Themes

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Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s 1990 novel Good Omens deals with the biblical prophecies surrounding the apocalypse. However, from the beginning, nothing goes as it should. The antichrist is misplaced, heaven and hell’s respective agents on Earth have grown attached to humanity, and no one quite knows what God is really thinking. Though it deals with prophecy and fate, Good Omens is a humanist novel. The power of the individual and the triumph of free will over fate are important themes developed throughout the text. Additionally, Good Omens explores the dangers of a binary conception of good and evil, instead choosing to focus on the importance of nuance and empathy.

Humanism and the Power of the Individual

Humanism is a philosophy that emphasizes the agency and potential for good inherent in humans. It explicitly rejects the idea of fate and instead upholds the ability of both individuals and humanity as a collective to positively shape the world. Good Omens is a humanist novel in that it promotes an optimistic view of human nature and emphasizes the ability of individuals to effect change.

  • As divine beings, Aziraphale and Crowley are supposed to embody good and evil, respectively. However, Aziraphale has the ability to smite others and jealously hoards his rare books, whereas Crowley is an angel who did not so much fall as “saunter vaguely downwards.” Rather than aiding the apocalypse, Crowley and Aziraphale decide to stop it. Their defiance of their alleged natures suggests that fate is less powerful than the instincts and inclinations of individuals.
  • Crowley’s method of introducing evil into the world is based entirely on giving people the choice to commit evil; people must decide on their own reactions to being minorly inconvenienced. This suggests that humans are in charge of their own decisions and that individuals have the power to impact the world around them.
  • The Device family have meticulously dissected Agnes Nutter’s prophecies since the 17th century, carefully annotating them for generations. Anathema Device lives her life according to Agnes’s prophecies. However, though the prophecies are accurate, they are nearly incomprehensible, and even the Device family often get them wrong. Anathema’s overreliance on Agnes’s book suggests that fate is a self-reinforcing concept that humans use to limit their own potential.
  • Adam Young was destined to initiate armageddon. His father is Satan and he has all the abilities expected of the antichrist. However, he was raised without any devilish or divine influences and instead cherishes his small town, his friends, and his family. This enables him to reject his supposed destiny, suggesting that the human concept of fate is often externally imposed and that love, friendship, and conviction can overcome any odds.
  • Anathema and Newt’s decision to burn Agnes’s second book of prophecies at the end of the novel is a decidedly humanist act. Anathema rejects predetermination and decides to live according to her own ideals and desires, which Newt finds “wonderful.” Their decision speaks to the joy of the unexpected, and Agnes’s freed spirit seems to concur that life is more enjoyable when one is unencumbered by foreknowledge.

This theme is complicated at the end of the novel as Crowley and Aziraphale discuss the nature of God’s plan. Crowley insists that the true final battle will be between humans and the divine. However, a mysterious figure arrives and states that God’s plan is “INEFFABLE” before wiping both Crowley's and Aziraphale’s memories of the conversation. This interaction suggests that perhaps there is a divine plan in place. However, on account of its “ineffable” nature, humans are better off not worrying about God’s machinations and should...

(This entire section contains 1034 words.)

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instead attempt to live the best lives they can.

The Necessity of Moral Nuance

In addition to promoting the power of individuals to effect change, Good Omens is also concerned with the nature of good and evil—or rather, with deconstructing our understanding of it. Through its cast of mortal, divine, and devilish characters, the novel insinuates that “good” and “evil” are merely constructs and that the world is far more complicated than such a straightforward binary can account for.

  • The novel opens directly after the biblical Fall of Man, which saw Adam and Eve expelled from Eden. Crawly, the serpent, and Aziraphale, the angel of the Eastern Gate of Eden, discuss the nature of good and evil. Aziraphale postulates that demons are incapable of doing good and angels incapable of doing bad, but neither he nor Crawly fully accept that answer. Their interaction suggests that the line between good and evil is too blurry for even angels and demons to understand.
  • As Crowley and Aziraphale compare notes about heaven and hell’s respective agencies and influences, they find that their lists contain crossovers. Additionally, both heaven and hell fund the Witchfinder Army. This suggests that good and evil are subjective, capable of stemming in equal measure from the same acts.
  • Rather than describing heaven as a paradise or hell as a torturous pit, the novel insists that both are boring and inferior to Earth. These descriptions are an explicit rejection of binary morality, suggesting that “good” and “evil” are merely “names for sides.”
  • After Adam and the Them defeat War, Famine, and Pollution, Death informs everyone that the other three horsepeople were merely personifications of what dwells in the human mind. Of the four horsepeople, death is the only inevitability. By rejecting the idea of an externalized, predatory force of good and evil, Pratchett and Gaiman establish humanity as the moral center of the novel. Good and evil are merely concepts; all consequences, positive and negative, are subjective and stem from human actions.

Good Omen’s approach to morality is ultimately encapsulated by Adam Young’s assertion that the “only sensible thing is for people to know that if they kill a whale, they’ve got a dead whale.” At the heart of the novel is the belief that actions have consequences and that concepts like “good” and “evil” are too simplistic to capture the complexities of humanity. Instead, Pratchett and Gaiman encourage readers to embrace empathy and understand that for all that people are different, they are also fundamentally similar.

Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Free will vs predestination: This is perhaps the most prominent theme in Good Omens, and is embodied mainly through the figure of Adam, the son of Satan, but also through characters such as Aziraphale and Crowley, who were created for a specific purpose—to stimulate humanity to good and evil, respectively—but who decide they would rather, after all, not simply watch over humanity as the Apocalypse approaches.

Adam is supposedly destined to bring about the Apocalypse. However, through a combination of Aziraphale and Crowley's interference to thwart the prophecy, and his own decisions, he actually rejects this as his fate and decides he prefers his life the way it is. By deciding not to play the role that was supposedly foretold for him—as a result of the life he has led because of the angel's and demon's interference—he has changed the course of prophesied events. This questions the idea of destiny and suggests that we do have free will and can control our own fate.

Ideological clashes and the eradication of these through contact and conversation: Playing into the idea of free will and destiny are the friendships in the novel. The key to the novel is the friendship between the angel, Aziraphale, and the demon, Crowley. These are two beings who should never have had any contact with each other, but because of circumstances, they have come to enjoy each other's company, spending time drinking in the back room of Aziraphale's Soho bookshop and discussing their human charges. They are ideologically from two separate sides of the spectrum, but having come together and befriended each other, they decide their life is very happy as it is and move to prevent the Apocalypse from happening. The suggestion seems to be that there is no reason to believe conflict and destruction are inevitable—if a literal angel and demon can resolve their differences, there is no reason humans cannot.

This idea is paralleled in the romantic entanglement between Anathema and Newt. Predestination and fate might have suggested that the descendant of a witch should never have got on with the descendant of a witchfinder. However, unexpected circumstances bring the two together, and they realize that they are not ideologically opposed as they might have believed. Again, their meeting, and subsequent friendship and discovery of their similarities, contributes to the removal of conflict in the wider world.

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