This story reveals the inner thoughts of Anna, one of two spinster sisters who spend a gray and rainy afternoon together. During the afternoon, Anna relates a story of fantasy to her sister Juliet about a dead city in the cistern beneath their street. She rambles on about there being two dead people in this cistern who are in love and who have been lovers for years. Desperation due to loneliness and depression was what once led the man to look into the cistern. There he saw water rushing out to the sea. He lifted the cistern's lid higher and climbed down into this "city" beneath the city. Anna tells Juliet that his sweetheart is newly dead and that now she and her lover can be together. In her fantasy, Anna describes this togetherness by saying that during heavy rainfalls, the water rushes slowly around this man and woman, giving them a special kind of life. Anna graphically describes the water carrying the man and woman together. The life-giving qualities of the tide allow the couple to open their eyes, touch each other, and smile. Anna's fantasy climaxes in stark reality when she admits that she is that woman in the cistern, or, at least, she soon will be, and Frank is the man. Anna and Frank fell in love long ago, but when he was unable to break away from his mother, the romance came to an end. But Anna is ready to go to him now. While Juliet looks on in disbelief, Anna leaves the houses and hurries to the cistern, where she slams the heavy metal lid tightly behind her.
Edgar Allen Poe is one of Bradbury's favorite writers, and "The Cistern" uses an idea that often appears in Poe's works — the death of a beautiful woman. In this story, Anna is that beautiful woman and is another of Bradbury's lonely people. She is unfulfilled in love because she failed to fight to win her lover Frank away from his mother's protective grasp.
Water imagery is dominant in this story and, here, functions as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration for Anna and Frank. First, the rain that falls upon Anna and, later, the cistern water into which she and Frank submerge themselves serve as baptismal waters for them both. Frank has left his lonely death-in-life situation in the world, seeking something more from the water into which he steps. Likewise, Anna, too, leaves her lonely, deathlike existence. She immerses herself into a watery death which will finally mean life to her. Paradoxically, then, only in the baptismal waters that bring about death by drowning do they find a meaningful life together. Here in this cistern city, the tide causes them to touch and washes them together. "The Cistern" deals with loneliness, love, and love's fulfillment. Using such universal themes, Bradbury urges each of us to see something, if only a little, of ourselves. Also, "The Cistern" makes another comment on the power of love, which can transcend even the bounds of death.