The characters of The Drowned World find themselves at a crossroads in human history. Some characters, such as Strangeman and Colonel Riggs, believe that human civilization will go on in much the same way that it used to, but in cities north of the Arctic Circle. Other characters, however, believe that human civilization in this new world is doomed. Kerans and Dr. Bodkin have a decidedly fatalist view of the future of the world, as they see the human birthrate dropping and the temperatures rising too fast for humans to expect to survive. This opposition between the possibilities of renewal and doom fuels much of the novel's central conflict, as many of the characters fight against annihilation, but also fight to discover what birth and renewal might truly mean for the human race in light of the circumstances.
The conflict between birth and doom is frequently represented through references to Biblical imagery: at one point Kerans laughs to himself that soon, a new Adam and Eve will find themselves in a new and horrific Garden of Eden; at another point, Strangeman's African followers "crucify" Kerans (though Kerans survives the ordeal). The imagery of Adam and Eve in the new Garden of Eden is extremely fatalist, as it implies that this Adam and Eve will be the last people on earth, not the ones who will be responsible for reinvigorating the population. As Beatrice is the last woman in London, she becomes an Eve-like figure, while Kerans (as her romantic and sexual partner) becomes her Adam. The fatalist symbolism of these new Adam and Eve figures is confirmed by the fact that even after an implied three-year-long sexual relationship, the two haven't conceived a child.
The novel explores ideas of birth and renewal through symbols of femininity. This includes the character Beatrice, as well as the language that Dr. Bodkin and Kerans use to describe the water in the lagoons. For them, the water is "amniotic" and certain buildings—particularly the submerged planetarium—are "womb-like." By referring to the water as amniotic, Dr. Bodkin recasts the role that water plays in the earth's changing landscape. He chooses to see it as a life-giving entity, rather than the thing that's responsible for destroying human civilization. This suggests that this period of change for the globe and its various species is not so much a death as a gestation period that will eventually give rise to a new chapter for life on earth. In this way, the book suggests that humans are still evolving, and indeed, that all life is embryonic and constantly evolving, with the world itself acting as a womb.
In short, Dr. Bodkin chooses to apply hopeful and generative language to a situation that appears doomed. Rather than mourn the end of the human race, Dr. Bodkin, Kerans, and Beatrice choose to view the world's changes as a process of rebirth and regeneration which may or may not have anything to do with the human race. Although Bodkin portrays it as a form of rebirth, accepting the instinctual desire to move south is as much a decision to embrace an evolutionary renewal as it is to embrace one's own death. Thus, the novel portrays death and birth as inextricably linked events in the larger cycle of evolution—and in this way, what some characters see as doom becomes, for others, a process of rebirth.
Birth, Renewal, and Doom ThemeTracker
Birth, Renewal, and Doom Quotes in The Drowned World
The biological mapping had become a pointless game, the new flora following exactly the emergent lines anticipated twenty years earlier, and he was sure that no one at Camp Byrd in Northern Greenland bothered to file his reports, let alone read them.
Looking up at the ancient impassive faces, Kerans could understand the curious fear they roused, rekindling archaic memories of the Paleocene, when the reptiles had gone down before the emergent mammals, and sense the implacable hatred one zoological class feels towards another that usurps it.
... the genealogical tree of mankind was systematically pruning itself, apparently moving backwards in time, and a point might ultimately be reached where a second Adam and Eve found themselves alone in a new Eden.
Is it only the external landscape which is altering? How often recently most of us have had the feeling of déjà vu, of having seen all this before, in fact of remembering these swamps and lagoons all too well.
Nor had he tried to follow up any of Bodkin's or Riggs' oblique remarks about the dreams and their danger, almost as if he had known that he would soon be sharing them, and accepted them as an inevitable element of his life...
Distantly in his ears he could hear the sun drumming over the sunken water. As he recovered from his first fears he realized that there was something soothing about its sounds, almost reassuring and encouraging like his own heartbeats.
For some reason the womb-like image of the chamber was reinforced rather than diminished by the circular rows of seats, and Kerans heard the thudding in his ears uncertain whether he was listening to the dim subliminal requiem of his dreams.
Yet he had a further neuronic role, in which he seemed almost a positive influence, holding a warning mirror up to Kerans and obliquely cautioning him about the future he had chosen.
No longer the velvet mantle he remembered from his descent, it was no a fragmenting cloak of rotting organic forms, like the vestments of the grave. The once translucent threshold of the womb had vanished, its place taken by the gateway to a sewer.
Dimly he realized that the lagoon had represented a complex of neuronic needs that were impossible to satisfy by any other means. This blunting lethargy deepened, unbroken by the violence around him, and more and more he felt like a man marooned in a time sea, hemmed in by the shifting planes of dissonant realities millions of years apart.
So he left the lagoon and entered the jungle again, within a few days was completely lost, following the lagoons southward through the increasing rain and heat, attacked by alligators and giant bats, a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.