Ray Bradbury American Literature Analysis
Literary critic David Mogen has characterized well the central motif of Ray Bradbury’s fiction: joyous absorption in the experience of living. In each of his major works, this joy in living plays a crucial role. Mogen sees this attitude in Bradbury’s own life—in his prolific career with its many directions and in his nonfiction accounts of his life and career. One could guess this about Bradbury merely by looking at his book titles, not only those that recommend enthusiastic exploration or offer medicines for melancholy but also those that are drawn from visionary poets such as Walt Whitman and William Butler Yeats.
The dominant thematic note in Bradbury’s fiction is a kind of hopefulness for humanity. Mogen and another critic, Gary K. Wolfe, have noted that Bradbury’s optimism has roots in two major Western myths that have been important to many American writers: the frontier and the Garden of Eden. For Bradbury, the stars are the new frontier, humanity’s next field of exploration and expansion. The stars also become a new Eden, an extension of the hope for new beginnings that idealistic explorers saw in America and that F. Scott Fitzgerald so eloquently captured in his description of the “fresh, green breast of the new world” at the end of a novel Bradbury admired, The Great Gatsby (1925).
Mogen sums up Bradbury’s hopefulness by describing him as a visionary “who believes the human race will conquer death through spiritual rebirth in unearthly new frontiers.” Bradbury’s readers are aware of the dark elements in his fiction, however: the tales of terror collected in The October Country, the threatening ravine that cuts through Green Town, and the technological dystopias (of which Fahrenheit 451 is the main example). Bradbury is acutely aware that human beings are capable of evil and contain darkness. He seems to see humanity as destined ultimately for transcendence of the kind described by nineteenth century American Romantic authors such as Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which humanity approaches becoming godlike. Yet Bradbury also sees humanity in the present as blind to its best interests, selfish, turning technology to destructive rather than creative and imaginative ends, in continuous danger of self-destruction.
In a discussion of The Halloween Tree (1972), a lesser-known fable for young readers, Mogen illustrates what Bradbury sees as one of the greatest dangers facing modern humanity, the paralysis of imagination before the fear of death. This is also one of the main themes of Fahrenheit 451, and it appears in many of Bradbury’s works. The purpose of the tale of terror, for Bradbury, is to help the individual human imagination symbolically confront its mortality. If people fail to face and deal with their deaths, they become the victims of terror, and the results of this victimization often include a drive for meaningless power and the impulse to impose a single order upon human experience.
In several of his works, this imposition of order appears as attempts to turn off the imagination, which is a source of multiple ideas of order. Fahrenheit 451 offers a vivid picture of a society so afraid of death that it attempts to be a happiness machine, filling people’s lives with empty, supposedly painless electronic stimuli and censoring all the great ideas and great books in the history of civilization. While such a society believes that it is escaping death somehow, it is in fact running directly toward death in the form of a military holocaust. The two major Green Town novels, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, show individuals facing death and the temptation to grasp evil power to evade death.
Bradbury’s works show his optimistic faith in a fulfilling human destiny in some future time and place, and they also show his understanding of the barriers that humanity must overcome on its journey to this destiny and of the human limitations people are likely to carry with them into any future.
The Martian Chronicles
First published: 1950
Type of work: Short stories
Americans explore and colonize Mars, then abandon the colony. When atomic war breaks out on Earth, a few refugees return to Mars after Earth civilization is destroyed.
In the 1940’s, Bradbury had established himself as a highly popular short-story writer. When a Doubleday editor encouraged him to try connecting some of his stories into a unified, novelistic collection, Bradbury quickly responded with The Martian Chronicles, a group of stories about people from Earth colonizing Mars.
The idea of the colonization of Mars had long fascinated Bradbury. When he produced The Martian Chronicles, he had published more than ten Martian stories, and he continued to produce more after the book was published. This book became the first of several Bradbury works that are called novels not because they have the traditional plot characteristics of the novel but because they are somewhat unified collections of related stories, rather like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Bradbury repeated this form with varying success in The Illustrated Man (1951) and Dandelion Wine.
The Martian Chronicles is an apt title. Bradbury structured the book as a loose chronicle, beginning in 1999 with the first expedition to Mars and ending in 2026, with what is probably the last. The chronological ordering establishes a strong forward movement in the first one-third of the book, which deals with four exploratory expeditions from 1999 to 2001. Roughly the middle one-third contains stories and episodes which, though placed from 2001 to 2005, are not very sequential. They seem more like a gathering of incidents illustrating aspects of a colonial period. The final third of the book, though it spans 2005 to 2026, really concentrates on the beginning and the end of this period. In 2005, atomic war begins to destroy Earth civilization, draws most of the Martian colonists back to their home planet, and effectively brings an end to space travel. In 2026, Earth is devastated, but a remnant of idealists from Earth escapes to Mars, hoping to start over.
