The Illustrated Man | Study Guide

Ray Bradbury

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The Illustrated Man | Themes

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Death

The Introduction, "Dancing, So As Not to Be Dead," introduces the idea that one can be physically alive and yet inwardly dead. Ray Bradbury starts by telling readers that writing, for him, is a way to not be dead. This seems appropriate for a book of stories framed by a story about the stories. The value of writing, and of storytelling, is to avoid living as one who may as well be dead.

But Bradbury doesn't write these stories to avoid thinking about death. In fact, death is ever present, both physical death and a death-while-alive. In "The Veldt," the lions of the children's imagination murder their parents. In "The Rocket Man," Doug's dad tells him there are a million ways to die in space. In "Kaleidoscope," the crew members of a rocket ship float helplessly in space as they await their imminent death. They must consider how life can have meaning when everyone must eventually die. One crew member lived life fully—he danced so as not to be dead. One man always put his present life on hold as he dreamed of a better future. He was sleeping his life away. He was already as good as dead.

Other ways of dying—war, infectious disease, revenge, lynching—populate the stories. So do other ways of being dead-while-alive. The couple in "The Last Night of the World" go to their deaths, or perhaps annihilation, with no emotion about it—no fear, no regret, no anticipation. This is how they have lived. To Bradbury, a passionless life lived only for comfort is akin to death. Comfort in general is seen as a rehearsal for death. It breeds complacency and ease, which leads to catastrophe, as in "Zero Hour." Ultimately the stories in this collection advocate for living life fully, with passion and imagination. They warn against the sterile life, the logical life, the comfortable life. Without imagination, and a little dancing perhaps, everyone may as well be dead.

Imagination

The importance of imagination is another theme throughout the stories. In the Introduction, "Dancing, So As Not to Be Dead," Bradbury introduces his creative process. He asks "What if ..." questions and then answers them using his imagination. This is the core of speculative fiction. Throughout the collection, imagination, storytelling, memory, and creativity are branches of the same tree. "No Particular Night or Morning" shows that belief in things one can't see and memories of times past are functions of imagination. When Hitchcock says he doesn't believe in his own memories, Clemens tells him, "Your mind works on a primitive level. ... You've got no imagination." Imagination is an essentially human trait, one that shows humans have evolved past our primitive ancestors.

Imagination is not always safe or pleasant. The Illustrated Man's Illustrations are works of storytelling—imagination come to life. They are also often dark and disturbing. The power of imagination brings the lions to life in "The Veldt," and this leads to horror and death. The power of imagination also gives Fiorello Bodoni's children the joyful, wonderful experience of spaceflight without ever leaving Earth. Imagination can mean taking a risk and not knowing how it will turn out. One's story might have a happy ending. Or it might not.

Bradbury often contrasts the imaginative life with a scientific, logical, or rational approach to living. In "The Exiles," he envisions a world in which books of horror, fantasy, or magic are banned and burned. Because they are such powerful works of imagination, the contents come to life and then call their creators out of death. Along come men of science—scrubbed clean, smelling of antiseptic—who represent a rational worldview. They burn the exiled authors' last books, banishing the writers and their creations forever. Bradbury had grave concerns about the dismissal of imagination, superstition, magic, and belief in favor of science and reason. This may seem odd given that he's known as a science fiction writer, but his misgivings are apparent in his work.

Dangers of Technology

Technology's perils are both subtle and overt in The Illustrated Man. In "The Veldt," technology produces deadly lions from children's imaginations. Technology is used to exact revenge in "The City." It also places people in dangerous situations, as Dad points out in "The Rocket Man."

But worst of all, technology undermines qualities essential to people's humanity. In "The Veldt," technology removes people's need to work, and they lose their sense of purpose and identity. They fantasize about getting away for a time to live someplace where they will have to cook their own meals. In the same story, the children become more attached to the family's automated home than they are to their parents. Technology disrupts human relationships in "Marionettes, Inc." as well, though in a slightly more humorous fashion. In this story a man buys a robot to replace him at home while he goes out for dinner with a friend. But the robot ends up falling in love with the man's wife and taking his place permanently. In "The Rocket Man," technology—the rocket—repeatedly takes a man away from the family he loves, making the family miserable. In the end, the man's obsession with space travel kills him.

The story "Zero Hour" reprises many of the ideas from "The Veldt," including the idea that modern conveniences cause tragedy. In this story a mother lives a comfortable, complacent life, with many automated home devices and no worries. The price for this peace and prosperity and complacency, however, is the annihilation of the human race.

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