Study Guide

Something Wicked This Way Comes Analysis

  • Tone

    Adolescent Beliefs – Gee Whiz, Pa! Also, rather dark and eerie.

    Bradbury takes on the world from a kid's point of view in this novel. Many of the supernatural horrors that Will experiences, for instance, can easily be chalked up to the play of shadows at night, as when he watches the train pull into town, or the magic acts of a professional traveling carnival, such as when Mr. Electrico is being zapped. In this novel, however, it becomes rapidly clear that dark and mysterious deeds are actually underfoot. The Dust Witch flies in a balloon to mark Jim's roof with silver slime. Miss Foley actually goes missing. Scary as these events are, we do see them as the kind of story a thirteen-year-old boy would tell to scare his buddies around a campfire. The horror, for instance, of Silence of the Lambs is the kind of horror that exists outside the realm of imagination of young boys. The horror of Something Wicked This Way Comes is all about the imagination of young boys. Perhaps that's why it's Disney-movie scary, not rated-R scary.

  • Genre

    Horror, Coming-of-Age

    Our favorite creepy moment comes right at the end of Chapter 42. Let's see if we can reconstruct it for you. Mr. Dark, our evil villain extraordinaire, is stalking the dark aisles of the local town library searching for Will and Jim. Unable to find the two boys, he begins weaving a gruesome tale about Will's mom. (Yes, he went there.) He waits for the sound of sobbing to direct him to the boys, and once he has found them, he smiles. Reaches down. Pats Will's head. Says, "Hello."

    Talk about Horror. Something Wicked This Way Comes has definitely got it in spades. But scary moments aside, it is also a coming-of-age story. (Any novels about anyone who is thirteen are probably going to be, in part, about growing up.) Will and Jim have been friends forever, but their friendship becomes strained when it is clear that Jim wants to grow up much faster than Will. The story acts, actually, as a kind of reverse coming of age, as Will fights to keep his friend young. You can also think about Mr. Halloway's age reversal in this context. Innocent boyhood is placed at the pinnacle of existence here in the novel.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Like so many good things, the title of Bradbury's novel comes from Shakespeare. In Act 4, Scene 1 of Macbeth, one of the witches in the play exclaims:

    By the pricking of my thumbs,
    Something wicked this way comes.

    Enter Macbeth, who has now been singled out as wicked. This couplet is referenced in Chapter 37 of the novel as the only explanation Charles Halloway can give to himself for his steadfast belief in the boys. In keeping with a theme developed through the novel, it is Charles's body that tells him something is wrong.

    In this novel, the "something wicked" that comes to quiet Green Town, Illinois is a carnival of freaks. Its menacing nature is evident from their first arrival at three in the morning that sends the two boys Will and Jim into a frenzy of fear. Rather than see the carnival and its freaks as directly embodying evil, however, we would encourage you to think about how the carnival speaks to the dreams and temptations that exist in all our hearts. In other words, the carnival does not exist apart from human communities, but thrives on them. Its wickedness stems from its ability to twist dreams into nightmares.

    We also feel obliged to mention the particular beauty and neatness of the lines form a poetic standpoint. The two lines are each seven syllables and follow a stressed/unstressed rhythm (otherwise known as a trochaic rhythm). This pattern is particularly ominous because of its heavy beat – you can think about footsteps coming to get you in the night. (Read more about this writing style in our guide to Macbeth.)This is in keeping with both the general style and tone of the novel – check out those discussions in this Shmoop guide for more.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    "Last one to the railroad semaphore at Green Crossing is an old lady!" (54.139)

    With that triumphant shout, Jim and Will are off running into the night, and Will's father hesitates only for a moment before racing after them. Despite his 54 years of age, Charles Halloway reaches the semaphore at the same instant as the 13-year-old boys, and "the three of them together left the wilderness behind and walked into the town" (54.49). They have vanquished evil; they are ready to go home.

    This ending is multi-layered, just like your last birthday cake. We'll start with all that beautiful icing, which in this case is the triumph of good over evil. All the carnival freaks have scattered, Mr. Dark is dead, and the carousel is broken (hopefully forever). Digging deeper here, what's more interesting is the transformation in Charles Halloway. The middle-aged, depressed janitor is gone. Once a remote and distant father, Charles becomes at the end of the novel an equal and a playmate. He shows us that, sometimes, age really is just a number.

