Study Guide

The Martian Chronicles Themes

By Ray Bradbury

  • Change

    The Martian Chronicles is about people confronting a new world. But will they change this world or will they themselves change? Throughout the book we see examples of things changing: the rocket changes winter into summer ("Rocket Summer"), Martians change from looking like one thing to looking like another. But then there are also examples of people trying to stop change, like Yll killing off the human explorers just to preserve his unhappy marriage. In The Martian Chronicles, change may not be good—but it's definitely unstoppable.

    Questions About Change

    1. Do humans change in The Martian Chronicles, or do they keep making the same mistakes? Is there some quality that everyone who changes shares?
    2. How do people change the world? What human endeavors (science, art, philosophy) are particularly useful for changing the world? 
    3. How do Earth and Mars change for the better in this book? What causes these changes?

    Chew on This

    In The Martian Chronicles, change is presented as an inevitable effect of life—it's neither good nor bad.

    Change is always presented as dangerous in The Martian Chronicles. The best thing the Martians did was to stop advancing their technology.

  • Art and Culture

    You can live without art, sure—but would you want to? The Martian Chronicles makes a strong case that life without art and culture is pretty meaningless. Several characters we like (Ylla and Spender for instance) seem to have positive feelings toward art, philosophy, and literature, whereas character we don't like (Briggs and Parkhill) see culture primarily as target practice. It's pretty clear where Bradbury comes down on the issue. As Spender argues, science may help preserve life—but art can help us figure out what life is about.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Besides art and literature, what other forms of culture do we see in The Martian Chronicles? What about religion—is that a form of culture in "The Fire Balloons"? What about Driscoll's attempt to plant trees—should that count as culture? (Consider the many meanings of "culture.")
    2. In "Usher II," Stendahl makes a passionate defense of literature—both in his lectures to Garrett and in his murder of the censors. Is his defense persuasive? What does he base it on?
    3. How does The Martian Chronicles convey its feelings on art and culture?

    Chew on This

    In The Martian Chronicles, art and culture are presented as the highest achievements of humanity. As Spender argues, without art we'll end up destroying ourselves with technology—which is what happens at the end of the book.

    While Bradbury defends art and culture in this book, he does so mostly by having characters tell us how great art is. We don't actually see how important art is in many of these stories.

  • Identity

    Identity in The Martian Chronicles is not just a question of masks and playacting, although it's that too. (Stendahl uses robot lookalikes to trick everyone at the party, even though it would seriously be easier just to shoot them all.) It's mostly important, however, because we've got two cultures meeting, trying to communicate, and figuring just what the other is all about. One of the first things they have to communicate is who they are. Think, for instance, of Tomás Gomez and Muhe Ca in "Night Meeting," trading their identities before going on to form a strange sort of friendship.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How do characters (and places) get identities in this book? For instance, take Timothy in "The Million-Year Picnic." What identity does he have and how did he get it?
    2. When is identity mysterious? When do we not hear who is doing something? What about when Spender comes back to shoot Biggs—how long does it take for him to be identified? Are there other times when we don't know who someone is?
    3. Other than masks and names, in what ways does identity emerge as a theme in these stories? 
    4. Is it possible to change one's identity? For instance, Spender calls himself "the last Martian"—but has he really changed? Does identity depend exclusively on history or biology?

    Chew on This

    In The Martian Chronicles, masks—whether literal or figurative—can't hide true identity. All the characters in this book eventually reveal their true natures.

    Identity in The Martian Chronicles relies on names. Identity is a social construction—you are what others say you are.

  • Memory and the Past

    There's a reason VH1 keeps running I Love the 80s marathons: nostalgia is big business, and The Martian Chronicles knows that people love to reminisce about a better, more neon-tastic past. Many characters have childhood memories that affect the story in one way or another. For instance, "The Fire Balloons" is named after Father Peregrine's memory of the Fourth of July, and the Martians use childhood memories to trick members of the Third Expedition. These aren't just coincidences: Bradbury is posing serious questions about whether the past is better than the present and whether the future is going to get better or worse. And nostalgia isn't just a private matter; when societies get nostalgic, do they just end up going backward?

