‘The Pedestrian’ by Ray Bradbury is a challenging short story in which the author deals with the effects of a breakdown in society. The text explores the effect of society’s reliance upon technology and the resulting loss of real humanity among the population. Bradbury makes particular use of imagery, setting and characterisation in order to show how these factors affect the main character, Mr Leonard Mead.
The story begins with Mr Mead walking alone through the city streets. Every house he passes – though inhabited – seems lifeless, yet he continues on. Eventually he is confronted by an automated police car which demands to know why he is walking. When he cannot provide an answer that the machine considers satisfactory he is taken away to a psychiatric centre.
The first sign that Mr Mead’s society has broken down is the emptiness of the streets on which he is walking:
“he was alone in this world of A.D., 2053 or as good as alone.”
In Mr Mead’s world he is effectively alone, despite the fact that it is 8 o’clock on a misty but otherwise fine evening. This use of setting is crucial as it immediately suggests to the reader that something is wrong in the society in which Mr Mead lives; city streets should not be deserted at 8 o’clock at night. This change in society has left Mr Mead completely isolated and it becomes increasingly clear that he represents the last true human being alive in the city.
This idea is enhanced by the fact that, to Leonard Mead, the society in which he lives is dead and lifeless:
“And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard”
Literally these buildings are dark simply because they have no lights on, but the metaphorical effect of this comparison to a ‘graveyard’ is to emphasise the idea that society has broken down and, to Mr Mead, died. It seems that Mr Mead is attempting to bring life back into society by refusing to stop being ‘human’, but the effective use of imagery certainly suggests that the decline of society is all but complete.
Bradbury continues to explore the decline of society when the narrator conveys Mr Mead’s impression of the streets along which he is walking:
“If he closed his eyes and stood very still, frozen, he could imagine himself upon the centre of a plain, a wintry, windless Arizona desert with no house in a thousand miles, and only dry river beds, the streets, for company.”
To Mr Mead the empty streets feel, literally, deserted, and he can quite believe that there is no other life within ‘a thousand miles’ of him. Of course this ‘life’ refers to people like himself - the houses are in fact full of people but they are dehumanised people content to live in this broken down society. The imagery of the ‘dry river beds’ is particularly effective: literally, the empty streets with buildings on either side correspond to the shape of a river bed; metaphorically the implication is that all life has been drained from society. This makes clear the impact of these pressures not just on Mr Mead himself but also on his view of other people, a fact which leaves him extremely isolated.
This isolation from other people is of course confirmed when Mr Mead encounters the automated police car:
“‘Business or profession?’
‘I guess you'd call me a writer.’
‘No profession,’ said the police car, as If talking to itself. The light held him fixed, like a museum specimen, needle thrust through chest.”
The car’s response to Mr Mead’s claim is extremely important – as the computer cannot understand what a writer is, it simply refuses to accept that there is such a thing. The simile which follows characterises Mr Mead as a ‘museum specimen’, highlighting the fact that he is both rare and an example of an older way of life – the breakdown in society has left Mr Mead completely isolated from it.
“The car moved down the empty river- bed streets and off away, leaving the empty streets with the empty pavements, and no sound and no motion all the rest of the chill November night.”
This final paragraph perfectly sums up the breakdown in society that has occurred – in finally removing Mr Mead all life has also been removed, leaving no one on the streets to make a sound or even move (something emphasised by the repetition of the words ‘empty’ and ‘no’). Ultimately Mr Mead’s attempt to tackle societal breakdown by continuing to be human has failed, and he is taken away to the ‘Psychiatric Centre for Research on Regressive Tendencies’.
In conclusion, ‘The Pedestrian’ by Ray Bradbury is a superb short story which effectively explores the impact of societal breakdown on the human race and, specifically, Mr Leonard Mead. Through the use of imagery, setting and characterisation Bradbury helps us to understand the implications of the dehumanisation of society in both collective and individual terms. The text seems to act as a warning to all of us not to give up our humanity in the way that the inhabitants of the city have, all of which is further emphasised by Mr Mead’s eventual (and inevitable) defeat.