Ray Bradbury

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Ray Bradbury American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 4,798 words.)