The novel centers on time and its meaning for human life. Dates, seasons, ages, and hours of the day all contribute to the novel’s effect, and its central conflict is one between two views of time. The first sees time as an eternally recurring cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This view is represented in the novel by Green Town, which, as the name suggests, lives in tune with the seasons. In Green Town, time is accepted, and its changes are ritualized by holidays, birthdays, and religious worship. The second view, that held by the autumn people, sees time as the agent of senseless destruction. The carnival exists in an eternal October, where there is no death and, therefore, no rebirth. Mr. Halloway, acting as Bradbury’s spokesman, explains that man is the only animal that is conscious of time and mortality; hence, he can transcend simple egoism by devoting himself to others who will live on after him. The carnival people recoil from the consciousness of time and go back to a bestial, predatory existence. Appropriately, love and laughter are the best defenses against the autumn people, since they require an abandonment of the self. The carnival thrives on isolation and self-preoccupation; significantly, the characters who prove most vulnerable to the traveling show are the spinster Miss Foley and the fatherless Jim Nightshade.
Bradbury places his themes into the framework of a Gothic tale to provide an embodiment for his abstract speculations. The disruption and restoration of order in an almost pastoral community, the use of simple characters whose names and appearance mirror their spiritual states, and the employment of supernatural terror and occult wisdom (symbolized by the library where Halloway works) are all standard elements of the Gothic tradition. In addition, Bradbury uses some of the more modern developments of suspense-writing such as the innocent or even festive situation which conceals evil or the isolation of the protagonists from society by their consciousness of this evil, so that they must evade pursuit not only by the evil forces but also by society itself. Bradbury understands both the ancient fear of demonic external forces and the modern fear of alienation and combines them to heighten the novel’s terror.