    The bottom layer of your cake, the part that you really want to chew over, are the questions this ending leaves for us. The ending shows Jim, Will, and Charles as perfect equals (they all reach the semaphore at the same instant) and as very happy ("exultant"). Yet, just moments ago, Jim and Will were engaged in an enormous fight about the desirability of growing up. Does this ending mean that Jim has gotten over his desire to play Peeping Tom? Similarly, not long ago Charles Halloway was overcome by the old age presented in his own reflection. Does this ending mean Charles has gained a second youth? Like so many happy endings, the end of Something Wicked This Way Comes seems a tad too good to be true.

  • Setting

    Green Town, IL, some time around the 1950s, at the end of October

    Green Town, Illinois seems like such a peaceful small town, the kind of place where no one locks their doors and boys play innocent little pranks. Jim and Will run around with pockets full of kite-string, frog-eyes, kitchen matches, and dead insects. They climb trees, pick fruit, and whistle with their hands in their pockets. Their lives of boyhood innocence and fun are enabled by the type of town they live in – the type of town where the barber knows your name and you run into your seventh-grade teacher at the carnival.

    Oh, right. The carnival. We think it's pretty significant that the carnival sets up camp on the outskirts of town, reinforcing its position as an intruder into the lives of Green Town's citizens. For the boys, especially, their town has always been a place of safety, a place they know well. They are shocked when the carnival trespasses: "'The carnival!' gasped Jim. 'We never thought. It can right come into town. A parade!'" (32.101). While most of the townspeople are thoroughly entertained by the carnival and its assortment of exotic freaks, Will and Jim have seen its true nature and are horrified.

    Lastly, there's the month of October. We're never going to look at autumn the same way again. Remember, Charles Halloway describes autumn people like this: "They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth" (39.39). As autumn people, Cooger and Dark always choose to visit Green Town, Illinois in the month of October. The horror and nightmares they bring are just in time for Halloween, after all. Human storms, flesh-eating, and all that good stuff aside, October is the birthday month of Jim and Will, which means they are close to being fourteen-year-olds. Much of the novel's coming-of-age focuses on the friction between friends when one wants to grow up faster than the other one, and what better catalyst is there than an upcoming birthday?

    Check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on summer vs. autumn.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    Man is in love, and loves what vanishes.
    – W.B. Yeats

    They sleep not, except they have done mischief;
    And their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall.
    For they eat the bread of wickedness,
    And drink the wine of violence.
    – Proverbs 4:16-17

    I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing.
    – Stubb in Moby-Dick

    All right, so there's a lot to cover here. We'll start with the glorious William Butler Yeats. His observation connects to the obsession with youth that we see in Something Wicked This Way Comes. You could very well argue that "youth" is 1) the thing that characters are in love with and 2) the thing that vanishes. Think about Miss Foley's desire to be a little girl again, or, even more important, Charles's longing to be young like his son. Remember that part of the carnival's allure is that riding the carousel can restore vanished youth.

    Now for the proverb from the Bible. We went and looked up this particular verse and, unsurprisingly enough, it deals with wicked men, which is of course relevant to Something Wicked This Way Comes. This is an apt and spooky description of the wicked carnival men who terrorize Will and Jim. This epigraph does a great job of setting the eerie atmosphere that will dominate the novel; check out "Tone" for more on that note.

    Last, our favorite one of the three. Stubb is a jovial second mate on the whaling ship in the book Moby-Dick. He doesn't exactly have reason to be jovial since, you know, he's stuck on a whaling ship that could sink any day now. His laughter in the face of death is an intense form of fatalism – he figures that since he can't change anything, he may as well laugh about it. (Check out our Shmoop guide to Moby Dick if you want to learn more.) If you've already read Something Wicked This Way Comes, this epigraph should remind you of Charles Halloway's near-death encounter with the Witch. In the face of imminent death, Mr. Halloway responds with laughter. More than that, he responds to death with complete acceptance. Counter-intuitively enough, this turns out to be exactly the kind of response needed to foil death, so he uses the tactic again with great success when Jim's life is on the line. There may be a life lesson or two in here, then, as to how we should all deal with scary things. (Like evil carnivals that come to town. Or, you know, death.)

