Watchmen takes a grim view of the modern world, depicting the sense of nihilism that arises from global atrocities and rapid technological change. The world of the novel feels chaotic and godless. As a result, many of the Watchmen struggle to understand life and wonder whether any meaning exists in the universe at all. Although for many of the Watchmen, life feels nihilistic and absurd, Laurie (the second Silk Spectre) and Jon (Dr. Manhattan) argue that human life is a rare miracle, and thus should be cherished and enjoyed.
For many of the Watchmen, the horrors of the modern world and vastness of the universe make human life seem arbitrary, without meaning or value. Surrounded by the crime and filth of New York City’s underclass, Rorschach (Walter Kovacs) believes that the world is godless and pointless: “This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It is us. Only us.” After Rorschach describes his life experiences and the horrific crimes he’s discovered, even Rorschach’s prison psychiatrist Malcolm Long finds himself admitting, “We are alone. There is nothing else,” suggesting that no ulterior force gives meaning to human life. Similarly, after years of fighting amid the horrors of the Vietnam War, Edward Blake (the Comedian) states that life is nothing more than a sick “joke.” He comes to the conclusion that nothing matters since the world is so absurd and pointless—there is no god or greater purpose, and human life has no intrinsic value. This nihilistic belief fuels Blake’s ruthless behavior and disregard for any form of morality—such as when he murders his pregnant Vietnamese mistress, so as not to be inconvenienced by her—suggesting that such flagrant nihilism can lead to terrible behavior, unrestrained by any impulse to live virtuously or value other people’s lives. Although the superhuman Jon Osterman is less disturbed by the world’s horror, he travels the universe at will and understands nature at the atomic level, which gives him a similarly nihilistic view. While standing on Mars, staring out at the stars, he decides that compared to the vast complexity of the universe, “human life is brief and mundane.” Although Jon is supremely powerful, he does not want to even try saving humanity from World War III, because the species does not seem worth saving. In Jon’s view, human life is a small event on one small planet, unremarkable in light of the rest of the universe, and is thus meaningless and worthless.
Despite the meaninglessness of the universe, while speaking with Laurie on Mars, Jon realizes that human life is meaningful because it’s so rare and improbable—which makes it a “miracle,” a precious opportunity. When Laurie realizes that World War III is approaching, she asks Jon to intervene. She recognizes that human life seems horrific and unguided, but nonetheless asks, “Just the existence of life, isn’t that significant?” That is, the fact that human life exists at all should be enough reason to value it. Jon realizes that he actually agrees with Laurie. He states that life is a series of “thermodynamic miracles,” events so wildly improbable that they seem miraculous, whether they truly are or not. He states, “In each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds against countless generations of being alive; meeting; siring that precise son; that exact daughter…” Jon and Laurie thus realize that each human life is valuable because its existence is so improbable as to be miraculous. Jon argues that life is so abundant on Earth that people forget how rare it is in the universe. He states, “the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget,” suggesting that humans grow so complacent, so settled into their routines that they lose perspective on how miraculous the existence of life is. When Laurie struggles with her own feelings of meaninglessness and nihilism, Jon comforts her: “Dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg.” Since each person’s existence is so improbably miraculous, life is a rare opportunity in which anything may happen, and it is thus worth living.
When Laurie sees millions of people die in New York City (as part of Adrian Veidt’s plot to avert World War III), she realizes that life is not only miraculously rare, but also fragile, and that one should take every opportunity to live while they can. After Veidt triggers his explosion—simulating an alien invasion and killing millions to convince the Americans and the Soviets to lay down their nuclear weapons—Jon and Laurie teleport into the city and see all the bodies strewn about. Laurie is heartbroken that all of these people lost their miraculous chance to do everyday things like “disagree or eat Indian food, or love each other,” suggesting that even mundane activities are valuable opportunities to experience and enjoy life. Although Laurie couldn’t do anything to stop millions of people from dying, she realizes that life is nonetheless miraculous. She says, “It’s sweet. Being alive is so damn sweet.” She tells her lover, Daniel (the second Nite Owl), “I want to see you and taste you and smell you because I can.” Laurie responds to death and suffering not by wallowing in nihilism, but by making the most of the opportunity she has to live, ultimately arguing that each person should cherish their life, love one another, and simply enjoy mundane things, regardless of whether or not there is any god or greater significance.
Through Laurie and Jon’s gradual realization of life’s rarity and preciousness, Watchmen argues that even if life seems to lack purpose or a higher power, every life is a fragile miracle, meaningful and valuable in its own right.
Nihilism and Meaning ThemeTracker
Nihilism and Meaning Quotes in Watchmen
The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “save us!” …and I'll look down and whisper “No.”
This city is dying of rabies. Is the best I can do to wipe random flecks of foam from its lips? Never despair. Never surrender. I leave the human cockroaches to discuss their heroin and child pornography. I have business elsewhere with a better class of person.
Because there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise on this. But there are so many deserving of retribution… and there is so little time.
Osterman: You sound bitter. You’re a strange man, Blake. You have a strange attitude to life and war.
Blake: Strange? Listen… Once you figure out what a joke everything is, being a comedian is the only thing makes sense.
Osterman: The charred villages, the boys with necklaces of human ears… these are part of the joke?
Blake: Hey… I never said it was a good joke. I’m just playin’ along with the gag…
As I come to understand Vietnam and what it implies about the human condition, I also realizes that few humans will permit themselves such an understanding.
[The Comedian] understood man’s capacity for horrors and never quit. Saw the world’s black underbelly and never surrendered. Once a man has seen, he can never turn his back on it. Never pretend it doesn’t exist. No matter who orders him to look the other way. We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we are compelled.
It’s this war, the feeling that it’s unavoidable. It makes me feel so powerless. So impotent.
Juspeczyk: Humanity is about to become extinct. Doesn’t that bother you? All those dead people…
Osterman: All that pain and conflict done with? All that needless suffering over at last? No… No, that doesn’t bother me. All those generations of struggle, what purpose did they ever achieve? All that effort, and what did it lead to?
Osterman: Look at it—a volcano as large as Missouri, its summit fifteen miles high, piercing even the atmospheric blanket. Breathtaking.
Juspeczyk: Breathtaking? Jon, what about the war? You’ve got to prevent it! Everyone will die…
Osterman: And the universe will not even notice.
Thermodynamic miracles…Events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such things. And yet in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that precise daughter…
Juspeczyk: Dan, all those people, they’re dead. They can’t disagree or eat Indian food, or love each other… Oh, it’s sweet. Being alive is so damn sweet.
Dreiberg: Laurie? Wh-what do you want me to do?
Juspeczyk: I want you to love me. I want you to love me because we’re not dead […] I want to see you and taste you and smell you, just because I can.