God's Grace

Malamud, Bernard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

  • Date of entry: Mar-05-1998
  • Last revised: Aug-22-2006


Cohn surfaces from a deep-sea dive to find that the world has been destroyed by nuclear war. His boat is still there, though all the crew members are gone. He hears the voice of God say that He is creating a second flood to wipe out the humans who have once again disappointed him. Yet Cohn is not another Noah, merely someone overlooked. He waits for his death or the ebbing of the flood, whichever comes first.

He discovers that a highly trained chimpanzee, Buz, has also survived and lives on board. Soon, Buz and Cohn sight a tropical island. Crusoe-like, they set up a home on the island, which apparently has no animal life. The two survive on fruits and rice. Cohn discovers that Buz’s former owner, an eccentric German scientist, implanted a voice box in the chimp’s throat. Cohn connects the wires that jut from his throat and the chimp begins to speak fluid English. Other animal life begins to appear on the island, all of it simian. A gorilla shows up first, a troop of chimps follows. Buz teaches them English.

Cohn imagines that chimpanzees are meant to replace man as the dominant creature on earth and he tries to teach them to avoid the mistakes of man. But the chimps have their own agenda. The dominant male, Esau, tries to "rape" the female when she first comes into heat and threatens all the other chimps. When Cohn mates with the female, producing a human/chimp child, the jealousy of the other chimps becomes a destructive force. Baboons appear by the shore and the young chimps hunt, kill, and eat the baboons, calling them dirty, stupid creatures. When Cohn complains, they steal his child, finally killing her. They then force Cohn to carry wood up the mountain. They slit his throat and throw him onto the fire, built from the wood he carried.


Cohn becomes a god-like character. He first incarnates Adam, naming the animals. Then he is like Moses, laying out commandments for his unruly children. Finally, he, like Christ, is sacrificed. Throughout the novel, Cohn is guilty of hubris. He believes he can re-create the world in his ideal image. He is suitably punished. On the other hand, Cohn’s goals are certainly worthy ones. Like God, he offers a world filled with peace. His world, however, like God’s is made up of creatures with free will who rebel against his authority. The novel is a reflection on humans’ role in their universe. Being god-like is inadequate. It is equally inadequate, however, to passively accept evil. It is fascinating to consider what the world would be like if conditions had favored chimpanzees more than man.


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



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