  • Writing Style

    Heavily Metaphoric, Sensual, and Poetic

    Bradbury offers us richly layered prose that displays a slight obsession with metaphor. Jim is a kite, Will is earthbound. Will is a white rabbit. Will and Jim are tomcats. The library is not just a hushed, dark building full of books, but a "land bricked with paper and leather" where "anything might happen," where "a million folk ran toting canons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever" (2.18). Nor does Bradbury's lush, imaginative style in this novel happen by chance. Rather, it invokes the worldview of thirteen-year-old boys for whom the world is alive with possibility and adventure.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Clock Imagery

    Clock imagery in Something Wicked This Way Comes is both literal and figurative. In a literal sense, the town clock is a major figure in the text. It is constantly striking the different hours of the day, letting us know exactly when we are in the novel: seven o'clock, nine o'clock, midnight, whatever the case may be. (It also has a brief cameo in its own right when Mr. Halloway pretends to talk to the clock when he is actually communicating with the boys.) But why exactly do we always need to know what time it is in the novel? What's the big deal here?

    As we talk about in "Themes," different times of day have different meanings in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Evening is when danger and evil lurk, whereas daytime is pleasant and safe. Exact hours are critical, too. Three in the morning, Charles Halloway muses, is the hour when "the soul is out" and "you are the nearest to dead you'll ever be save dying" (14.12). It's a horrible time of day, so it's little wonder that the carnival chooses exactly that moment to roll into town. Think also about Will and Jim, born on either side of midnight, a miniscule difference that determines so much of their personalities. (See "Character Analysis" for more.)

    Clocks are also used figuratively in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Mr. Halloway describes women as "strange wonderful clocks" (14.20), and Mr. Dark directs the Dust Witch to stop "the janitor's clock" (43.77). People, then, are thought of in the novel as clocks. This brings us to that carousel, which really does treat the people of the town like clocks – it actually winds them forward or backward. But as you would know if you've ever took a screwdriver to your family TV to find out how it worked, messing with internal mechanisms is tricky business. The carousel tends to engender more horror than pleasure in the people it alters. Thinking more on people as clocks, we can't help but notice that it really ties people to Time, as in, clocks are always running forward at a regular speed. The carousel interrupts that mechanism and creates great psychic trauma.

    Eyes

    Shivers went down our spine when we read that scene in Chapter 35 when the Dwarf stares at Will and Jim taking pictures with his eyes. "Blinkety-click"? Shiver.

    This idea of eyes as mechanic recording devices pervades the novel and crops up in other less creepy contexts. There are at least two instances when Will is startled because his brain has finally "processed" what his eyes have seen. First, he wakes up out of sound sleep in Chapter 29 when he realizes that the lightning rod on Jim's roof was gone. He had seen the house earlier, of course, but hasn't fully realized what he was seeing until later. Secondly, when he is in Miss Foley's house, Will is reaching for something to say to her and her nephew when his brain "processes" the sign outside Mr. Crosetti's shop door labeling it closed on account of illness. Both these descriptions parallel the Dwarf's experience, albeit in a less creepy, less mechanical fashion. Could this suggest that the Dwarf is still capable of human experience, but a radically altered, very messed up form of human experience?

    We're most interested in this mechanic approach to vision, but eyes and sight play a big role in other ways too. While the carnival may radically change a person's body, his or her eyes never alter. The boys are thus able to identify "Robert" as Mr. Cooger, for example. This passage on the Dwarf connects well to this concept:

    And in his eyes were the lost bits and fitful pieces of a man named Fury who had sold lightning rods how many days how many years ago in the long, the easy, the safe and wondrous time before this fright was born. (35.25)

    Given their unchanging nature in the novel, it appears that eyes really are the window into the soul, that essential part of our humanity.

    Other imagery dealing with eyes that you might want to think about include the five eyes tattooed on the back of Mr. Dark's fingers (creepy!), the Witch's blindness, and the ways in general that eyes may be a limited form of experience. Can you trust your eyes in this novel? Sight is not always desirable, as in the case of the Mirror Maze, where characters are sometimes horrified by the things they see reflected back at them.

    Summer vs. Autumn

    This has been covered in detail elsewhere (check out the themes of "Good vs. Evil" and "Time" for more), but we wanted to remind you again of this powerful motif in the novel. In Chapter 38, Mr. Halloway defines the carnival people as autumn people, or, in other words, Evil. Based on newspaper research, he learns that the carnival comes to Green Town only in October. In some of the most beautiful language in the novel, he talks about how the carnival is made up of people who live in perpetual autumn, or, in other words, reside in and feed off of evil.

