Underworld Literary Elements

Underworld Literary Elements


Fiction, or more specifically Postmodern Literature

Setting and Context

The novel jumps between times periods ranging from 1951 to the early 1990s. The settings range across America, including New York, Arizona and Minnesota

Narrator and Point of View

Typical of Postmodern Literature, the style of narration is inconsistent and diverse. The novel uses both third-person omniscient and first-person in different sections.

Tone and Mood

The mood of Underworld is predominantly tense and dark. Though the tone is distant and detached, DeLillo effectively evokes the Cold War mood of fear and uncertainty.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Seen at a macro, Cold War level, the protagonist is The United States of America and the antagonist is the Soviet Union. Looking more closely, however, Nick Sands is the novel's protagonist character.

Major Conflict

Again, it cannot be stressed how much the novel revolves around the Cold War. The period following the Second World War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union was marked by considerable tension between The West (America and allies) and the East (The Soviet Union and Allies). This conflict figures heavily into the book. Nick's brother, Matthew, works for the United States government on a top-secret bomb construction site. Yet within this large-scale conflict, there are also smaller conflicts that occur throughout the book. One is found at the novel's beginning in the baseball game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Another is between Nick and his colleague who having an affair with Nick's wife. Running over 800 pages, the novel is full of individual conflicts, all of which occur beneath the broader context of the Cold War.


The novel's conflict, foreshadowed throughout much of the work, is Nick's accidental murder of George the Waiter. The Waiter worked at the bar Nick and his friends would frequent. They would often convene at George's home to play cards. It is then revealed that he was a heroin addict, and Nick watches him shoot up. The Waiter hands Nick a sawed-off shotgun and not realizing it was loaded, Nick shoots him.


Throughout the novel, it is said that Nick served time his prison during his youth. His time in a Juvenile Delinquents centre is described, though his crime is not revealed. Finally, at the novel's climax, the story of Nick shooting George the Waiter is revealed. Another instance of foreshadowing involves Nick's wife. He approaches her asking to have a serious talk, though the nature of the talk is not revealed. Later in the novel her affair with Nick's colleague is described.


DeLillo writes in a very detached fashion. He does not fill his writing with detailed emotion, instead letting the reader parse their own emotions. The novel is therefore filled with understatement. Nick's murder of George the Waiter is described with nonchalance, as is Nick watching George shoot heroin. The nuns who see the horrors of the Bronx, handle the setting with a stony resolve. Underworld is a novel in which everything is understated, and in that sense, is a form of inverted overstatement.


Several sections in the book are allusions to pop-culture. "Long Tall Sally," references the name of a song by American blues musician Little Richard. The song "Cocksucker Blues," by the Rolling Stones, is also a section in the novel. The controversial film of the same name also figures into the novel. The novel also follows the career of Lenny Bruce, who received considerable backlash in the 1960s for comedy routines that were deemed obscene. By including these cultural allusions, DeLillo deeply situates the novel in its time period.


The most prominent imagery in the novel is that of waste. Nick works in waste treatment and disposal, and great attention is paid to the depiction of huge mounds of garbage. This is juxtaposed with striking descriptions of the American Northeast, in places like New Jersey, where factories figure heavily into the landscape. The imagery of the novel's opening segment, the famous Shot Heard Around the World baseball game is also incredibly detailed. Further imagery is found in the Arizona desert where the Sands family resides.


The baseball, which so many of the characters in the novel desire is itself a paradox. While characters spend considerable amounts of time and money acquiring the ball that is supposedly from the famed Shot Heard Around the World, the actual identity of the ball cannot be guaranteed. The men project qualities onto the ball, like greatness and disaster, yet it's just a baseball.


A contrasting parallel is drawn between J. Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce. Whereas J. Edgar Hoover represents order and faith in the American institution, Lenny Bruce is a subversive figure intending to disrupt order. To that end, J. Edgar Hoover is the one who punishes those who attempt to protest, and Lenny Bruce is the one who is punished for protesting.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

Condomology, the boutique store that specializes in the sale of condoms, is a stand-in for the larger processes of capitalism and consumerism that DeLillo suggests dominate American culture. The prevalence of waste is the demonstration of what that consumerism ultimately produces. Furthermore, the FBI, which J. Edgar Hoover works, is held as the symbol of American power and control.


The baseball is heavily personified throughout the novel. It is portrayed as though possessing human qualities, such as greatness and glory. In actuality, the men who own the ball are merely projecting their own visions and aspirations onto the inanimate object.

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