While the overarching structure of a chronicle binds the book together at the beginning and end, there are other important unifying elements. One major element is the metaphor of the frontier. Bradbury repeatedly returns to the idea of Mars as a new frontier. The planet is a new world (like America), populated at first by predominantly peaceful, intelligent beings much like humans, though they have telepathic powers and a slightly different technology. The Martians find themselves playing the role of Americans Indians in the frontier metaphor, resisting invasion somewhat haphazardly until almost completely wiped out by a plague of chicken pox accidentally brought from Earth. There are no “Indian wars,” but the abandoned cities and artifacts of Martian civilization become objects of interest, wonder, exploitation, and wanton destruction by the later colonists. The Martians, after their demise, produce converts, people who believe that the Martian civilization was better than their own and set out in various ways to imitate what they believe it was. This motif of conversion into Martians remains important throughout the book and becomes its final note.
The colonial phase begins with a Johnny Appleseed character who dreams of the desert world becoming a green world and sets out on foot to plant trees over large areas. Bradbury’s episodes and sketches present positive and negative aspects of the United States’ colonial history. On the negative side are exploiters and materialist dreamers who ignore the spiritual significance of this new beginning and seize upon the dross—the chances for wealth and power available on a comparatively free frontier. On the positive side are those who come to Mars in search of spiritual freedoms denied on Earth. Among them is a large group of southern blacks who see in Mars the chance to gain what the United States has denied them. Their story, told in “Way in the Middle of the Air,” may seem rather naïvely conceived when read by twenty-first century readers, but sketches such as this one gave Bradbury a reputation for radicalism in 1950. Among the spiritual questers is William Stendahl, who in “Usher II” prefigures themes in Fahrenheit 451, using Mars to escape from anti-imagination book censors on Earth and to take a poetically just revenge upon some of them.
In the last third of the book, Bradbury complicates the frontier metaphor by foregrounding the Eden myth that stands behind it and mixing in the new terror that existed during the period following World War II when he produced this book—the threat of atomic holocaust. In long years of war, Earth finally reduces itself to rubble, and at the last a small group of people flees to Mars, determined to start over and do things right this time. The image of a remnant of the spiritually pure leaving behind a hopelessly corrupt civilization to start anew is, of course, at the center of the American myth of the frontier.
“Pioneers” bringing their purity to an innocent and empty place evokes the idea of Eden regained, where a truly new start is possible. Added to these elements, however, is a feature that points to the profundity of the optimism behind this book that so vividly portrays humanity’s failures and weaknesses. Remaining on Mars are the remnants of an ancient and wise Martian civilization and perhaps even some actual Martians. For humans to be converted into Martians, to become products of the place and its native spiritual presences, may lead to a true advance for humanity beyond the blind and selfish passions that have once again produced holocaust.
The idea of a saving remnant of the spiritually chosen pervades the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition. It also is important to Bradbury and appears regularly in his stories. This mythic pattern is one of the more important indications of optimism in Bradbury’s fiction. He often tells stories such as this one, in which civilization dies because of its failures of wisdom, compassion, and imagination. Nearly always, however, the pattern includes a small new beginning by those whose vision is cleansed by suffering and who vow to preserve the best of the past and leave the worst behind, and this pattern converts Armageddon into a step toward salvation.
As the first work of American science fiction to gain a truly broad reading public, this book is of considerable historical importance in modern American literature. Although literary critics disagree about the book’s artistic merits, The Martian Chronicles promises to remain in print as a popular favorite.
First published: 1953
Type of work: Novel
In a future United States, a man dedicated to burning all of humanity’s great writings discovers he has been mistaken.
Fahrenheit 451—named for the temperature at which paper ignites and burns—is Bradbury’s best-known novel and is probably also his best. Based on an earlier story, “The Fireman” (1950), and developing the censorship theme that appears in several other Bradbury works, this novel presents the dystopia that Bradbury may fear most.
In a future United States, the lowest common denominator of culture has imposed its ideas of happiness upon the whole culture. The universal idea of happiness has become an extrapolation of sitting in front of a television with a six-pack of beer,...
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