In Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold tells his “love” that the world “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” Tony in Ricky Gervais’s series After Life might have said the same, only he’s lost his beloved wife to cancer, posing the question: can he be true to anyone or anything?
For the better part of six episodes, the answer seems an absolute no. Tony has given up on almost everything: his friends, his job at the Tambury Gazette, his home (neglected), and his own well-being. He forgets to buy groceries, including dog food for the only living being he cares about. He insults his scruffy postman and goes on to insult his fellow workers, based on his bleak philosophy: life is a cesspool, and he’d love to kill himself.
Because he’s willing to do that, he reasons that he can, like God, do whatever he pleases. The only pleasure he has, besides walking his dog, is watching the video his wife left him on her computer, advising him to go on living, find someone new, and continue to be the fun-loving man he’s always been.
Now that the going is not so good, fun is in short supply. Not surprisingly, Tony is an atheist, but he’s not much different from everybody else in the series. He curses at Jesus because He didn’t save his wife. Mircea Eliade’s view that mankind is religious by nature, in search of re-establishing communion with God, is so novel that no one in After Life’s world ever thinks of it.
All the people around Tony have lost their loved ones and are pictures of his own pointless life: Julian, who lost his wife to the same heroin on which he’ll overdose; Brian, a man whose wife left him, lives in wall-to-wall squalor.
But hopeful pictures exist too. Tony interviews an old man who mentions his late wife. “Nothing’s as good if you don’t share it,” he says, but “you gotta keep going.” More importantly, there’s Anne, whom he meets at the cemetery. She lost her husband but remembers the good times and, like the old man, tells Tony that memories are all they have. That “God stuff,” she declares, is just “rubbish”, but “We just have to struggle through till we die.”
Thus, “cheerful” stoicism wins. The series ends with Tony ready to date and work again, and, more importantly, to care about others in the short time that life gives him. In the universe of After Life, that’s as pleasant as it’s pointless, but when all one can do is watch the pebbles churn in the surf of Dover Beach, it’ll have to do – “ignorant armies” and all.
Dr Carl C Curtis III is a contributing editor at The Christian Review and professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg. He teaches Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, Virgil, Dante and cinema studies