Literature as Vision in “The Pedestrian”

In Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian, Leonard Mead is the last pedestrian in a city of millions in 2053 AD. He walks just to walk, to breathe fresh air, to see. He walks every night in the desolate streets while everyone else is inside watching “viewing screens. Leonard walks, “occasionally picking up a leaf as he passed, examining its skeletal pattern in the infrequent lamplights as he went on, smelling its rusty smell.”

I love this image of Leonard smelling a single leaf, himself the single lit soul remaining in a world made lifeless by screens.

Bradbury wrote the story in the early 1950s as the first TVs made their way into American homes; the story, therefore, projects 100 years into the future. In my lesson on the story, I talk about analyzing setting and character. The real conflict in this story derives from a character (Leonard) so at odds with his own society (2053 AD).

I give some guidance for developing statements of theme. The story brings up so many thematic questions: How does technology impact a society? What happens when an individual chooses to live differently from their society? What does it mean to live? What is necessary for human life? Bradbury’s poetic writing and his loving and tragic portrayal of Leonard, who loves nothing more than to walk and to breathe in the smell of a skeletal leaf, has imprinted in me. As many times as I read the story, I feel it again or I see something anew, every time I read it. I’m so grateful to Bradbury for writing it.

I suppose the story imprints its pattern upon me, or I feel this gratitude, because sometimes I, too, feel like Leonard Mead walking my solitary walk a bit at odds with any society I’ve lived in. I’m a poet, and I love nothing more than to write some words in a notebook which may never see a printing press. I’m a teacher of literature and love nothing more than to guide other people into a story or poem which I believe can change a life. Yet sometimes I still doubt the value of it all. I struggle to justify the hours spent on these most important tasks when there are bills to be paid and current events to act on, and when a day must be useful, productive. I get lost again in those loud cultural messages to do, to earn, to buy, to go, to produce.

So Bradbury, in writing this story years ago, connects to me here today. I read Leonard’s story. and I feel the solidarity and connection in living a bit at odds with my surroundings, in being a poet of words and of life. At one point in the story, Leonard is asked, “Do you have a profession?” And when he answers, “I’m a writer,” the character answers, “No profession.” He gets a similar quiet judgment when he says he’s not married. But Leonard smiles. He knows his own values. I can’t help but think Bradbury must have felt similarly to Leonard. I saw in an interview recently that Bradbury never owned a car or learned to drive. I imagine him walking just as Leonard walked, as people raced home to flick on the TV; I see him smiling a bit when people asked if he had a “real job.” He didn’t. And how valuable his work was.

This connection I feel through this story (and many, many others) Bradbury had the gall to set down on paper despite the demands of his society and of even well-intentioned voices urging him to be a bit more “normal,” is the kind of connection I hope to offer as a writer and a teacher. I can only hope that something I write, or a lesson I give, can continue that chain of support, of value for life and its questions. Even in my doubt, I trust the value of words and stories, and I want to give a bit of that faith to others — a middle school kid who has a story to write, a person in some faraway country who is learning language.

Literature offers vision. Bradbury sees trends in his own time, his own society, and projects 100 years into the future. Look what is happening now. What will the world look like if this continues? What could happen if … Sometimes we’re astonished when writers or thinkers are able to predict the future. How could they see, even then? We mistake this for magic. But the truth is, the seeds of what will be are already around us; most of the time we’re too wrapped up in the way we see now, our daily duties, or “real jobs” to see the patterns and possible trajectory. Stories allow a space for imagination and vision to be explored and seen. Oftentimes I think the tragedy of humanity is our failure to see clearly what is happening now, to accept the truth, and to act collectively. I feel pretty cynical about this most of the time, apart from great examples like Civil Rights movements in the US or South Africa. The ending of Bradbury’s story, you’ll see, is pretty cynical about what society does to visionaries, writers, thinkers. Or maybe it’s a warning, a reminder of the value of writers and of words. What gives me hope is the stories themselves that continue to be told. What would these movements be without Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eloquent words, the story he told to mobilize action? Stories can envision, articulate, connect us, and heal.


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