Critical Essay Understanding Bradbury's Works


When other writers of fantasy and science fiction ask Ray Bradbury where he gets the material for his stories, he explains that his writings all originate with an idea. After the idea has been established, he then creates characters to personify this idea. The key to understanding the close relationships between his characters and the major "ideas" or themes that appear throughout his stories is Bradbury's imagery.

Because he consistently uses the same terms, builds on established concepts, and returns to familiar themes, images, incidents, and characters, one can easily be lulled into feeling that Bradbury presents a comprehensive vision of the universe. However, Bradbury is not as interested in the universe as he is interested in man himself, individual man, and how he can and should function in reality. Consequently, Bradbury focuses on the microcosmic world of humanity. With a detached, yet discerning eye, he dissects man, exposing his frailties, his fears, and his weaknesses. Recurring images throughout his works are the tools with which he accomplishes this task. These images, in turn, then serve to depict certain specific themes that, likewise, relate to this microcosmic world.

Recurrent themes in Bradbury's works show man as hungering to know who he is and how he can achieve his full potential fearing growing old and dying, and being earnest in his quest for a way in which he can effectively deal with the problem of evil.

As a result of the themes with which Bradbury deals, his works often take on a strongly evangelical tone, for he insists that the only hope for the world lies in man himself. "I realize very late in life now that I could have made a fine priest or minister," confesses Bradbury, and his moral awareness suggests the truth of the claim because after Bradbury has exposed man for what he is, he gives to man some moral encouragement by showing him what he can be. Here, he presents humanity with a vision of the best possible of all worlds, a Utopia, and in Bradbury's opinion, an easily attainable one. His philosophic idealism insists that once man has discovered and attained this Utopia within himself, his universe will, likewise, improve. However, before man can achieve Bradbury's Utopia, he must, first, conquer or at least learn to cope adequately with the evil that confronts him at every turn, his feelings of loneliness and nonfulfillment, his inability to know himself fully, his fear of growing old, and his fear of death. This knowledge gives man his rites of passage into Bradbury's Utopia.

Predominant themes of death, of dissatisfaction with self, of the reality of evil and how to contend with it, and, finally, the attainment of self-knowledge appear in each of Bradbury's writings. These themes are demonstrated through a number of recurrent images that function in the same way each time they appear: his ravine imagery, his mirror imagery, his carnival images, his sun and fire imagery, his use of the smile, and his water imagery.

Both the physical and psychological aspects of death and dying are examined through Bradbury's use of ravine imagery. Bradbury believes that if man can face and understand his ultimate death, then he can appreciate himself and his own life to a fuller degree. He thinks it is necessary to "meet and know and chew and swallow death as a writer and as a reader," to exorcise it from the subconscious so that man will not have to think about it all the time, and, thus, he can continue with his real business — living.

Frequent mirror imagery in Bradbury's stories illustrates the theme of man's seemingly consistent dissatisfaction with self. In some instances, Bradbury employs mirror imagery as an emblem of reality, depicting man's total and consuming disgust with what his mirrors tell him about himself. However, an investigation of this mirror imagery is not complete without an analysis of the antithesis of reality — that is, fantasy. Here, Bradbury's mirrors allow man to envision himself in all the splendor that he wishes to see himself and be seen by others. Inherent in this analysis of mirror imagery is Bradbury's suggestion that man is who he is, and any attempt at altering himself can lead only to disaster.

Bradbury's carnival imagery is the main source for a discussion of the presence of evil as a real force in the world. A study of Bradbury's carnival imagery reveals his belief that the potential for evil exists in a dormant form in every man. Unless man keeps that which is good within him in fit condition by actively exercising it, he will lose his ability to combat evil, thus allowing that which is evil to grow and become powerful.

The battle between good and evil is evidenced in several images contained in Bradbury's works. One image discussed in this study is the sun, with its primary function as a source of life and as the wholeness of man. This imagistic study shows that, for Bradbury, light is good and dark is evil.

A number of his stories go a step further, using sun imagery as a symbol for God and the promise of immortality. In addition, Bradbury's fire imagery focuses on the theme of the victory of good over evil. Appropriately, his fire imagery and his sun imagery function hand-in-hand since fire, symbolically, can be considered as the sun's earthly representative. This study will examine fire imagery, first, as a purifier or destroyer of evil. It will then be discussed as a symbol of transformation and regeneration. Finally, it will be seen as it depicts the desire to annihilate time and end all things. The works dealing most specifically with fire imagery contain Bradbury's most important social commentaries concerning the condition of the world as he sees it. Here occur his most intense pleas in favor of the arts and humanities as opposed to sterile technology.

Another image that Bradbury employs to show additional possibilities for overcoming evil in the world is the smile. Smiles and laughter, according to Bradbury, derive their power from their progenitor — love — and Bradbury is satisfied that love is the strongest and most humanizing force which man possesses.

Man's knowledge of death as a part of life, his learning to make the best of who and what he is, his acceptance of evil as well as good in the world, and his battle to arrest that evil are the discoveries which give man a broader insight into himself.

This self-knowledge is also presented in Bradbury's stories through the use of water imagery. Water imagery is used by Bradbury in the traditional sense, employed first to suggest the life source itself and the transition of the life cycle from one phase to another. Water imagery which depicts the theme of rebirth, regeneration, and purification is also in evidence in Bradbury's writings. Here, he describes his concept of the "celebrate life" theme, enjoying being alive in spite of life's difficulties rather than finding life a drudgery because of them.

Bradbury has high hopes for the future of man and for man's acquisition of the most fulfilling life possible, a Utopia come to earth. He counsels his readers by showing them the Utopian world that will result from heeding his advice, and he describes the horrors that could ensue if certain contemporary tendencies are not stopped. In his writings, he takes his readers to Mars or to villages and towns where bizarre occurrences are described; he leaves his readers at home to watch evil carnivals come down the streets of their own neighborhood in search of them, but always he is suggesting that Earth could be the best of all possible worlds and that man, when he has come to grips with himself, can then make his world a Utopia, a world in which he can be as free and happy as he has ever dreamed of being.