A man asks his wife the question, “What would you do if you knew that this was the last night of the world?” The woman pauses, asking her husband if he’s serious. When he confirms that he is, she says that she doesn’t know, as she hasn’t given it much thought. The man pours himself a cup of coffee, listening to his two daughters playing with blocks in the parlor. The smell of the coffee is “easy” and “clean” in the evening air.
The short story begins with a casual conversation that’s almost like a game. However, since the title is immediately invoked, the man’s question takes on additional weight, suggesting that it may not be purely speculative. The sound of the girls playing in the background immediately invokes the theme of family, and also adds to the factors involved in what the “end of the world” would mean for the couple.
The man tells his wife that she “better start thinking about it.” Shocked, the woman says that surely he doesn’t “mean it.” He nods. She asks if he’s referring to a war, an atomic bomb, or germ warfare, but he says it is none of those things. Slowly stirring his coffee, the man says, “But just, let’s say, the closing of a book.”
Strangely, the woman takes the man’s claim seriously, suggesting that she has reason to believe it’s true. It is later revealed that the story is set in 1969, but the woman’s speculations about atomic bombs and germ warfare point to the anxieties that colored 1951, the year this story was published. The man’s assertion that the end of the world will be like “the closing of a book” seems both ominous and almost peaceful, and he appears oddly calm.
The woman is confused, and the man says he’s not sure what to think either. He has a “feeling” about the end of the world, which scares him sometimes. At other times, though, he feels at peace with it. Glancing at his two little blonde girls, the man tells his wife that “it first happened about four nights ago,” but at the time, he chose not to tell her.
The man’s calm attitude makes more sense with the detail that he’s sometimes terrified and sometimes calm—a more normal, fluctuating response to trauma. His choice to shield his wife from whatever “it” was that happened several nights ago illustrates the way that fear can be isolating, and keeps people from being able to openly deal with their problems or accept help from others.
The man explains that he had a dream in which a voice told him that “things would stop here on Earth.” The following day, the man didn’t think much about his dream until he went to work and noticed his coworker Stan Willis staring out the window. Concerned, the man asked Stan what he was thinking about, and Stan replied that he had a peculiar dream the night before. Before even hearing about Stan’s dream, the man knew that their dreams were the same.
Stan unknowingly confirms the veracity of the man’s dream. This moment is crucial, as it allows the man to begin to come to terms with the reality of the situation. Interestingly, Stan Willis is the only named character in the story—but he is also the one that sets in motion the protagonist’s struggles with fear, bravery, denial, and acceptance.
Stan told the man about his dream. When the man revealed that he, too, had the same dream the night before, Stan seemed unsurprised and even “relaxed.” The two of them wandered around their office building and noticed many of their other coworkers “looking at their desks or their hands or out windows.” Stan and the man talked to several of their coworkers, and all of them revealed they had the “same dream, with no difference.”
Likewise, the man is able to confirm the veracity of Stan’s dream. This actually makes Stan feel more “relaxed,” which suggests that there can be comfort and peace in accepting one’s reality instead of denying it or anxiously speculating about it. The fact that everyone else in the office has had the same dream suggests that perhaps everyone on Earth did, too. This raises the question of if the man’s wife had the dream and is in denial about it, or if she was somehow exempt from it.
The woman asks her husband if he actually believes in the dream, and he asserts that he has “never been more certain” of anything before. She asks when the world will stop, and he tells her that the world will end in the middle of the night for them, but for other people around the world, it will happen later. It will take a full twenty-four hours for everything to end.
The husband’s assertion that he’s “never been more certain” shows that he has let go of his initial denial and accepted the end of the world in full. As the story unfolds, this will allow him to approach the end with bravery and poise rather than panic.
The woman asks her husband if they “deserve” the end of the world, but he assures her that it has nothing to do with “deserving.” The world is ending simply because “things didn’t work out.” He asks his wife why she hasn’t tried to argue with his claims about the end of the world, and she says that she has a reason of her own. He asks if her reason is “the same one everyone at the office had,” and she slowly nods.
The man frames the end of the world as if it were a breakup, casually claiming, “it’s just that things didn’t work out.” His extraordinary calmness seems to come from the way he’s accepted the reality of the situation. This also reaffirms that the end of the world will be gentle rather than intense and chaotic. In addition, the man asks his wife something the reader also perhaps wants to know: why she is simply accepting his farfetched claim about the end of the world. Her response suggests that she was in denial about her own dream.
The woman reveals that her dream happened just the night before, and that she didn’t want to say anything to her husband about it. In chatting with the other women in the neighborhood, she realized that they had the same dream too, but at the time, the woman thought it was just a matter of coincidence. She wonders why the newspaper doesn’t say anything about the end of the world, but her husband says that, since everyone already knows about the end of the world, there’s no need to tell everyone about it.
The woman reveals that she, too, was hesitant to tell her husband about her dream. It seems that, for the woman, bringing up her dream to her husband would have confirmed that it was something that worried her and that she took seriously. Once again, fear and denial isolates people from one another and keeps them from productively dealing with the situation at hand.
The man asks his wife if she’s scared, and she insists that she’s not, even though she “always thought” she would be. Her husband asks where the “spirit of self-preservation” is, and his wife speculates that people don’t get as worked up when they know their circumstances are logical. She says that this is one of those times—“Nothing else but this could have happened from the way we’ve lived.”
Now that the woman has accepted that the end of the world is coming, she’s able to feel surprisingly at peace, just like her husband does. Her assertion that the end of the world is logical sets up a cause-and-effect relationship that can’t be argued, perhaps bolstering her acceptance of the impending end.
