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Watchmen | Chapter 4 : Watchmaker | Summary

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Summary

On Mars Dr. Manhattan thinks about his life thus far. Since he is not constrained by time or space, he doesn't have memories; instead he experiences past, present, and future at the same time. Therefore, his life story isn't always presented in chronological order (although it is here).

In 1945 high school student Jon Osterman wants to be a watchmaker like his father. When the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, Mr. Osterman insists watchmaking is an "obsolete trade." He tells Jon to study atomic science instead. Jon does and eventually gets a government job at Gila Flats, an atomic research facility in Arizona. There he meets Wally Weaver, a department assistant, who shows him the test vault. It's used to "separate objects from their intrinsic fields" while also ensuring people outside the vault aren't exposed to radiation.

A few months later, Jon realizes he has left his girlfriend's watch, which he recently fixed, in the pocket of his coat. The coat is in the test vault. A terrible accident ensues and he is hit with an enormous blast of radiation. Jon's body disintegrates, but he isn't exactly dead. He begins piecing together his atomic particles and appears around the government campus as first a walking central nervous system, then a semi-muscled skeleton, and then finally a hulking, naked, blue humanoid who can control atomic structure.

The United States government renames Jon "Dr. Manhattan" and gives him a costume. He is presented to the public as a "superman" who is the key to preventing nuclear attacks from enemy states. He is soon introduced to a contingent of masked crime fighters and, upon direction from the Pentagon, begins fighting crime himself. "The morality of my activities escapes me," he notes. Although he can see the future just as well as the present, he does nothing to stop horrific events, such as President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

The relationship between Dr. Manhattan and his girlfriend, Janey Slater, is strained by his superpowers and his diminishing human instincts. Their problems come to a head during the first (and only) meeting of the Crimebusters in 1966, when they meet 16-year-old Laurie Juspeczyk. Janey—sensitive to the fact that she is aging but Dr. Manhattan is not—feels jealous of Laurie. She breaks up with Dr. Manhattan when she learns he has become romantically involved with Laurie.

In 1971 Dr. Manhattan is sent to Saigon to end the Vietnam War. The Comedian is already there. Dr. Manhattan is alarmed by what the conditions in Vietnam say about "the human condition" and even more concerned that the Comedian sees the same things but "doesn't care." In 1975 Dr. Manhattan and Laurie visit newly retired and unmasked Adrien Veidt at his Antarctic lair, where they talk about Dr. Manhattan's contributions to science. In 1977 the Keene Act is passed and vigilantism is outlawed. Dr. Manhattan is exempt from the ruling since he's (a) employed by the government and (b) a literal atomic bomb.

Experiences from the recent past flash faster and faster until Dr. Manhattan is again alone on Mars. He builds a giant glass clock mechanism out of the Martian sand and wonders if fate or people shape the future. "Which of us is responsible?" he asks. "Who makes the world?" The chapter ends with a quotation from Albert Einstein about the release of atomic power.

Analysis

Dr. Manhattan's name comes from the Manhattan Project, the code name of the United States government's research project that ultimately produced the atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. Jon Osterman's new moniker isn't just a nod to the nation's relatively recent foray into nuclear science; it's also a threat directed at other nuclear-capable countries, most notably Russia. Dr. Manhattan is both a weapon and a safeguard against nuclear aggression.

That much power in one being seems risky at best. Despite the government's best efforts, they are unable to control what Dr. Manhattan does or where he goes. His mere presence on Earth serves as a protective force. When he goes to Mars, he isn't just getting away from his problems; he's putting the United States and its allies at risk of enemy attack. Dr. Manhattan is well aware of this. He can see all parts of time, even things that haven't happened yet, and he's smart enough to know Russia will take any chance it can get to assert its dominance. But he doesn't care. Now, 25 years after being hit with a massive load of radiation, there's very little of Jon Osterman left in Dr. Manhattan. His "humanity" has been waning since he first put himself back together at Gila Flats, and he becomes less and less human with each passing year. This is visually depicted through his choice of clothing. When he is first "hired" by the U.S. government, he wears a black full-body suit not unlike what other crime fighters of the time were wearing. By the time he meets Laurie a few years later, he's wearing only a sleeveless black leotard. In Vietnam the leotard is cut down to a pair of black briefs, and by 1985 he's wearing nothing at all. The longer he is in this "new" body, the less he feels the need to adhere to society's standards for "proper" attire. He doesn't see himself as human, so he doesn't dress like a human.

He also doesn't view morality the way humans do. As Jon Osterman, he was able to categorize things as being right or wrong, good or bad. Nuclear war was bad; making his father happy was good. As Dr. Manhattan, he sees only facts, which helped make him a highly effective force in Vietnam. He had the capabilities to easily kill thousands of soldiers and didn't suffer the remorse most human soldiers would experience. Despite his lack of moral stance on the war, he can still see that humanity as a whole has little regard for human life. The "pointless butchering" of the Vietnam War represents humankind's desire for supremacy, even over itself, at any cost. That alarms him. So does the Comedian's acceptance of it. Dr. Manhattan finds the Comedian's "deliberately amoral" actions disturbing. He knows the Comedian can see what's in store for humanity, yet he does nothing to stop the destruction of his own kind. That's because of the Comedian's inherent fatalism: he doesn't think the future can be changed. He blames corrupt authorities and declining social values for the fate of the world and takes great pleasure in fanning the flames.

Dr. Manhattan, who can see the future, the past, and everything in between, doesn't subscribe to the same theory. He knows what the future holds yet still chooses to act because he knows those actions are what lead to the future he already sees. He can see the connections mortals can't, and because of that he spends a lot of time thinking about the role fate plays in his own life. He doesn't wonder what comes next or if he could have changed things, but rather who is to blame. Should the world end, is it his fault for leaving Earth, or his father's fault for pushing him into atomic science? Was it perhaps the newspaper that ran the article about Hiroshima, or was it the mother of the man who designed the plane that dropped the bomb? Dr. Manhattan is plagued by these unanswerable questions. Though he is the most "super" of all the heroes in Watchmen, his conscience doesn't rest any easier.

As indicated in the chapter's ending quote, Albert Einstein regretted his involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb. It may have changed weaponry, but it didn't change humankind's way of thinking about war. "The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind," he said. The inclusion of this quote indicates that Dr. Manhattan is not the ultimate solution to the problems Earth faces. He is yet just another weapon capable of harm. What the Watchmen universe needs is a hero capable of love.

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