Today I’m covering a short story that may already be familiar to my American followers from our high school English classes. Ray Bradbury is the author of many famous dystopian, science fiction and fantasy works such as Fahrenheit 451, and I was introduced to “The Pedestrian” as the primer for our unit on that book. While most English classes focus on analyzing diction and prose, and I could have picked any of the countless pieces I had to dissect over the years, I picked this one because I remember how vivid it was, and how it was the first time I really understood the way words could be used to draw somebody into a story. 10th grade was the year I started seriously learning about the writing craft and working on my own books, and this was the first time I really read like a writer. The act of being able to pick apart a story and learn how it works and then using that knowledge to put your own stories together is a valuable skill that I need to practice more, and it’s what I’m hoping to share with you by doing this series of reading recommendations. So let’s see what we can learn together, shall we?
Written in 1951 and clearly reflective of the themes of his other works, “The Pedestrian” follows the footsteps of Leonard Mead as he quietly rebels against the system of conformity in the world around him – literally. The story is about a man who likes walking after dark, when such a past time is rare because everyone else is obsessed with the TV and rat-race of adult life. It’s a not-so-subtle dig at the uniform landscapes of suburban America and the new screens that were filling up living rooms. But whether or not you agree with the themes of the story, the writing is immersive and vivid. When writing a short story, every word has to count, and so they are a good choice to analyze for the intentionality behind each line of prose and how motifs develop. With that being said, this is how the story opens:
To enter out into that silence that was the city at eight o’clock of a misty evening in November, to put your feet upon that buckling concrete walk, to step over grassy seams and make your way, hands in pockets, through the silences, that was what Mr. Leonard Mead most dearly loved to do.Opening lines
Bradbury introduces the readers to a slow quiet evening by starting the story with such a long, rambley sentence, full of infinitive verbs (the “to be” form as opposed to an action verb). The use of “showing” language instead of simply saying “Mr. Leonard Mead liked to walk”, helps lead the reader along, as if they’re coming on the walk with Mr. Mead. He sets off from his home and chooses a path as meandering as the sentence because, “it made really made no difference; he was alone in this world of A.D. 2053, or as good as alone…”
Bradbury takes his time setting the scene – not by explaining the history of the world up until this far futuristic date (100 years to him, a shocking 32 years to us) but by introducing us to the character, grounding the reader in a familiar environment, and immediately juxtaposing him to his known world so we know that earth is not the same as it once was. He walks when no one else does. The story continues setting the scene by comparing the experience of walking among the dark houses to walking in a graveyard, driving home the point that Mr. Leonard Mead is alone.
Only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomb-like building was still open.
There are other people in this world, but they are seemingly trapped indoors and flighty as ghosts – the only interaction with them is their shadows. The normal comparisons of light=good and dark=bad seem to be reversed. The tombs are lit up, while the path the protagonist loves is shrouded, and he finds comfort as he hides his activities in the ordinary sounds of the night. The story goes on to talk about how he wears sneakers, to avoid the attention drawn by the sound of clacking heels. The meandering pace continues to match the pace of his walk as he moves down the street. He whispers greetings and questions to the people inside their houses though they do not answer, and we learn that he has never met another person walking – not in the ten years he has been practicing this ritual. He comes to a highway that is described in a similar way to the houses:
During the day it was a thunderous surge of cars… a great insect rustling and a ceaseless jockeying for position as the scarab-beetles, a faint incense puttering from their exhausts, skimmed homeward to the far directions. But now these highways, too, were like streams in a dry season, all stone and bed and moon radiance.
This passage uses descriptive sensory language that goes beyond the way the road looks – they’re strips of concrete, they’re not that interesting on their own. But when the traffic becomes a “thunderous surge,” you can feel the rumbling beneath your feet and smell the exhaust fumes. The cars become a horde of insects which sounds unsettling and creepy, even for someone without entomophobia. For contrast, the barren desert of the current road is almost peaceful by comparison, even though it’s still a stretch of concrete with no nature, bugs or otherwise, in sight. Bradbury takes both the insect metaphor, and the established connotations of light and dark a step further in the next paragraph as Leonard makes his way back home.
He was within a block of his destination when the lone car turned a corner quite suddenly and flashed a fierce white cone of light upon him. He stood entranced, not unlike a night moth, stunned by the illumination, and then drawn toward it…The light held him fixed like a museum specimen, needle thrust through the chest.An encounter with the lone police car
The police car – an autonomous vehicle as empty as the rest of the world with nothing but a metallic voice and its harsh spotlight – is the only one in the city of three million people. It begins interrogating Leonard about his demographics, family, and profession in a repetitive robotic conversation. When he claims he is a writer, the car puts down, “no profession.” since no books or magazines have sold in ages. It cannot fathom why he would leave the screens to go out and get air when there is air conditioner in his house. It cannot understand when Leonard says he has no screen. Without stating his crime, the door clicks open and the car ushers him in. He protests, but climbs in and the jail smells of steel, antiseptic, and hard edges. The door shuts with a thud and they drive away. Instead of stopping at his own warm house with soft lamplight pouring from the windows, the car continues on, and states that he will be taken to the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies. The world is a utopia because there is no crime, but there is no freedom either and he will be studied for his deviancy. The final description of the story drives home how despite being full of people, the city has become a cold dead shell of what it should be:
The car moved down the empty river-bed streets and off away, leaving the empty streets with the empty side-walks, and no sound and no motion all the rest of the chill November night.Final Lines
This is a grim, but effective, example of how language can be used to convey the mood and tone that surrounds the content of a story. It’s also just one simple example. Every author develops their own style as they write more and different types of stories and scenes will employ different techniques to convey what they mean. Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams’ use of satire will teach you something different from a witty romantic Austin conversation. Reading books in your favored genre will give you a feel for what’s generally accepted by your target audience, while reading broadly will allow you to develop a unique style of your own as you draw on what tricks you like best from many different sources. I wanted to use this story as a case study because it was short enough I could follow the motifs through the whole work in one post, but I’d love to hear your recommendations of writers with strong prose!
In addition, I’m going to link two nonfiction resources that you might find useful for learning about the different techniques discussed here and how to implement them in your own writing if, like me, you’d like to brush up on the topics you might have ignored in school. (These are not affiliate links.)
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is a very short textbook that covers the mechanics of language – grammar, misused words, proper punctuation – and saves me a lot of time when I’m doing line edits. The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black is a more contemporary guidebook that focuses on the storytelling – descriptions, capturing emotion, and dialogue. These two are more comprehensive resource guides than what I can cover here, so if you want to continue learning about this with me, I recommend checking them out! (If you want more general writing resources, I compiled a masterlist of some of my favorites as well.)
I hope you found this useful, or at least somewhat interesting! Next week I’ll be sharing a passage from Storge that I edited using these techniques. In the meantime, Thank You for reading and Happy Writing! 🙂