By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Long Rain’ is one of the best-known and most widely studied short stories by the American writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). Although Bradbury preferred to describe himself as a ‘fantasy’ writer, this story is most accurately categorised as science fiction. It was originally published (under the title ‘Death-by-Rain’) in the magazine Planet Stories in 1950, and is set in a jungle on Venus where four stranded astronauts attempt to reach the safety of the ‘Sun Dome’.
Before we offer an analysis of ‘The Long Rain’, here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot.
‘The Long Rain’: plot summary
The story begins with four men from Earth making their way through the jungle on Venus as the rain pours down on them. Their rocket has crashed and they are heading for one of the Sun Domes, which provide protection and shelter from the incessant rains, as well as food and warmth.
During a fierce storm, one of the men panics and is killed when he is struck by lightning. The three remaining men are Pickard, Simmons, and the lieutenant (whose name we never learn). They find a Sun Dome, but it has been destroyed by native Venusians, who – one of the men explains – periodically come up out of the sea and destroy the domes so they can destroy Earthmen on the planet.
Over time, Pickard goes mad and refuses to continue on with the other two men. Simmons tells the lieutenant that Pickard will just stand in the rain and slowly drown. There’s nothing they can do. The lieutenant is reluctant to give up on him, but Simmons takes out his gun and shoots Pickard dead, threatening to kill the lieutenant as well if necessary and explaining that Pickard would have killed them all by being a burden on the other two men. The lieutenant is initially shocked by Simmons’ actions but reluctantly agrees he did the right thing.
However, as they continue on their journey, weakened by hunger, Simmons starts to become borderline mad, deafened by the constant falling rain. He tells the lieutenant to go on without him as he plans to shoot himself. The lieutenant continues alone, until he appears to reach the next Sun Dome.
When he goes inside, he finds everything perfectly arranged for him: food, a cot on which to sleep, and a fresh uniform to wear. He feels people approaching him and sees the sun in the middle of the room. The story ends with him tearing his own clothes off as he walks forward.
‘The Long Rain’: analysis
‘The Long Rain’ might be productively analysed alongside another Ray Bradbury story from The Illustrated Man, ‘Kaleidoscope’. In that story, a spaceship explodes in space and the crew are separated from each other, but able to communicate through their headsets. Like ‘The Long Rain’, ‘Kaleidoscope’ is a science-fiction story which explores the human attitude to approaching death.
One by one, the four men in ‘The Long Rain’ meet their end: the first is attacked by nature (the ferocious lightning strike), the second is killed by one of the other men so he doesn’t become a burden to the survivors, and the third dies by his own hand, knowing that he will shortly become insane and helpless.
That leaves the fourth man, the lieutenant. What in fact happens to him at the end of the story? Does he, indeed, finally reach the safety of the Sun Dome, where he is able to avoid the fate that befell his three luckless fellow Earthmen?
Given the nature of the other men’s deaths, suggestive of a trajectory towards deeper and more intense madness, many readers of ‘The Long Rain’ are likely to interpret the final pages of Bradbury’s story as a study in hallucinatory madness. The first man died as a result of panic, jumping up during the electrical storm and being struck by lightning as a result. Pickard went mad because of the incessant hammering of the rain, and would die a slow death.
Simmons knows that a similar fate awaits him, only his death may be even more slow and gruesome, because of his longer exposure to the ‘long rain’. So he ends his life rather than suffer that long descent into madness.
What kind of fate awaits the lieutenant? Does he manage to escape madness and death at the eleventh hour, or is the Sun Dome a mere hallucination, a result of his troubled mind, much as men in the desert, suffering from severe dehydration, imagine they can see oases of water which aren’t actually there?
The nature of the Sun Dome seems too perfect to be quite real: too good to be true, as the old proverb has it. First, there is the fact that the pot of hot chocolate is steaming, newly made, as if someone had anticipated his arrival. Second, there is the food, which includes ‘fresh-cut’ tomatoes: again, newly made. Third, there’s the uniform which, similarly, is described as ‘fresh’: a ‘fresh change of uniform’ is ‘waiting’ for him on a chair.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly of all, there’s the description of the sun as hanging in the centre of the room, which he looks directly at (always a bad idea, by the way). The fact that he can do this without being blinded suggests it is a mirage or illusion, and this is before we begin to explore the oddness of the sun hanging in the centre of the room, rather than in the sky.
We might also wonder at that final description of the lieutenant tearing off his clothes. It is said that people about to die from hypothermia remove their clothes, in an act referred to as ‘paradoxical undressing’. Although it makes logical sense for the lieutenant to remove his wet clothes at this point, the other details suggest that this is the final act of a man experiencing hallucinations shortly before death.
A darker and more troubling analysis of the ending to Bradbury’s story sees the lieutenant’s fantasy of the Sun Dome as the very thing which leads to his death: in giving in to the delicious illusion of the dome, and tricking himself into thinking it is reality, he removes his clothes and thus condemns his body to death among the rains, rains which his mind has ceased to register. (Indeed, perhaps the rainfall against his body is the ‘other men’ he senses ‘moving’ towards him.)
In the last analysis, Bradbury is using the imagery of the ‘long rain’ as a metaphor for some incessant and potentially deadly force which drives the exposed person mad before killing them. The story is not an allegory for any particular destructive force: it is probably too early a story to draw a clear link between the rain in the story and the effects of a nuclear attack, and a postcolonial reading, where the Earthmen on an alien planet are at the mercy of the foreign environment (whose rainforest or jungle perhaps suggests colonial Africa), is not borne out by the other details of the story.
Instead, it is a narrative which allows us to apply its rain-metaphor to whatever we feel it best represents: the struggle of living itself, for instance, which involves us always pushing towards some golden destination where we will find comfort and happiness, but which we will rarely reach, being slowly driven mad by the journey itself and the seeming impossibility of ever reaching those sunlit uplands.