buys milk at the co-op. the salesgirl confirms that everyone is doing the same; “what else could they do? . . . After all, one couldn’t stop eating and drinking.” The problem arises again in conversation with both of her daughters. The youngest has already stopped giving her children milk, but she agonizes over the throwing away of thousands of liters of milk. She fears poisoning the children with what should have been particularly healthful foods—as other children around the world starve. The eldest finds it difficult to avoid eating greens just as they are again becoming available. The stuff of sustenance has become suspect, and the narrator searches for the blind spot in man’s collective vision that can allow the very elements of life to be poisoned in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and advances.
It seems to her a Faustian pursuit, driven by desire, but what is the nature of a desire that denies the pleasures of life and nurturance? She considers the first atomic scientists: What drove them to discover uranium fission and invent the atom bomb? Has invention always been coupled with destruction? She reads an article about the young scientists at Livermore National Laboratory involved in weapons development who “have not signed a pact with the devil (oh, brother! the good old devil! would that he still existed!), but rather with the fascination with a technical problem,” brilliant children shackled only to their beloved computers. Months later, the narrator is delighted to read of the departure from Livermore of one of the young geniuses—perhaps, she thinks, the modern Faust can turn his back on the temptations of technology and fame. Yet is this desire to grapple with the problems of technology significantly different from her own desire to grapple with the problems of language? She recalls an earlier conversation with her brother in which the question had arisen:Whether I would be able to stop. Whether I hadn’t once told him that words could wound, even destroy, like projectiles; whether I was always able to judge when my words would wound, perhaps destroy? At what level of destruction I would back down? No longer say what I could? Opt for silence?
Must the human desire for knowledge and control inevitably lead to extinction? Has the human brain developed beyond its capacity for survival?
As she mentally converses with her brother, she follows the path of the brain surgery. There is a possibility that he may lose functions that control the senses or personality; the surgeons have already warned that he will probably lose his sense of smell. Invoking Carl Sagan, she conjures an anatomical map of the brain: its reptilian brain stem influencing aggressive behavior and the establishment of social hierarchies; its mammalian limbic system in which originate emotions, passion, sexual arousal, and painful contradictions. Smell was undoubtedly crucial for man’s mammalian ancestors, but the narrator posits that its importance has diminished. A radiation sensor might be more useful. When her sister-in-law calls, early in the afternoon, with the news that the operation has been a success, considering the circumstances, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy springs to her mind. Schiller’s lyrics, however, are ominous on this day:
. . . There was a cloud my eyes dwelt long uponIt was quite white and very high above usThen I looked up, and found that it had gone.
Wolf takes her narrator through an ordinary day that has become doubly extraordinary. Partaking of the usual, she gardens and chats with neighbors, fixes meals and does errands, has a glass of wine, watches television, and reads. Concerned for the welfare of her grandchildren, she worries with her daughters and delights in the children’s wit and growth. She communes with her beloved brother, as he lies unconscious with his brain exposed—how much of the personality can survive the surgeon’s assault? She also confronts the possibility that life on earth may no longer be possible—how much of life can survive technology’s assault on nature?
The language of the novel is colloquial and conversational but dense with allusions. Wolf spins webs of associations that connect the concrete realities of daily life to the looming questions of human destiny. It is significant that the narrative of the novel is addressed to a brother by his sister. The brother understands and champions technology; the sister fears its double-cutting edge. In her fiction, Wolf has continuously explored the dangers of institutionalized technology, so often used for destructive purposes, and has validated the experience of ordinary life lived simply. There is no stridency in the voice of this novel, but its concerns fall into the same range of eco-feminism as did those of her previous novel, Kassandra (1983; Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, 1984). She does not provide answers to any questions or make predictions about the fate of humanity. Finally all she can offer is her own hope and desire: “We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling. . . . How difficult it would be, brother, to take leave of this earth.”
Virginia Woolf once said that in December, 1910, a change in human character took place. Perhaps in Accident Christa Wolf has shown that in April, 1986, a change in human perception took place. Human survival on the earth became a much more fragile proposition.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38
Library Journal. CXIV, April 15, 1989, p. 102.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 4, 1989, p. 3.
The Nation. CCXLIX, July 3, 1989, p. 28.
The New York Times. April 12, 1989, p. B2.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, April 23, 1989, p. 3.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, March 3, 1989, p. 84.