What is a pedestrian?
Someone who walks. Pedestrian, as an adjective, also means boring, dull, or uneventful. Monotonous. That could be an interesting shade of meaning for this story.
I love the long, rambling first sentence of this story:
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.
All those “to …” phrases pile up before we get to the main part of the sentence. I feel like they mirror the enthusiasm Mr. Leonard Mead has for what he dearly loves: walking. It’s like a child saying, “I love this… and this… and this… and, oh this!” The long, winding sentence also resembles Leonard’s wandering through the long streets, not out of efficiency, getting to the point (of the destination or the sentence), but out of pure pleasure and enjoyment and the time spent walking.
We’ll get back to the beautiful language. Let’s first talk about two main elements of the story.
Examining Character and Setting in Stories
As you read at least the first half of the story, you’ll see we focus mainly on two things: Leonard Mead and this setting — 2054 A.D. We begin the story focused on Leonard, and we soon learn we’re in the future, in this world not unlike our own but … different. (Bradbury published this story in the 1950s, so this story is his projection 100 years in the future.)
Here’s an exercise to help you dig deeper for yourself:
First, character — let’s examine our only character so far. Make a chart or list of descriptions or actions you see from Leonard. Direct characterization (things we’re told) and indirect (actions the character takes or what he says). Write a comment next to each action or description to note what you’re thinking about it.
“For long ago he had wisely changed to sneakers when strolling at night” / he doesn’t want to be heard
Now, setting. Write another list or chart of descriptions or observations you make about this world of 2054 A.D.:
“cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard” / all the houses are dark, “tomb-like” – seems dead. Where are all the people?
“where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows” / the only light comes from these flickers – TV light? It’s creepy.
You can use this technique for any kind of character or setting analysis. It helps to really dig into the text and think about each description closely before drawing conclusions based on your first impressions, which may be driven more by your own assumptions than what is actually on the page!
So, looking over your lists, what do you make of your observations? How would you describe Leonard overall, and what about this setting? How do they relate to each other?
You’ll probably see quickly that Leonard is at odds with his world. The dark, tomb-like houses and long, silent, empty streets contrast so starkly with Leonard, who is full of life. I love the moment when he picks up the leaf, examines its skeletal pattern and “smells its rusty smell.” He enjoys life, small details, breathing fresh air, walking without any destination, observing. He seems a little sarcastic, a little resentful of the people in their houses (“What is it now?”), but generally he seems confident in his life and what he enjoys, and maybe even holds out hope for connection. (“Hello in there.”) What description(s) of either Leonard or the setting really stand out to you?
To me, this contrast between Leonard and his society is the main conflict we’re presented with in the story. If Leonard weren’t living in this world, he could continue on walking and enjoying life, right? He might even have other people around him to enjoy it with. But then…
We reach the main event. Leonard — even though he hasn’t met anyone out walking in ten years — finally has to confront that conflict. Who is this other character we encounter?
Make your list about the police car:
A police car (though “crime was ebbing”) / police for someone out walking?
metallic, antiseptic, “nothing soft there” / contrasts with Leonard so full of life; harsh, non-human, machine-like
not even a person inside! / Wow – it says something that Leonard is confronted and in this society it’s still not even a person he finally encounters; no life, inhumane.
What else comes from their exchange? Leonard is assumed to have no job, though he’s a writer, and writing isn’t being published (people don’t read). He’s assumed to be odd for never marrying. How does he feel about marrying? (He says “No one wanted me,” but he smiles.) Why would he need fresh air when he has an air conditioner? Why would he need to be out if he has a viewing screen? You can tell a lot about this — “voice” — by the questions it asks and its responses. I particularly love this sentence: “There was a crackling quiet that in itself was an accusation.” Leonard definitely is not understood or heard. His way of life, what he “dearly loves” is absolutely rejected, accused.
