“Twilight of the Superheroes”
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Devaluation of the American Dream
In the face of death, destruction, and political uncertainly, the American Dream has little value in “Twilight of the Superheroes.” In many respects, Lucien has already achieved the American dream: he was born and reared in America, married the love of his life, has a successful business in a field he enjoys, and has many prosperous friends. Despite his upbringing and success, however, he is still incredibly unhappy. After the death of his wife and September 11, Lucien is unable to derive joy from any of these privileges. At the end, he remains cynical despite his achievements, and it’s still unclear what could possibly breathe life or joy into him. Similarly, Nathanial’s parents, Isaac and Rose, have also achieved a devalued version of the American Dream. Having come across the Atlantic as immigrants from Eastern Europe, they have acquired adequate wealth, success in business, and a large and loving family. Nevertheless, they are still haunted by an indefinable fear and live a timid, closed-off life away from other people. On paper, they have achieved the American Dream, but it fails to make them happy. Aware of his parents’ unhappiness, Nathaniel rejects their path to success out of the realization that achieving the American Dream fails to offer anyone true happiness.
The Loss of Innocence
“Twilight of the Superheroes” documents Nathaniel and Luciens’s loss of innocence as well as the national loss of innocence after September 11. Even though Nathaniel and Lucien are in different stages of their lives and have divergent perspectives on the world, 9/11 forces both of them to mature and reflect on their lives. Lucien and Nathaniel spend the story reminiscing about their naive perspectives of the world when they were younger and contemplating the future. Lucien feels that without his wife, there is no hope for the future. Moreover, the tragedy of September 11 has prompted him to question the impact he has had on the world in general. Nathaniel, meanwhile, remembers the impact his Uncle Lucien and Aunt Charlie had on him when they visited his childhood home in the Midwest. At the time, Lucien and Charlie represented an intriguing world of glitz and glamour that Nathaniel wanted to join. Nathaniel’s and Lucien’s “innocent selves,” however, have died and have been replaced by confused and slightly jaded adults.
In “Twilight of the Superheroes,” the September 11 terrorist attacks highlight Nathaniel and Lucien’s alienation and loss of their self-identity. Nathaniel and Lucien react to the fall of the twin towers in similar ways, although their experiences preceding the event differ considerably. September 11 forces them to look within themselves and question their dreams and desires, and the trauma of the terrorist attack translates into trauma in their personal lives. For Nathaniel, who actually sees the towers fall, 9/11 is a wake-up call to the harsh realities of the world. The experience helps him begin to come to terms with his passivity and complacency. For Lucien, however, 9/11 was a national trauma that mirrored his own personal tragedy—the loss of his beloved wife, Charlie—and he’s better able to understand his own trauma as his fellow New Yorkers struggle with their own losses. In this way, both characters define themselves in reaction to the disaster.
Fear is a powerful force in the lives of every character in “Twilight of the Superheroes.” Fear, for example, has defined Nathaniel’s parents’ lives, first in Europe during World War II and then in the United States, where they live in constant fear of authority. As a result, they worry nonstop about inconsequential things and have instilled some of their paranoia and anxiety in Nathaniel. Nathaniel manages to overcome some of these fears when he moves from his college town to New York, but he grows to fear the prospect of mediocrity and failure. September 11 shakes him and brings this anxiety to the forefront of his thoughts. Lucien, on the other hand, doesn’t fear for his livelihood or his safety but worries for the fate of New York and the world. He has been forced to face his own fear of being alone and wonders what the future will bring. September makes Nathaniel’s and Lucien’s fears more pronounced, and both struggle to make sense of them.
Buildings and Architecture
Eisenberg uses buildings and architecture—traditional symbols of stability—to represent the uncertainty and frailty of life. The story begins with Nathaniel and his friends in an apartment that they never leased and can no longer call home. Their building is near the site of the former World Trade Center, itself a symbol of the vulnerability of the entire American way of life and Western culture. The terrace of the apartment, upon which Nathaniel and his friends toast their friendship and departure, even had a view of the World Trade Center. On the morning of the 9/11 attacks, the friends sat on the terrace and witnessed how fragile the world really is. In this way, the very roof under which they sought protection from the elements is irrevocably tied to the traumatic destruction of America’s innocence. In addition, Nathaniel is himself an architect, a profession his parents fear will offer him an “unreliable future.” Ironically, he’s even currently employed with the architectural division of the New York subway, as if, in reaction to the potential uncertainty and instability of the world, he has headed underground for protection.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!