What is the theme in "The Silent Towns"?
Solitude is the central theme of "The Silent Towns," particularly the difference between solitude and loneliness.
When Walter Gripp, a poor miner, wakes up one morning to discover all the settlers have left Mars, he's puzzled, but not dismayed. Indeed, he spends his first week after the "evacuation" reveling in the freedom of being alone. He treats himself to fine food and wine, fits himself out with expensive clothes, and moves into a big house in the best part of town. Walter is aware from his perambulations that everyone seems to have left the planet, so he stocks up on food and supplies:
No morning passed that he didn’t freeze a ton of meats, vegetables, and lemon cream pies, enough to last ten years, until the rockets came back from Earth, if they ever came.
After a week of unfettered freedom and access to all the luxuries he's never been able to afford, the reality of Walter's situation begins to set in:
“Why,” he said, “I’m all alone.”
The solitude that just a day before was so liberating now feels oppressive. The emptiness of the towns is haunting, and the language of the story creates an atmosphere of profound isolation, with words and phrases like the ones below:
- All by themselves
- Far away
- No answer
Walter feels trapped by his isolation, but just as he begins to despair, he hears a phone ringing. Walter is exhilarated: the phone is the promise of companionship. A frantic search for the caller leads him to Genevieve Selsor, a woman with a "quiet sweet cool voice." Clinging to the phone, Walter is overcome with relief, and as he sets out to find Genevieve herself, he conjures up images of her as a ravishing beauty, a "quiet and intelligent woman," someone he can take to wife and live with happily ever after.
Upon meeting Genevieve, however, Walter is appalled to discover that she is neither quiet nor intelligent nor a beauty of any description. She is grotesquely obese, a dull companion, with the emotional maturity of a five-year-old. She is excessive where Walter is restrained; she crams her mouth with food, drenches herself in perfume, and wants to rewatch a single film over and over. She has no concept of storing up for the future, and while she, too, revelled in her freedom after the other settlers left, her revelry was of a different character to Walter's.
"I was supposed to follow on the last rocket, but I stayed on; you know why?”
“Because everyone picked on me. So I stayed where I could throw perfume on myself all day and drink ten thousand malts and eat candy without people saying, «Oh, that’s full of calories!» So here I am!”
Walter, by contrast, has only moderately indulged in the resources available to him, with a view towards making them last. He feels a rising panic at the thought of being in Genevieve's company for any length of time, perhaps fearing that she will use him up in her boundless, childish greed. When Genevieve reveals that she intends to do just that—she has procured a wedding dress and implies that she and Walter must obviously get married—Walter has had enough.
“The thing I have to say to you is…” he said.
And he was out the door and into his car before she could scream.
Walter drives for three days straight to get away from the only other person left on Mars. He resumes his task of storing up resources for the future and spends the rest of his life happily alone in one of the silent towns. The story showcases the difference between solitude and loneliness, because while Walter is alone, he is not lonely. The planet may be abandoned and the towns may be empty, but Walter has
two deep freezes packed with food to last him one hundred years, and enough cigars to last ten thousand days, and a good bed with a soft mattress
and that is enough for him.
One of the dominant themes in "The Silent Towns" by Ray Bradbury that also extends to the broader context of The Martian Chronicles is the theme of loneliness. Bradbury uses the details of the empty buildings, shops, homes, barren streets to emphasize the complete isolation felt by Walter Gripp. Gripp, a lonely miner, desperately searches for any sign of humanity, and more particularly, for a wife.
Gripp believes his dreams have been fulfilled when finally answering a phone call by Genevieve Selsor; however, Bradbury's story of longing and isolation swiftly becomes ironic as the two characters discover they absolutely cannot stand each other. Bradbury reinforces his theme of loneliness and isolation through the characters' mutual dislike, suggesting in the end that perhaps no company at all is better than bad company.