Gender and Enviromental Utopia/Dystopia in Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things

Paul Asuter’s In the Country of Last Things is often categorized as a dystopian or an “(post)apocalyptic fiction” as in the novel. All fictional characters suffer from the near-total destruction of humanity caused by the lack of natural resources, starvation, social isolation, unpredictable natural disasters, and crimes such as rape and robbery (Herzogenrath 75). However, in Conversations with Paul Auster, the author himself claims that this novel is not a science fiction set in the future but in the present, as the subtitle for the novel was “Anna Blume Walks through the Twentieth Century” (12). He further reveals that the idea of the garbage system in the novel derives from “the present-day garbage system in Cairo” (Hutchisson 12). In a New York Times review (1987), Padgett Powell states that In The Country of Last Things is not just apocalyptic because many things match with our present world. For instance, the image of homeless people collecting consumer waste by using shopping trolleys symbolizes “a vision of late-capitalist ‘collapse’” and “an industrialist’s true nightmare” (Powell, 1987). It suggests that the imagined dystopian world in the novel serves as a parody of our present world. Through the form of defamiliarization, Auster attempts to expose the environmental issues that have been ignored by mankind. Furthermore, he provides fresh perspectives toward those problems. Another point that draws the reader’s attention is that this is the only time that the author uses a “female” as the narrator of the story. The explanation given by Auster is that women have been the best witnesses to historical events because “they’re usually in a situation of marginality, so their testimonies are more accurate” (The South Bank Show 1996). Drawing on this clue, it seems more coherent to explore the environmental issues from the feminist perspective since both women and nature remain oppressed under the patriarchal system of society. Through the lens of environmental and feminist theory, the first part of the paper focuses on analyzing the dynamics of the dystopian and utopian thoughts that are formed in these key locations: the City street, Isabel and Ferdinand’s apartment, the National Library and the Woburn House. The second part of the paper concentrates on the metaphor of literary writing and imagining, suggesting that through these activities Auster attempts to provide new insights on environmental and gender issues in our present day society.


This paper has been published in the Feminist Space Journal 3.1

This article has been presented at the Fifth International Symposium on Literature and Environment in East Asia (ESLE-EA)Conference Information


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