The Close Call effect in The Earthquake in Chile

One of the many questions The Earthquake in Chile is why Jeronimo decided to spare himself from the earthquake leading up to his suicide. Why would a man in a vehement state of grief deter his suicide when death was “offering itself to him at all times” (11)? The simple answer would be the natural instinct of survival that all humans share, or even animals, overcame his desire to kill himself. Yet this has an obvious paradoxical logic to it, how can one want to die but subsequently want to survive? Nevertheless, there is another reason why Jeronimo chose to survive, which conveniently corresponds to large scale disasters.

While pondering this question I was reminded of a book titled David and Goliath, underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants by Malcolm Gladwell, which focuses one chapter on the London bombings of WWII. The chapter asked why the nazis failed achieve their goal of demoralizing Britain or forcing surrender by bombing London repeatedly for 57 consecutive nights. The book used historical evidence to show that the bombings did not only accentuate national pride, but that many residents of London enjoyed being bombed. This seemingly perverse reaction, Gladwell argues, happens because of his theory of the “close call”, wherein most people enjoy the “challenge” of being hailed with explosives (or other disasters), providing they have a chance of surviving it. In The Earthquake in Chile, the theory of the “close call” helps us understand why Jeronimo didn’t simply let the earthquake kill him. While it isn’t addressed in the novella, one could assume that Jeronimo enjoyed the thrill of escaping from an earthquake, as would many others. Obviously not all disasters are enjoyable, but they can be provided there is a good chance of survival. Gladwell also argues that the “close call” effect is an extension of our natural desire for challenge, even, and especially when it threatens our life.

Ultimately, we can conclude that the human instinct of survival and our tendency to enjoy the thrill of disaster were enough for Jeronimo to overcome wish to die, even at the height of his grief. While most people would never to admit to enjoying the challenge of an earthquake, it is as much of an instinctual desire as our desire for survival.

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