Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov, takes a simple premise, commonplace for us, and puts it in a foreign context. In Nightfall’s world, a planet with six suns, no one is ever in the dark. There is no night, as the day is constant and unending. Every 2049 years, at a time when only one sun is visible, it eclipses for twelve hours. For a people who never experience it, the dark can become gravely dangerous. In the final thirty lines of the story, Lagash, the planet in question, slips into darkness and the stars come out for the first time in millennia. As the characters realize the immensity of their universe, the narrator mirrors this epiphany by suddenly becoming all knowing. As the overwhelming power of the dark is demonstrated, separation of the situation and cause in the writing lets the reader empathize with a people whom we cannot imagine.
At just the moment when the light disappears to be replaced by a “blood-curdling blackness”, the stars shine through. The narrator, who up to this point showed knowledge comparable only to the characters themselves, describes the stars: “Not just earth’s feeble thirty-six hundred stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in it’s awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world.” Having never seen stars, or forced to remain in the dark before, the characters suddenly realize how small and insignificant their planet, and therefore they, really are. As they experience this total shift in perception, and their view of the universe moves outward, so does the narrator’s knowledge, thus increasing the effect significantly.
One of the characters, Aton, is a member of a cult who follow of belief surrounding the existence of Stars, who they believe to be omnipotent beings who only appear in darkness. The beliefs of this group turn out to be the closest to the truth, yet even Aton cannot handle the reality of his most closely held ideals. In the darkness, he screams, “We didn’t know anything! We though six stars in a universe s something the Stars didn’t notice is Darkness forever and ever and ever and the walls are breaking in and…”. This stream of consciousness clearly dictates to the reader that Aton really is going mad from the cold dark.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is going mad as well. In the second-to-last paragraph, there is a collection of words involving brightness and heat, in contrast with the nightfall. The great glow that was “not the glow of a sun” is not explicitly explained to us, but we know that the city is once again on fire. This irony of heat and light in a time of darkness and cold communicates the great power of the unknown, which for this story has become something we can understand, but appreciate the fear of. Each one of us understands a fear of the dark, so the material is not totally alien, but it still is very difficult to imagine being so unable to comprehend a fear from never having experienced dark. By portraying the darkness as simply darkness, readers would be unable to fully appreciate the fear and madness brought on by the night. However, with the coming evening portrayed as “darkness for ever and ever” and “awful black fragments” “closing in”, we really feel a sense of fear for these people who do not understand what we know to be an everyday occurrence. The final line of the story, and therefore one of the most important, gives us a sense of finality and apprehension of what we know is soon to come. “The long night had come again.”
What makes this story unique is primarily its ability to convey a deep fear of something commonplace for us. The great darkness, and therefore the stars cause such an upset in the character’s minds that they can actually go mad. By forcing the reader to see the nightfall through the characters’ eyes, we can appreciate the fear, which we see as simply fear of the great unknown. What we do not know, is our own personal “long night”.