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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

The fabulistic nature of this very brief story is indicated initially by the detached tone of its narrator and by the absence of any social context in which its events take place. There is no plot as such; instead, the story very briefly recounts the narrator’s experience at the Marchesa Montetristo’s last evening party and the memorable nature of its “extraordinary conclusion,” in which the artificial island on which the Marchesa lives breaks up and sinks into the sea. Most of the story focuses on the narrator’s recounting of the various important guests he meets during the party.

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Perhaps the key word in “A World Ends” is “artificial,” for what characterizes the Marchesa and her guests is their allegiance to art and artifice rather than an affirmation of social reality—which is why the Marchesa’s home is on an artificial island set apart from the real world. The Marchesa hates the mainland because it is hurtful to her spiritual equilibrium; thus she devotes her life to the antique and the forgotten—qualities that she believes typify the “true and eternal.” In fact, the reason the narrator is invited to the party, his one real claim to fame, is that he has sold her the bathtub in which the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat was murdered.

All the guests are distinguished by their artistic talents: a woman famous for her rhythmic-expressionistic dance, a famous flutist, a renowned intellectual, an astrologer, a preserver of Celtic customs, a neomystic—all of whom the narrator introduces as if they should be well-known to the reader. In short, as he says, they are the most eminent figures of the age, but all the characters in the story suggest their aesthetic rather than actual existence. Even the Marchesa’s domestic servant looks as if he were a character out of the opera Tosca (1900). Moreover, the building is described as being of the height of opulence and splendor, representing every period of decor from the gothic onward. Over and over, in describing the place and the guests, the narrator repeats how unnecessary it is to describe, how he need hardly remind the reader of the fame and greatness of those assembled.

None of the people is presented as real; rather, they seem to be artifice itself. The performers are dressed and arranged as if they were a picture by Jean Antoine Watteau. When the servant who looks like a character out of Tosca comes to tell the Marchesa of the danger of the island’s foundation collapsing, her paleness is described by the narrator in terms of its aesthetic effect; he notes that her paleness suits her in the dim candlelight. Even with that warning, the guests want to go on listening to the music. As the puddles begin to form and the reverberation of the imminent collapse sounds, the narrator says that the guests are sitting upright as if they were long dead already.

The narrator, the only guest to admit his fear and to try to escape, seems to accept what is happening with the same kind of detachment that he has exhibited throughout the story. As he departs and water rises higher, he thinks only that the Marchesa can no longer use the pedals of the harpsichord she is playing and that the instrument will not sound in water. In addition to the narrator, only the servants flee, for they, unlike the guests, have no obligation to the true and eternal culture. The narrator says that no less than a world is sinking beneath the ocean. As he paddles away, the guests rise from their seats and applaud with their hands high over their heads, for the water has reached their necks. The Marchesa and the flutist receive the applause with dignity, although, the narrator notes, they cannot, under the circumstances, bow.

When the building collapses with a roar, the narrator turns around only to note that the sea is dead-calm, as if no island had ever stood there. His last thought in the story is about the bathtub of Marat, a loss that can never be made good—a somewhat heartless thought, he acknowledges, but which he justifies by saying that one needs a certain distance from such events in order to appreciate their full scope.

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