"Alas, Babylon" is the quote that serves as the title of the novel. Years before, Randy and Mark agreed that should Mark get wind of an approaching nuclear attack, he would warn Randy in some way by passing along the words "Alas, Babylon," because it would be risky to say the truth over telephone or telegram. This quote has biblical origins; in the Bible, Babylon was a city of sin destroyed by God. It is fitting, because many cities in the U.S. are similarly destroyed, but by nuclear attacks.
"You see, all their lives, ever since they've known anything, they've lived under the shadow of war—atomic war. For them the abnormal has become normal. All their lives they have heard nothing else, and they expect it."
Though this quote speaks specifically about Ben Franklin and Peyton, it holds true for all children growing up during the Cold War or even other wartimes throughout history. For these children, war has become entirely normal; talk of bombs, fighting, and attacks do not disturb them the way it would disturb children who are raised during peacetime. This is an important message from Pat Frank, ensuring that his readers realize how profoundly war can affect a nation's children.
"This incident was important only because it was self-revelatory. Randy knew he would have to play by the old rules. He could not shuck his code, or sneak out of his era."
When Randy first passes the car wreckage and the body of a woman while driving into town after the first bombs, he tells himself he will not stop, since wartime means putting yourself and your family above everything else. However, in this moment, Randy realizes that he cannot abandon his old moral code, regardless of the war. It is important to him that he continue to do what is right—in this case, help someone in need—even as he fights to survive, because to turn away from his conscience would be to lose himself entirely. Randy stops to check on the woman, paving the way for numerous other moral actions over the course of the novel.
“...The struggle was not against a human enemy, or for victory. The struggle, for those who survived "The Day", was to survive the next.”
Though none of the citizens of Fort Repose are actually soldiers fighting this war, the war still affects them in powerful ways. As this quote states, the overarching struggle in their lives is not to win a war or destroy an enemy, but to keep themselves going from day to day, through countless hardships that they never would have envisioned before the attack. Yes, they may fight little battles with human enemies along the way—the highwaymen, for example—but it is all for the larger purpose of surviving to see tomorrow.
"You remember what Toynbee says? His theory of challenge and response applies not only to nations, but to individuals. Some nations and some people come apart like fat in the pan. Others meet the challenge and harden. I think you’re going to harden.”
This important quote spoken by Dan Gunn is extremely reflective of the people of Fort Repose following the nuclear attacks. Some people in the town, notably Edgar Quisenberry, "came apart like fat in the pan," because they simply could not handle living in a world so different from the one they had known. Randy, however, immediately hardened, rising to the challenge and becoming the leader that his family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens needed. On a wider scale, this is a test for the United States as well. After such devastation, would the nation crumble, or would it hold its own and harden like Randy?
"Who's winning? Nobody's winning. Cities are dying and ships are sinking and aircraft is going in, but nobody's winning."
One of this novel's major messages is the futility of war. In this conflict, both sides are firing at each other with nuclear missiles, leveling cities, and killing millions of innocent people, but these actions do not lead them any closer to their ultimate goals. No side is truly winning, and with this quote, Sam Hazzard, a man with significant military experience, expresses his frustration about this. No side is winning, because by the end of the war, whatever the result, both will have incurred incredible losses.
“It was a wolf…. It wasn’t a dog any longer. In times like these dogs can turn into wolves. You did just right, Ben. Here, take back your gun.”
This quote is one of the many in which Randy stresses the "survival of the fittest" mentality that must be adopted during war. The domestic dog had to change its ways and turn savage if it was going to survive, so it stole and ate the pigs and chickens belonging to the Henrys. If Ben did not do the same and shoot the dog, they would not survive, because their food source would slowly be depleted. In times like these, only the strong survive—sometimes, as Ben shows us, this can be a hard truth to bear.
“She is a person who requires love and is used to it. For many years a man has been the greater part of her life. So she has this conflict—intense loyalty to her husband and yet need of a man to receive her abundance of love and affection.”
When Helen hallucinates for a moment and believes that Randy is Mark, Lib gives this careful explanation of the psychological motivation behind her episode. Obviously, this reveals a lot about what Helen is experiencing—she cannot cope with not knowing for sure whether her husband is dead or alive, and though she is able to keep herself together most of the time, a slip-up like this was inevitable. But this analysis also says a lot about Lib: up until this point she has not been characterized as particularly intelligent, but this reveals that her intellect is sharper than Randy previously thought.
"This is a bad time for love... when you love someone, that should be what you think of most, the first thing when you wake in the morning and the last thing before you sleep at night. Before The Day that’s how I thought of you.”
The war has shaken everything up, including love, and both Randy and Lib know it. With all of their energy spent trying to survive and keep their family and friends alive, there is little time left to focus on enjoying their relationship and their blossoming love for each other. In this quote, Lib also reveals that she was in love with Randy even before The Day. It is likely he did not feel that intensely about her, because early on in the novel she seemed to be only another one of his many girlfriends.
"The engine started and Randy turned away to face the thousand-year night."
Alas, Babylon closes with these words, and they sufficiently sum up the effects of this disastrous war. Though the United States has technically "won" the war, its effects will last for hundreds and hundreds of years, and they will be felt by citizens such as Randy as they try and fail to maintain some sense of normalcy in their daily lives. It is clear, however, that Randy and the people of Fort Repose are willing to face this reality head-on and continue pushing forward, based on their decision to stay in the town they have maintained since the bombings.
Alas, Babylon Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Alas, Babylon is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Alice was worried about the cryptic message Randy Bragg had received from his brother. Initially, she refused Florence's offer to stay with her.... and then she changed her mind. Company and Fort Repose sounded pretty good to her.
Mark talked to Randy about the type of leadership that would be necessary on order for the United States to move forward.... men who would be less conservative and more proactive. After a lot of thought.... Randy believed he could be one of those...