The man asks his wife if she thinks they’ve been “bad.” She says no, but they haven’t been “enormously good,” either. She thinks that’s the root of the problem: “we haven’t been very much of anything except us, while a big part of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things.”
Following up on her comment that the end of the world is the result of a logical cause-and-effect relationship, the woman suggests that the cause was humankind’s self-absorption. People have been so focused on themselves that they’ve failed to be good global citizens and do what they can to help the planet and their larger communities thrive—their selfishness and apathy have allowed evil and suffering to flourish.
Listening to the little girls laughing in the other room, the husband says that he always assumed that people would be “screaming in the streets” once they knew for sure that the end of the world was approaching. The woman suggests that people “don’t scream about the real thing.”
So far, the daughters have only been in the background in the story, but this seems to imply that they’re always at the back of the man’s mind. Meanwhile, the woman’s comment that people “don’t scream about the real thing” also underscores the idea that acceptance brings peace rather than fear and anxiety.
The man tells his wife that the only thing he’ll really miss is his family—and seasonal changes, drinking ice water in hot weather, and sleeping. He admits he’s never even liked his work or living in the city. He abruptly asks his wife how they can sit calmly and talk about the end of the world, and she tells him that there’s nothing else they can do. The man says that she must be right, “for if there were, we’d be doing it.”
In hindsight, the man realizes that the two most satisfying things in his life were his family and simple pleasures. However, his comment about simple pleasures also shows that he’s been preoccupied with his own comfort and, like many other people, has turned a blind eye to the bigger things going on in the world. His affirmation that “if there were [something we could do about the end of the world], we’d be doing it” suggests a newfound understanding that humans should have been doing everything in their power to nurture the planet and the global community.
The woman wonders how everyone else in the world will spend their last night. Her husband guesses that people will spend their time “like always” by watching television, playing cards, and putting their kids to bed. The woman thinks that spending the night “like always” is actually “something to be proud of.”
The woman suggests that preserving some semblance of normalcy and routine in a time like this takes exceptional bravery. However, considering her earlier assertion that humans have been too self-absorbed, it seems that spending the evening “like always” is yet another reflection of people being concerned with only their immediate lives. Likewise, the couple is so preoccupied with their own routine that they assume everyone else spends their time similarly.
Pouring another cup of coffee, the man asks his wife why she thinks the end of the world has to be tonight. She simply answers, “Because.” He wonders why it couldn’t have happened one, five, or even ten centuries ago. She says that maybe the world has to end tonight “because it was never October 19, 1969 ever before in history.” This day must be important because it’s the exact moment in which “things are as they are all over the world.” She says this is why the world must end tonight. The man realizes that there are bomber aircrafts flying over the ocean right now, and that those planes will never reach land. His wife says, “That’s part of the reason why.”
Drinking coffee stands out as another simple pleasure and a way for the couple to preserve their routine in the midst of a dire situation. Meanwhile, the woman’s comment about the end of the world needing to be on this specific night seems somewhat fatalistic and simplistic. However, she also identifies bombers as part of the problem, suggesting that besides (or maybe because of) humankind’s self-absorption, war is a major component in the end of the world. It’s important to remember that the story was written in 1951—six years after World War II, four years into the Cold War, and one year into the Korean War.
Abruptly, the man asks his wife if they should wash the dishes now. The two do so and put them away with “special neatness.” At 8:30 P.M., they put the girls to bed, leaving their lamps on and the door to their room cracked open. Afterward, the man asks his wife if she thinks the girls would want the door shut completely or “left just a little ajar so some light comes in.” The woman wonders if the girls know about the end of the world, and her husband is sure that they don’t.
Putting the dishes away with “special neatness” is the couple’s one deviation from their regular routine. Instead of giving into anxiety, fear, or chaos, the couple actually act calmer and more intentional than usual, highlighting their quiet bravery. The man’s question about if the door should be shut completely or left “ajar so some light comes in” shows that he is trying to be a source of comfort for his girls, who likely don’t know about the end of the world but may be afraid of the dark.
Before they go to bed, the husband and wife listen to music, read the newspaper, and sit by the fireplace. They think about how other people in the world are spending their last night, “each in his own special way.” The man kisses his wife, and she says, “We’ve been good for each other, anyway.” He asks if she wants to cry, and she says no.
The couple thinks that everyone on Earth is spending their last night “each in his own special way,” but earlier, they assumed that everyone was spending the evening like them—watching television and listening to the radio. Once again, this shows the couple’s inability to look beyond their own immediate lives and think of people besides themselves.
At 11:30 P.M., the two turn off all the lights in the house and begin getting ready for bed. When they get into bed, they remark that the sheets feel “clean and nice,” and that they are both extremely tired. Moments later, the wife jumps out of bed and goes to the kitchen. When she returns, she explains to her husband that she realized she left the water running in the kitchen sink and went to turn it off. The man laughs, and the woman does too, “knowing what it was that she had done that was funny.”
When the wife jumps out of bed to turn off the sink, it’s humorous to her husband because they are hours or even minutes away from the complete end of existence, so it doesn’t matter that the faucet is on. The couple’s ability to laugh at this also shows their wholehearted acceptance of and bravery in the face of reality.
When their laughter dies down, the husband and wife lie in bed together, with “their hands clasped” and “their heads together.” After a quiet moment, they each say goodnight.
In their final moments, the husband and wife intertwine their fingers, illustrating the importance of family bonds. In saying a final goodnight, the couple also says goodbye and calmly welcomes their approaching fate, as Bradbury ends the story on an ambiguous and suspenseful note. It is never made clear if this night really is “the last night of the world” or not.