CivilWarLand in Bad Decline Themes
by George Saunders

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CivilWarLand in Bad Decline Themes

The main themes in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline are guilt and culpability, simulated worlds, and dystopia and bureaucracy.

  • Guilt and culpability: Most of the characters in the collection are haunted by guilt. While some allow their guilt to destroy them, others transform their guilt into action on behalf of others.
  • Simulated worlds: Simulations of past societies or experiences in the form of theme parks and virtual reality modules promise Saunders’s characters safety and escape.
  • Dystopia and bureaucracy: Each story is set in either a post-apocalyptic dystopia or a bureaucratic one, with characters either taking refuge in or being crushed by a controlled environment.

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Guilt and Culpability

Most of the stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline feature characters wrestling with guilt. In several—“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “The Wavemaker Falters,” and “The 400-Pound CEO”—the protagonist has, either directly or indirectly, killed another person. The guilt is crushing and all-consuming, and these characters finish their stories coolly resigned to their fates: several are prepared to die, while another accepts a fifty-year prison sentence. Even Mary, who coldly kills cows in “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror,” attempts suicide by her story’s final scene, despite being the one character who doesn’t appear to feel culpable for a loss of life.

In “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” and “Isabelle,” by contrast, guilt takes a very different role. In a show of compassion that can, at least somewhat, be understood to derive from their own lingering sense of guilt, both protagonists feel obliged to care for another. The guilt in these cases is indirect and secondhand: the narrator of “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” is not in any way responsible for the death of his wife, Elizabeth, but he feels deep, protracted guilt about it just the same. His grief and guilt are intertwined, and his obligation to Mrs. Schwartz rests somewhere in the middle—though he isn't responsible for any of her sorrow in life, she came into his as a direct result of his grief. For better or for worse, she is now inextricable from both.

Similarly, the narrator in “Isabelle” translates his guilt over what he’s witnessed into a caretaker’s instinct. Like the protagonist in “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” he's not actually culpable for the events that haunt him. Along with Cole, who spends the duration of “Bounty” setting his own needs aside to rescue his sister, these three protagonists are the ones who harness the power of their discomfort to benefit others. When viewed in contrast to the protagonists of the other four stories, a pattern emerges: those who are consumed by their guilt are resigned to death or imprisonment by the time their stories draw to a close, while those who translate their pain into outward service are the ones who achieve happy endings.

Simulated Worlds

One of the most prominent recurring themes exhibited in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is the motif of the simulated world. Most of the stories take place in an ersatz recreation of a society that, it’s often implied, used to exist—the settings are a shoddy replacement for the deteriorating world outside their boundaries. The simulations, however ramshackle, historically inaccurate, or otherwise deficient, are understood to be the best the present world can offer under the circumstances.

Some of these settings go beyond just recreation or nostalgia to specifically offer visitors a taste of what they're missing most from the outside—CivilWarLand is a Civil War–themed amusement park offering, with some irony , a bubble of very non-warlike safety and order in an otherwise chaotic, dangerous landscape. Bounty-Land is an immersive...

(The entire section is 792 words.)