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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

“At the End of the Mechanical Age” is Barthelme’s teasing meditation on the necessity and impossibility of conceptualizing human existence in the inhuman terms of “age” or “era.” His point of departure is certainly the suggestion, first developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, that industrial society was evolving into a state that would be fundamentally different from that which had defined it for the previous two centuries—what some commentators have called postindustrial society. Barthelme pokes fun at this notion without fundamentally overturning it, by having the two main characters, the unnamed “I” and his eventual wife, “Mrs. Davis,” speak of “the end of the mechanical age” as if it were the same thing as talking about the end of the day, a precise thing with a particular nature and schedule.

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They speculate on what will come after the mechanical age, as if an “age” were like a day or a season, but Barthelme’s feelings come through in their agreement that whatever it will be, the age to follow will not be pleasant. In response to the question of whether there is anything to be done about all this, Mrs. Davis replies that the only solution is to “huddle and cling.” Clearly, whatever will happen to humankind, it is not something that can be controlled, at least not by the average citizens that make up middle-class society.

The protagonist has met Mrs. Davis at the grocery store in front of the soap display; they hold hands before they speak, and when they do talk, it is for Mrs. Davis to express an opinion, as if on a television commercial, regarding one of the brands of soap. Later, they converse by singing songs of male and female savior figures named Ralph and Maude, who will redeem the world after the mechanical age has come to an end. Before it does, there is a flood, which echoes the end of the world that Noah survived; the two pass the time by drinking drinks of “scotch-and-floodwater” in their boat.

Even marriage as an institution is part of the mechanical age, which is why theirs must end. God, as much a character in all these developments as either of the human beings, comes to their wedding. The protagonist tries to get a clear view of the situation by asking God about the state of things, but he does little besides smile and disappear. Predictably, neither their marriage nor their child has had an effect on the alteration of ages, and at the end each leaves in search of his or her savior.

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