By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Pedestrian’ is a 1951 short story by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), which is included in his 1953 collection The Golden Apples of the Sun. In some ways a precursor to Bradbury’s more famous novel Fahrenheit 451, ‘The Pedestrian’ is set in a future world in which people sit mindlessly and passively in front of their television sets every evening.
The ‘pedestrian’ of the story’s title is the one man in the city who refuses to do so, and doesn’t even own a television.
‘The Pedestrian’: plot summary
The story takes place on one night in November 2053. A man named Leonard Mead, who later identifies himself as a writer, is walking the deserted streets of a city. He is the only person out on the street at night, because everyone else is indoors, watching their television sets all night. We learn that it is his habit to do this every night, sometimes staying out until midnight before he returns home.
As the story progresses, it emerges that this sort of behaviour – staying in all night, every night, and consuming hours of television without ever venturing out – has become not only common, or normalised, but, in effect, the law. A police car stops to ask Leonard who he is and what he does for a living.
We are told that this is one of only two police cars in the whole city of three million people; there had been three police cars until an election the year before, when it had been decided that there was no need for so many as three. Crime, it turns out, has been largely eradicated, because everyone remains indoors all night, glued to their television sets.
After a brief interview with him by the side of the road, in which we learn that Leonard is unmarried and is a writer, the police car tells him to get in the back.
Leonard learns that the car is empty: the voice speaking to him was automated, presumably some sort of robotic machine programmed to detect suspicious persons at large on the streets at night and stop and interrogate them about what their business was being out.
Once Leonard is inside the back of the police car, he is told he is to be taken to a psychiatric centre which researches ‘Regressive Tendencies’. As the car drives him to this place, he notices he is being driven past his home, but the police car refuses to stop.
‘The Pedestrian’: analysis
Reading and studying ‘The Pedestrian’ more than seventy years after Bradbury first wrote the story, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the implementation of lockdowns throughout many countries, we are likely to be struck by how prophetic Bradbury was.
Certainly many western countries have stories of police stopping people who were simply out walking when they had been instructed to be at home, with ‘the law’ and ‘guidance’ becoming confused so that nobody was quite sure when a law had technically been broken.
This is the case in Bradbury’s story, where Mead doesn’t appear to have committed a crime, but his unusual behaviour leads the police to take him off for what is, we assume, a course of psychological reprogramming, to turn him into a mindless drone like the city’s three million other inhabitants.
But every prophetic work of science fiction (or speculative fiction) tends to reflect the present as much as the future, and clearly Bradbury is reflecting the time at which he was writing as much as he is projecting a world from a century hence. His 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 is often misread as a book about censorship, because books are burned in the dystopian world Bradbury describes.
But all books are burned in the novel, rather than just the ‘wrong’ books, because the police state of Fahrenheit 451 wishes to keep the populace docile and passive, and the best way to do this is to discourage original or critical thinking and instead get everyone addicted to television, which they would then passively consume (including any government propaganda).
This is the world of both ‘The Pedestrian’ and Fahrenheit 451: a police state in which governments wish to keep everyone pliant as well as compliant by using television (the ‘idiot box’ of common parlance) to turn people into unthinking zombies.
The more cynical commentator might observe that this is the world born at the beginning of the 2020s, if we broaden out ‘television’ to include other media such as ‘the internet’ in the pantheon of ways-of-keeping-a-population-passive-and-easy-to-control. (Of course, the internet can be a way to encourage critical thinking by being a two-way medium, so it’s not quite this simple.)
Leonard Mead is a danger not because he might commit a crime while he is out on one of his evening walks, but because he is a reminder of the free-thinking (and free-moving) spirit which others have lost: a spirit he might reawaken in them if others see him outside. His only ‘crime’ is in refusing to plug himself into the electronic brain-drainer that has done for his fellow citizens.
Of course, even before he is arrested, it is clear that everyone else in the city has willingly embraced their chains.
When he reveals himself to be a writer (again, aligning himself with the creative, imaginative, and independently minded), we also learn that he hasn’t sold anything for years because nobody buys books or magazines any more. Mead must be sent away to be ‘cured’ of his unorthodox thinking so he can fall in line with the rest of the population.
Of course, crime has all but disappeared, so we can see how this new world would appear to be some sort of utopia. But like most utopias it is only achieved by destroying the natural instincts of humans, both the bad and the good together.
Mead himself is depicted as something of a romantic type: his very surname suggests the open spaces of the ‘meads’ (i.e., meadows) of the countryside rather than the modern city, while his habit of walking around the city at night recalls the French idea of the flaneur: a writer or artist who would wander around the city, garnering inspiration for his writing and engaging in people-watching.
The irony is that, for Mead, there are no people to watch, apart from the phantom or ghostly shapes he sees moving inside the houses of the city.
As in many Ray Bradbury stories, technology has tried to recreate nature at home: the police car which arrests him makes it clear that, if he wants to take the air, he can do so at home by having some air-conditioning system installed. Fear of technology and the ways in which it robs us of what it is that makes us human is a recurring theme of Bradbury’s fiction.
Indeed, if we had to identify the main theme of Ray Bradbury’s writing, it would be the threat that technological advancements pose to human life. And by ‘life’ here we should include not only survival (as in, for instance, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, where everyone is wiped out by nuclear war) but living: the quality of life which gives our existence meaning.
Observe how Bradbury repeatedly highlights not only the ghostly qualities to the shadowy figures in their homes, but also the ‘tomblike’ aspect of those houses: these people, Bradbury is implying, are already dead, and now merely waiting for their bodies to catch up with their minds.