He’s taken away to… where? What are “Regressive Tendencies”? Regressive means going backwards. So, not adapting to current technology is seen as strange, to the point of being “corrected” at a facility, even insane.
Finally, Leonard, in the car alone, passes his own lit-up house, the only one with real light.
Talking About Themes
So what do we make of this story? How do we begin to talk about what it’s about or what we take from it?
One helpful thing you can do to start thinking about themes is to list some general subjects first. So, what are some things the story could be about?
- Human life
- Connection with other people
- A person’s relationship to their society
- In society, what is “normal” or “insane”
These are just a few. You could have any number of general ideas or subjects.
Now, a couple of other steps can help you come to some more specific ideas about the story. What are some questions the work raises about these subjects?
- Is technology helpful or harmful to society?
- What do human beings need to remain human?
- Can an individual truly be free within a society, or separate from their society, or part of a society with which they severely conflict?
Again, these are just some examples. Look back over your subjects, and write a question or two that comes to mind for each one, when you really think about this story and what it sparks in you.
Then, think about what the story could show about these questions. Think about how our protagonist, Leonard, is portrayed. Is he the positive example, or an example of what not to be? What about the society? Which one do we take to be “true” according to this author? Think about how the story ends: What does that outcome possibly say about your questions? Use examples from the story to help you think about what the story might be showing in regard to your subjects or questions. Also, think about what you think about these questions. Do you agree or disagree with what the story portrays, or how it seems to “answer” them?
To me, Leonard being taken away does not give me a good feeling about the effects of technology on society. The society has become lifeless, inhuman; Leonard can’t even have a human connection and conversation about his own life. His house is brightly lit, he appreciates the leaf and grass and small moments. He wants life and connection — though not to be married to someone who sits in front of the screen like everyone else! Bradbury wrote this story in the 1950s, when TV was becoming popular; his projection 100 years in the future is not only startlingly accurate (think of the huge screens people do have on their walls now!) it also does not show the effects of TV in a good “light”! Leonard is alone, lonely in his appreciation of anything outside of a screen, but not unhappy. But he can’t go on existing in this society; it won’t let him. He’s finally taken away, sent to be “reformed.” Here, an individual cannot keep existing with starkly different values. He’s eventually confronted and sanctioned. That last image of him being driven away without even another human being in the car, looking at that one lit-up house, to me, is tragic. This one last light might soon be reformed, go out. What do you think happens to Leonard? Can he keep his light?
What do you think this story shows about technology, humanity, individual and society?
A further question — or perhaps a writing prompt!
If you were to write a story, projecting 100 years into the future, what would be the impact of today’s technology on society? What would humanity look like?
Last Note: On Language
Leonard is a writer, a poet. He enjoys phrases, the skeletal structures of leaves. When the car questions him about being a writer, he composes this beautiful image in his mind:
“Everything went on in the tomb-like houses at night now, he thought, continuing his fancy. The tombs, ill-lit by television light, where the people sat like the dead, the grey or multi-coloured lights touching their faces, but never really touching them.”
As I noted before, from the first sentence of this story we see that it’s not just about Leonard and the world. Part of this story is the language of its own telling. The sentences, the images are meant to be enjoyed. There’s a pleasure in the descriptions, in the sentences themselves that Leonard would enjoy, that we should take in like Leonard takes in the sights and smells and silences of his walks.
One other example of this is in the figurative language. The cold air in your lungs like a Christmas tree, the moth pinned. These give us a vivid, sensory experience of Leonard’s experience, his feeling. We as readers can appreciate how Leonard is experiencing the world so vividly, even though he’s the only one around him feeling alive. There’s a quiet, private relishing of life that we experience along with him, that doesn’t depend on anyone else seeing it. What other examples of language stand out to you in this story?
What sentences do you love?
Thanks for reading! Here’s a companion poem to read alongside this story. How to Be a Poet by Wendell Berry.
See more prose lessons, poetry lessons, and creative writing prompts here!
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