    Presented in opposition to autumn is summer. (Which is why you should check out Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, because it covers summer in Green Town.) Mr. Halloway, our resident guru on good vs. evil, tells Will and Jim that they are sometimes summer people and sometimes autumn people. Both tendencies, the good and the bad, live within us.

    The Storm

    Chapter 1 opens with a lightning-rod salesman declaring that a storm is coming. No storm arrives. Literally speaking, anyway. Instead of old-fashioned thunder and lightning, we get an evil carnival. The lightning-rod salesman moreover warns that the storm will strike Jim's house rather than Will's, and this is true, after a fashion. Jim is far more susceptible and attracted to the temptations of the dangerous carnival than his friend Will. In short, no literal storm arrived, but a big old metaphorical one blustered in.

    Mirrors

    We just have to talk about that Mirror Maze. The way Bradbury describes it, once you step into the mirror maze you are lost in a sea, an army of your own image multiplied a billion times back at you. We imagine this would enough to drive anyone crazy, and definitely cause those in middle-age like Miss Foley to get depressed over a couple wrinkles. There's some deep metaphor here, however, that's just perfect for adolescents with self-esteem issues. We're talking about the way in which Charles Halloway breaks the eerie magic of the Mirror Maze – by accepting and loving himself for who he is, just as he is, wrinkles and all.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Limited Omniscient)

    We move around a fair bit in this novel. Sometimes the action is on the boys, sometimes Charles Halloway, and even occasionally on minor characters like Miss Foley and Tom Fury. For the overwhelming majority of the book, however, we stay with Will and Jim. More specifically, we stay with Will (who is usually with Jim). We never hear Jim's thoughts, while we're usually treated to a play-by-play of Will's musings and emotions. (Usually it's along the lines of: "I'm scared!" "Please don't go on the carousel and leave me, Jim!")

    Despite its third-person point of view, we want to point out that you can't always take this narration literally, and you can't always separate the narrator from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old boy. When we read about a mysterious stage with naked people touching each other, for example, the novel is describing sexual activity through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy. This calls into question at least some of the terrors invoked by the carnival, and, more significantly, makes us wonder to what extent all this nightmarish activity is actually real. Think about it.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      A lightning-rod salesman warns that a storm is coming into town; handbills advertise that a carnival is on its way.

      Every one and their mother seems to be insisting that something is a-brewing and a-coming. Not to mention the title. The initial situation is basically made up of all this anticipation.

      Conflict

      The carnival is evil.

      What Will and Jim witness at three in the morning is enough to shake anyone's boots. The book's central conflict is made up of many mini-conflicts: the tension between Will and Jim, Jim's desire to grow older, Charles's desire to grow younger, the temptation of the carnival for the various townspeople, and of course the classic good vs. evil battle.

      Complication

      Jim and Will framed as thieves; Miss Foley turned into a little girl; Jim is tempted more and more by the carousel.

      This is a case of increasing perturbations to the plotline, or one complication after another, each raising the dramatic stakes further. Will and Jim become more hopelessly entrenched in battle with the carnival, and their very role as heroes is shaken to the core by Jim's behavior.

      Climax

      The carnival rolls into town; Mr. Dark pursues and catches the boys; Charles nearly dies.

      This is the high point of the novel when it comes to dramatic tension. With all this chasing, hiding, and spying going on, we've been building towards a final, direct confrontation for most of the novel – a confrontation between the forces of evil (Mr. Dark and his henchmen) and the forces of good (Will, Jim, and Charles).

      Suspense

      Charles chases after the boys as Mr. Dark shoves them in the wax museum. And then, just when you think it's over, Jim goes for a ride on the carousel.

      This is a typical post-climax suspense stage. Will Charles find the boys in time? Will Jim ultimately give in to temptation? Will Will pull him off the carousel in time?

      Denouement

      Laughter and love conquers the carnival's evil work.

      This is the stage in which things are explained and confusions are cleared up. Granted, a big part of this denouement happens earlier in the book, when Charles explains to the boys about the history of the carnival, its nature, and its source of power. But the other part of the denouement comes in the explanation of the carnival's weaknesses, of the weapons that can be used against it.

      Conclusion

      The boys and Mr. Halloway walk back to town, safe and sound.

      This is a pretty straightforward happy ending. The evil has been conquered, and the conquering good heads back home, job well done.