Critical Essays Ray Bradbury's Fiction



Calling Ray Bradbury a "science fiction author" (which is an inaccurate label) is commonplace. In fact, to pigeonhole his writings as "science fiction" obscures rather than clarifies Bradbury's work. The reader may find it useful to take a brief overview of Bradbury's fiction in order to sort out the various types of fiction that he writes, as well as consider various ways of understanding his work, rather that lumping it fallaciously into the narrow category of science fiction.

Beyond Science Fiction

The perceptive critic Peter Nicholls, writing in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia (Doubleday, 1979), is reluctant to place Bradbury's work in the science fiction genre. On the contrary, he finds Bradbury's themes "traditionally American" and says that Bradbury's choosing "to render them [his themes] on several important occasions in sf [science fiction] imagery does not make RB [Ray Bradbury] a sf writer, even though his early years were devoted to the form." Nicholls concludes that Bradbury is, in fact, a "whimsical fantasist in an older tradition."

Humanist Gilbert Highet, in his "Introduction" to The Vintage Bradbury (Vintage, 1965), agrees with Nicholls. He finds Bradbury to have such illustrious European predecessors as Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1840-1889), E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822), H.G. Wells (1866-1946), and (Joseph) Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Early American fantasists include Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), and Charles G. Finney (1905-1984). In fact, Finney's Circus of Dr. Lao (1935) was a major influence on Bradbury's works. Note, too, that the only science fiction writers whom Bradbury consistently mentions are those whom he considers his "teachers' — Leigh Brackett and Henry Kuttner.

The literary critic and writer J.B. Priestley has observed that despite the fact that Bradbury is often identified as a science fiction writer, Bradbury "is concerned not with gadgets but with men's feelings. He creates imaginatively, and it may be assumed that he's not merely turning out stuff for a new and flourishing [science fiction] market but is trying to express some of his own deepest feelings." Priestley goes on to suggest that behind all of Bradbury's tales are "deep feelings of anxiety, fear, and guilt."

Bradbury's characters are earnest in their quest for a way in which they can effectively deal with the problem of evil. They are hungry to know who they are and how they can achieve their full potential, and yet, simultaneously, these same brave human beings are terribly afraid of growing old and dying.

As a result of the themes with which Bradbury consistently works, his texts often take on a strongly evangelical tone, because he always insists that the only hope for the world lies within the individual. "I realize very late in life now that I could have made a fine priest or minister," confesses Bradbury. The truth of this claim lies in Bradbury's exposing humanity for what it is while offering moral encouragement by showing humans what they can be. That is, Bradbury attempts to present humankind with a vision of the best possible of all worlds — a utopia. And for Bradbury, this utopia is attainable. Furthermore, Bradbury's philosophical idealism insists that once humans discover and attain this utopia within themselves, their universe accordingly improves. However, before humankind can achieve Bradbury's utopia, it must first conquer, or at least learn to cope adequately, with the evil that confronts it at every hour with feelings of loneliness and unfulfillment. This "evil" is usually the inability of humans to know themselves fully, the fear of growing old, and the fear of death.

Use of Imagery

The focus on death is threaded throughout Bradbury's writings, and alongside death is Bradbury's deep interest in the themes of deceit, dissatisfaction with the self, the reality of evil and how to contend with it, and the attainment of self-knowledge. As one may expect, these concepts are embodied in traditional images: ravine imagery, mirror imagery, water imagery, carnival imagery, sun and fire imagery, and the opposition of light and dark, good and evil.

In particular, both the physical and psychological aspects of death and dying are examined through Bradbury's use of ravine imagery. A ravine (defined as a long, deep hollow in the earth's surface, especially one worn by the action of a stream) is used to show that like life, many of the things that exist on this Earth change. Bradbury believes that if we can face and understand our own individual, ultimate deaths, then we can appreciate ourselves and our lives to a fuller degree. He believes that it's necessary to "meet and know and chew and swallow death as a writer and as a reader" and to exorcise it from the subconscious so that we will not have to think about it all the time. Only then can we continue with our real business — which is living.

Frequently, Bradbury also uses imagery associated with masks. Masks, of course, are often associated with deceit, deception, and games. To put on a mask is to be able to mimic, but if we put on a mask, we permit ourselves to disguise our feelings. Therefore, in Bradbury's works, a mask is always an attractive but a dangerous element.

Mirror imagery in Bradbury's stories frequently illustrates the theme of dissatisfaction with ourselves. In some instances, too, Bradbury employs mirror imagery as an emblem of reality, depicting our fascination with what mirrors tell us about ourselves. However, mention of this mirror imagery is not complete without also mentioning the antithesis of reality — that is, fantasy. Bradbury's mirror also allows us to envision ourselves in all the splendor that we wish to see ourselves as well as how we wish to be seen by others. Also inherent in any analysis of mirror imagery is Bradbury's conservative view that we are only who we are, and any attempt at altering ourselves can lead only to disaster.

Bradbury's carnival imagery is a vivid device that he often uses to effectively focus on the presence of evil as a real force in the world. A study of his carnival imagery reveals his belief that the potential for evil exists in a dormant form in each of us. That is, Bradbury believes that unless we keep that which is good within us in fit condition by actively exercising it, we will lose our ability to combat evil, thus allowing evil to grow and become powerful.

The battle between good and evil appears in several images contained in Bradbury's works. One such image is the sun, which functions symbolically as a source of life and also as a symbol for the wholeness of humankind. Very simply, for Bradbury, light is good and dark is evil.

However, a number of Bradbury's stories go a step further, using sun imagery as a symbol for God and the promise of immortality. Similarly, Bradbury's fire imagery focuses on the theme of the victory of good over evil. Appropriately, Bradbury's fire imagery and his sun imagery function hand-in-hand, because one can symbolically consider fire as the sun's earthly representative. The works that deal most specifically with fire imagery contain Bradbury's most important social commentaries concerning the condition of the world as he sees it. His most intense pleas in favor of the arts and humanities, as opposed to sterile technology, occur in stories that use sun and fire imagery.

Another image that Bradbury often uses to show the possibilities for overcoming evil in the world is the smile. Smiles and laughter, according to Bradbury, derive their power from their forefather — love. Bradbury believes that love is the strongest and most humanizing force that man possesses.

Our knowledge of death as a part of life, our learning to make the best of who and what we are, our acceptance of evil as well as good in the world, and our battle to arrest evil are the discoveries that give us a broader insight into ourselves.

Bradbury also presents this self-knowledge in his stories through the use of water imagery. Bradbury uses water imagery in the traditional sense — that is, to suggest the life source itself and the transition of the life cycle from one phase to another. Water imagery also depicts the theme of rebirth, regeneration, and purification, which Bradbury also uses throughout his writings. He incorporates the rebirth image into his "celebrate life" theme. Bradbury urges us to enjoy being alive in spite of life's difficulties, rather than finding life drudgery because of its difficulties.

Bradbury has high hopes for the future of man and man's acquisition of the most fulfilling life possible (a utopia). He shows his readers a utopian world that can result if they heed his advice, and he describes the horrors that can ensue if certain contemporary tendencies (for example, greed, dependence upon technology, governmental control) aren't stopped. Bradbury always suggests that Earth can be the best possible of all worlds, and he also suggests that humankind, when it has come to grips with itself, can make the world a place in which we can all be as free and as happy as we have ever dreamed.