"The Smile" is set in the future after warfare has destroyed nearly all traces of civilization. Cities have been reduced to junk piles and cornfields glow with radioactivity at night. The survivors of this warfare wear soiled gunnysack clothing. Their homes are caves and other semi-dwellings that can give them even a measure of protection from the icy weather. Their spirits are as cold as the winter weather because they are filled with hatred for the past; the past has caused their present to be miserable and deplorable.
In this society where beauty is nonexistent and where only hatred and destruction remain, the young boy Tom stands in a queue, waiting his turn to view "the smile," the Mona Lisa. As each man passes by the portrait, he "appreciates" it by spitting upon it. However, when Tom's turn comes to spit upon the painting, his mouth is dry. All that he can say is "She's beautiful!" The crowd surges forward on Tom, ripping and destroying the portrait. Tom, in blind imitation, also grabs at the canvas and is successful in tearing off a small portion. When he arrives at his silo home later that night, he gently opens the crumpled fragment of canvas that he has held so tightly. There in his hand is her smile. He thinks that it is lovely and holds it close to him as he falls asleep.
In a world in which hatred and destruction have taken the place of beauty and peace, there is still hope that these evils can be overcome. "The Smile" characterizes this hope as being yet alive in the youth of the world. Tom does know how to "appreciate" because he finds peace, security, and love in the smile he holds tightly to his chest. Here is Bradbury's belief that where smiles are appreciated, there is love; with love, there is always hope for humanity.