As is appropriate, given Bradbury’s intentions, the protagonists, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, are essentially allegorical figures rather than realistic, fully developed characters. In the novel, they function as Bradbury’s picture of boyhood split in two, portraying the dual nature of boys, innocence and mischief, nostalgia and the passionate desire to gain the status of an adult. The story’s events take place just before their fourteenth year, so they are in a time between carefree childhood and adolescence, which brings the beginnings of responsibility. The carnival is their first direct contact with the malevolent yet attractive outer world. Will, content to remain a child, is repulsed by the Shadow Show. His danger is that he will be paralyzed by fear, as at one point he is paralyzed by a fortune-teller’s magic, yet Will does acquire the courage to strike back at the freaks in order to save Jim, indicating that he is growing up. By contrast, Jim is eager to enter the adult world by any means and nearly joins the carnival to accomplish this. Jim’s interest in life’s dark side is not in itself evil, but it could easily lead to perversity. By the novel’s end, his restless spirit has been chastened by his contact with Cooger and Dark, and he is ready to develop at a natural pace.
Cooger and Dark, the carnival’s proprietors, are living embodiments of evil. Dark, with his tattoo-covered body, is obviously taken from Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man (1951), while Cooger and his carousel transformations had previously appeared in “The Dark Ferris” (1948). They and their followers are the “autumn people,” according to Mr. Halloway, those who fear the approach of winter and death so much that they enter an immortal half-existence and stay outside the cycle of life. To maintain this state, they must periodically feed on human souls, their victims eventually becoming members of the carnival. They prey upon human fears and vanities, especially those connected with time, such as the fear of growing old or the desire to grow up rapidly, so that their victims come willingly. Halloway suggests that everyone is at times an autumn person, and this revelation is the center of the carnival’s horror.
Charles Halloway is the most fully realized figure in the book and one of Bradbury’s most interesting characters. Halloway, a middle-aged janitor, hardly seems to be a heroic figure, yet it is he who ultimately defeats the carnival. For years a rootless wanderer with intellectual yearnings, he settled down and had a son fairly late in life. His age weighs heavily on him: He envies the boys’ vitality and believes that he is too old to be a proper father for Will. If anyone would be vulnerable to the carnival’s seductions, so it seems, it would be Halloway, but in fact his painfully acquired self-knowledge and his strong love for his family allow him to see through Cooger and Dark’s show. Like Will and Jim, Halloway is in an in-between time, with vigorous adulthood on one side and old age on the other. He uses wisdom and compassion, the weapons of age, against the carnival, yet he also discovers that he possesses a vitality which he thought he had lost. Halloway is a hero, but he is a human, fallible one, who feels temptation and can overcome it. Hence, he is a more engaging hero for his fallibility.
Miss Foley, an example of the pathetic victims of the freaks, is “a little woman lost somewhere in her gray fifties.” She is a friendly, affectionate woman, but, being a spinster, she has no close familial ties. Even her nephew Robert is, in reality, the transformed Mr. Cooger. Fearing the onset of old age and death, she welcomes the carnival’s offer of restored youth, even going so far as to betray Will and Jim to the police and to Mr. Dark to prevent them from interfering. When her wish is granted, she finds that as an adult woman in a little girl’s body she is isolated from natural life, as she had already...
(The entire section is 2,036 words.)