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Which characters in the book seem most obsessed with the past? Father Peregrine and Captain Black come to mind, but what about the LaFarges, and their memory of their dead son Tom?
    2. What is it about the past that seems to be the most memorable and desirable?
    3. How do various characters attempt to break past and start over? How are the characters that go to Mars interested in starting over? How does the family in "The Million-Year Picnic" try to break with the past? 
    4. What examples can we find of childhood memories helping characters? How might such memories be dangerous?

    Chew on This

    In The Martian Chronicles, the past is a force that cannot be escaped. We'll all eventually be sad over losing something.

    The past is a roadmap for the future in The Martian Chronicles. Having a sense of the past is the only way to live peacefully and happily.

  • Isolation

    In The Martian Chronicles, you can choose your own isolation adventure: you can be totally alone, like Gripp at the beginning of "The Silent Towns;" or you can just feel alone, like Spender at the beginning of "—And The Moon Be Still As Bright." Sure, Bradbury shows that crowds and large groups of people can be scary (see the crowd in "The Martian"—or in his short story "The Crowd"). That doesn't mean he's pro-isolation. Being alone is not presented in a positive light in The Martian Chronicles, but it can be even worse to be surrounded by people who don't see things the way you do. The lesson here? Befriend a nice group of like-minded people. Okay, Ray, we'll get right on that.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. What benefits to isolation does The Martian Chronicles suggest? Is it worse to be completely alone or to be with people who don't see things the way you do?
    2. Who suffers the most from isolation? Does Spender suffer by being isolated from the rest of the crew? Or, given his plan to kill off everyone and live alone forever, does Spender enjoy his isolation? What about Wilder, who is politically isolated?
    3. What do the many scenes of isolation in this book share in common? For instance, Gripp and Hathaway are both "the last man on Mars" (they think). What is similar about the way they deal with their isolation? What about the house in "There Will Come Soft Rains"—how does it deal with isolation?

    Chew on This

    In The Martian Chronicles, isolation is the worst fate people can imagine. Characters like Spender and the Martian (from "The Martian") would rather die than be alone.

    Bradbury suggests that isolation is key to figuring out one's true identity.

  • Home

    In The Martian Chronicles, home is where the… well, actually, where is it? Home is where one belongs (identity) and where one has a past (memory and the past). None of the settlers ever seem to feel like Mars is home, although presumably the Martians do. But home can also change. Since one of the main plots in the interchapters is the movement of humans looking for a new place to settle, we can say that one of the main motivations in the book is the desire to find a home. But are any of the characters we see at home happy where they are? Is it really possible to return home? And can home—like the automated house—go on without us?

    Questions About Home

    1. Think about the homes depicted in The Martian Chronicles. We see Ylla's unhappy home, Captain Black's deadly fake home, and the abandoned automated home in "There Will Come Soft Rains." What makes these homes unhappy? What examples of happy homes do we see, if any?
    2. What makes a home? Does it need to be connected to one's past (like a childhood home)? Does it need to contain one's loved ones? Does it need to be a place where one is in control? Is there some other option or some combination of factors that make a home?
    3. Most people would agree that Bradbury is thinking about the history of the American frontier. But if humans have trouble making a home on Mars, does that mean they also have trouble making a home on Earth? Is "home" something like an ideal that we can never achieve?

    Chew on This

    In The Martian Chronicles, the search for a home and happiness drives the characters more than any other motivation.

    No characters in The Martian Chronicles are presented as being at home. Home is about comfort, and none of the characters are truly comfortable where they are.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Even the worse humans have dreams, hopes, and plans. In The Martian Chronicles, every major character has some goal to increase his happiness (or avoid unhappiness): Yll in "Ylla" is trying to prevent his wife from leaving him; Captain Jonathan Williams wants to be celebrated for reaching Mars ("The Earth Men"); Benjamin Driscoll wants to plant trees to increase the oxygen of Mars ("The Green Morning"); and even the automated house of "There Will Come Soft Rains" wants to keep up its routine. Humanity is a race of dreamers, even when there are only a few of them left.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Not many characters in The Martian Chronicles succeed in reaching their dream. Driscoll manages to plant trees, and Spender's dream of a human-free Mars does kind of happen (though he's too dead to enjoy it). What is Bradbury trying to say by allowing so few characters to achieve their dreams? 
    2. Which goals and dreams are presented as more worthwhile than others in the book? For instance, Stendahl wants to kill the censors—does Bradbury present that as a worthy goal? What about Parkhill's hot dog stand? Timothy's dad's plan for settling on Mars? Are all dreams equally valid?
    3. Are there any major characters in this book with no goals or dreams? What about characters who want to stop something from happening? How do they go about stopping change?

    Chew on This

    In The Martian Chronicles, characters often fail to achieve their dreams because the world is constantly changing. A character may momentarily get his wish, but it doesn't last.

    Although dreams can be hard to achieve, they are both achievable and necessary in The Martian Chronicles. A character without a dream cannot set a story in motion.

  • Sadness

    A psychologist kills his patients and then himself ("The Earth Men"); the Third Expedition is ambushed; Wilder ends up killing Spender; Parkhill doesn't get his hot dog stand; the Martian dies when he tries to make everyone happy ("The Martian"); and Ylla is stuck in a loveless marriage. Let's face it: most of the stories in The Martian Chronicles end sadly. Even the last one, "The Million-Year Picnic," has a big helping of sadness mixed in with its hope (the end of the Earth is kind of sad, we guess). Even though Bradbury is talking about sadness on a global scale in many of these stories (all the Martians die, most of Earth is ruined), he also zooms in to look at the sadness of individual characters. We have to say, Bradbury's presenting a pretty grim picture of humanity's future.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. How sad is this book? Are there some nuggets of hope hidden in these stories? 
    2. What is the effect of writing a sci-fi book in a generally melancholy tone? Why might a reader expect this book to evoke a different emotion?
    3. What ways do characters in The Martian Chronicles avoid sadness? Are there characters who seem happier than others?

    Chew on This

    The pervading sadness of The Martian Chronicles suggests that humanity is doomed, no matter what schemes it develops to save itself.

    The ultimate sadness in The Martian Chronicles is that time continues to move forward, changing everything we love.

  • Freedom

    In The Martian Chronicles, freedom is most interesting when it's taken away. For instance, the government passes a law (banning books), restricting the freedom of a guy like Stendahl. So he gets revenge. Or a spouse restricts a character's freedom (as Ylla's is by Yll); but she just seems to accept it. Or life on Earth is full of official and unofficial racism, so an entire group of people—African-Americans—takes off to find a new, freer world. The search for freedom has led people all over the world and, in the Chronicles, even off the world itself—even if it's not clear what freedom looks like.

    Questions About Freedom

    1. What types of freedom are valued in The Martian Chronicles? What sorts of things should people not be free to do? 
    2. This book focuses a lot on freedom being taken away by other people, but what about other restrictions on freedom? For instance, are characters in the book restricted by the laws of science? 
    3. How justified are Stendahl and Spender in using violence to preserve some sort of freedom? Do other characters use violence to protect their freedoms? How does the book make you feel about them?

    Chew on This

    Because The Martian Chronicles was written at a time when people were worried about conformity, freedom means freedom from other people's interference.

    Freedom in The Martian Chronicles is a mixed concept, with both positive and negative consequences.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Bradbury uses Mars and the Martians as a contrast to the way Earth people (primarily Americans) deal with the world around them. And, unsurprisingly, Americans don't come off too well. As Spender points out, that means they don't understand their own role in the environment. Moreover, The Martian Chronicles makes it clear that American-built technology won't last—either on Mars or on the Earth. Technology may be amazing, but it's no match for nature.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Much of the discussion of the natural world in this book takes place through the dialogue and actions of a few characters (Spender, Driscoll). Are those characters' opinions the opinions of the book? For instance, does Spender's description of Americans hold true for the Americans we see in the book?
    2. Do you think this book is an accurate portrayal of the way people felt about the natural world in the 1940s? What about today? What has changed between then and now?
    3. How do people attempt to control the environment in this book? Which characters succeed, if any?
    4. Are there any positive interactions between humans and the natural world in this book? Any examples of people helping the environment?

    Chew on This

    Bradbury sets the book on Mars as a way to reflect on the problems of America's relationship with the environment without making Americans feel too uncomfortable.

    The Martian Chronicles shows people changing the world for the better, to make it more livable for humans.